Thieves’ Quarry is D.B. Jackson’s solid follow up to his first historical fantasy, Thieftaker, set in pre-Revolutionary (barely) Boston. In it, Jackson raises the stakes from the very start, beginning with a bit of a bang, as his protagonist Ethan Kaille is wakened one morning by an astonishingly powerful pulse of magic in the city. Ethan’s foreboding centered on that mysterious pulse is soon borne out as he is called in by the Crown to investigate the deaths of all the men, nearly a hundred, aboard an English war vessel floating in Boston Harbor, part of the fleet that brings an occupying force into the city in an attempt to quell the fractious colonists.
As with the first book, the strength of Thieves’ Quarry lies in its characters. Ethan is an engaging lead character, and as I mentioned in my review of Thieftaker, I greatly appreciate that Jackson presents us with a character outside the usual callow youth mold that dominates so much fantasy. Ethan is about as far from a coming-of-age type character as one can get: somewhere around 40 (I think), he’s not simply middle-aged but in this time period is on the downward slope of middle-aged. He’s served in the British navy, mutinied, been imprisoned, lived in Barbados, lost one love and found another, become estranged from his only family, made a rough-hewn business for himself as a conjurer thieftaker, and made several enemies around town over the years, including and especially his thieftaker rival Sephira Price (though “rival” implies a level of equality that doesn’t really exist as Sephira mostly outclasses Ethan in terms of clientele and resources). His problems with Sephira, his family, and authority figures in the city (due to his association with witchcraft) continue in this sequel, but his character is broadened by the increasing tension between England and the colonies. And here again, I like what Jackson does with his character, opting to make him a Tory rather than taking the obvious and easy path of having him be on the “right” side by being more of a rebel (in this he’s nicely contrasted both by his innkeeper lover and a few nice cameos by Sam Adams). In fact, I wouldn’t have minded this being played up a bit more strongly or for longer. Ethan does find the Crown’s actions troubling, the occupation especially starts him down the path of rethinking his views, a realistic response and one I assume will continue to play a role if the series continues. This being 1768, things after all are only going to get worse.
His relationship with Sephira Price is also further complicated. The two of them continue their adversarial interactions, with poor Ethan really playing at a disadvantage thanks to Sephira having more money, resources and minions. Heck, she has minions. While Ethan has the kind of “help” that makes things worse for him rather than better. His one counterpoint to all of Sephira’s advantages has been his magic, but to his dismay, Sephira makes a play to counter his counter. At least as interesting, though, as their opposition, are the times they have to work together. And those few times the two of them are together in the same room really sends some sparks flying (perhaps even literally), what with their business rivalry, the past, present, or future threatened or actual violence between them, their personal dislike for each other, their disgust at needing something from the other, and of course, the crackling sexual tension that underlies nearly every encounter.
Along with Sephira, Ethan has to deal with a hostile Sheriff itching to imprison or execute Ethan for witchcraft and an equally hostile Governor who gives him an ultimatum to find the magical killer of those British crewmen in five days or else repercussions will fall not just upon Ethan but others of his “ilk.” And of course, he’ll have to deal with that killer as well, though that’s all I’ll say about that. Not everyone, obviously, is an enemy, and I found myself wishing Jackson had given us a slightly longer book (not a frequent complaint from me) so we could spend more time with some of the more benevolent side characters, such as his lover Kannice, his sister and brother-in-law, his friend the priest.
If the character of Ethan is the strong point of the book, engaging the reader from the very start, the plot was for me the weakest point. Not so much in its details — the mystery is intriguing for most of its run — but in its lack of tension despite the high stakes of Ethan’s and others lives. On its own, the plot elements should have created a great deal of anxiety, but I felt the role Ethan’s magic played too often bled the tension out, either making things too easy at the time or lessening the impact of events after the fact, as when he is able to heal himself or others. Magic is a tricky tool for an author to wield and I can’t say Jackson quite nails it here. At times it makes things too easy; at times it seems oddly absent. If this series does continue, this seems to me the aspect that needs the most fine-tuning. Not wholesale reworking, just some further calibrating.
The historical setting is vividly presented. Only once or twice, for a fleeting moment or two, did I feel I was being given the historical author’s “tour” of their time period. The vast majority of the time, the historicity lies in the background — always present, always keeping you attuned to time and place in rich and varied fashion. More so than some, Jackson does a good job of creating a sensual historical setting — one that goes beyond namedropping of people and places and also beyond simple visual detail of clothes or buildings, employing taste, smell, sounds, along with small vibrant details such as types of beer, specific songs, a good chowder, etc.
Thieves’ Quarry was a smooth, enjoyable, and engaging read and I hope Jackson gives us another book or two with this character, perhaps sharpening the plot a bit and fine-tuning magic’s influence. What with the fraught rivalry with Sephira, the move toward out and out rebellion (coming up — the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party?), the hint of darker magic, and as always, the questions regarding Ethan’s own dark past, there’s a lot to mine here.