I’m just gonna start this one simple: The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids is a great book! I’m not sure if it’s really grimdark, but it certainly hangs out on the blurred edges of the genre and if I’ve learned anything while I’ve been posting all these grimdark reviews, it’s that genres really do get blurry at the edges, so I’m not sweating it too much. It’s the story of Amra Thetys, a thief in the city of Lucernis, who gets unwittingly caught up in the nefarious schemes of some local wrong ‘uns when her friend Corbin is murdered in a deal gone bad, just hours after leaving a stolen statue in her care for safekeeping. Bad times for her, but it sounds manageable, right? Nope. when Corbin’s real identity is uncovered and the true power of the people he’d been dealing with comes to light Amra finds herself up shit creek without a paddle and she and her mage pal Holgren must solve the mystery of his killer and get revenge, all while staying alive themselves in a situation that gets rapidly out of hand!
I love the idea of a good fantasy thief story, but I’ve not read many of them and my experience with Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside turned me off the concept for a while (for those who don’t know I hated that book more than I hate the texture of marzipan, so a lot). This was the perfect book to coax me back into the genre though; short and punchy with some really dark and violent action scenes and mage battles that I wasn’t expecting going in, but that gave a really dangerous and gritty feel to a story that also has a bunch of lighter moments and humour running through it. I’ll be straight up and say Amra Thetys probably isn’t gonna be one my personal favourite characters ever; I personally just don’t gel with the cocky, sarcastic, wise cracking thief archetype that much, but I definitely still rooted for her and thought she had some depth to her as a character, which is quite difficult to pull off in a 200 page novella that leans so heavily into a character archetype. So in a book where the main character isn’t the thing that’s keeping me hooked, the rest of the book has to do a lot of lifting, so it worked out well that McClung’s plot and setting have biceps to rival Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in his prime.
Lucrernis is exactly the kind of shady setting I love. A seedy, crime-ridden city with a sordid and corrupt underground of thieves, assassins, fences and assorted low lives that exists side by side with an ostensibly more respectable and well-to-do nobility and their lackeys in the city watch. So alongside Amra Thetys herself we have Holgren the mage, who lives next to the city’s charnel grounds and locks his doors tight with magical wards to keep out the riff-raff who would love nothing more than to rob him of his varied collection of creepy and weird arcane artefacts. There’s Inspector Kluge, a detective in local law enforcement who starts out as a major thorn in Amra’s side and develops an amusing rivalry with Holgren because of his own, undoubtedly inferior, mage skills. The main villain is an absolute fucking creep of a man called Bosch, a demon summoner who has some of the most disturbing and horrifying scenes in the book. I’ll let you read the horror for yourself, but if you remember what Sid did to his toys in Toy Story then you might have some indication of the bone-shuddering horror of what happens to our friend Bosch. I’ll be having nightmares for days. On top of that we meet a collection of shady contract-brokers, fixers and immoral priests of the various gods the people of Lucernis worship and it all gives me the impression of a city I wouldn’t want find myself alone in a back alley in.
The central mystery is probably the thing that kept me most hooked on the story though. Right from the first scene McClung has you asking questions you need the answers to, and just when you think Amra’s getting somewhere he throws another spanner in the works that ups the ante and complicates matters more than you ever though possible when her pal just gave her a little toad statue to look after for a few hours. I thought this was the strongest part of the book actually, to continually increase the pressure from a fairly simple exchange at the start of the story to a situation that’s got entirely out of hand by the end. Watching Amra and Holgren sleuth and fight and burglarise their way through this snake pit of a plot was so much fun.
So yeah, this was a bit of an outlier for me – a book where I didn’t love the main character but was so invested in the mystery and action that the sheer amount of fun I was having was more than enough for me to chew through the story very quickly. And the story is super fun. The pace is breakneck, events unfolded almost faster than I could keep up, which worked very very well except for the ending, which I think happened a little too quickly and I’d have preferred to have a bit more time spent on the resolution. But meh, what’s a little bit of rushed exposition in a book where the journey’s such a thrill ride. Very much looking forward to jumping into book two!
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