Book Review: An Illusion of Thieves
In the new fantasy cum thriller An Illusion of Thieves, many fantasy standards are infused with wonderful new life by author Cate Class. This intelligent, well-written story adds a large touch of James Bond to the standard, usually enjoyable, romp of a thieves’ crew adventure. As a less common twist to fantasy world-building, magic is seemingly more common than anyone knows on Costa Drago, but it also happens to be punishable by death. In the beginning (mythologically) the primary gods, Atladu and Gione, fought a thousand-year war with the dragon-god Draconis, who had cursed some humans with the seeds of magic. After they finally beat down Draconis, they interred him eternally under the part of the world known as Costa Drago. Then, as nothing is quite as exhausting as beating up a dragon-god for a millennium, the two gods of the world decide to retire. Not just a rest, nope. They are done, finiti, tapped out. They leave their two children in charge, namely Virtue and Fortune.
Now, while mankind has always tried for some advantageous interaction with Fortune, it has never truly embraced Virtue with any great avidity. Thus, in the time and place of the novel, Virtue is pretty much an empty name in a formulaic address, and Fortune is hoped still to be available at need. In other words, the people of Costa Drago have a remarkably undeveloped sense of religion. Of course, magic is so related to religion that there is some undercurrent of the latter despite the lack of the usual dogma, religious guilt, self-flagellation, or necessary acts that will only be acknowledged in an afterlife. Costa Dragonians have quite enough to worry about without theology.
Interring Draconis created earthquakes, volcanoes, and magic throughout the land. Since he lost and was deemed the evil god, destruction of magic was the First Law of Creation. Murdering anyone with magical gifts was, in effect, the sole religious tenet of the civilization. In the resulting world, parents are expected to kill their children as soon as magic manifests, and most parents follow the law devoutly, drowning their accursed offspring in the nearest body of water, like deformed puppies but with less compassion. This could be an effective way of dealing with Dragonian Original Sin, or it might be something thoroughly reprehensible. In the city of Cantagna, a brother and sister were thus born into very difficult times, which is where the story begins.
Romy and her brother Neri are cursed (gifted?) with magical skills. Their parents could not bear to follow the law and failed to drown them, throw them off a cliff, or perhaps conduct a nice auto-da-fé. Neri was too young to kick out and had to be controlled, but Ma’ and Da’ felt no need to waste affection on him, tainted as he was. For Neri, the only person who loves him is his sister Romy. His part in the novel is to come of age, and he had better do it bloody fast or Romy may kill him herself. In the backstory, Ma’ rented out Romy one night for a few pieces of silver when the girl was about ten. As it turned out, the happy customer was a procurer for the Moon House, where boys and girls in their preteens were trained up to serve the noble class in every possible way.
The procurer made Ma’ an offer she couldn’t refuse, and off went Romy to the Moon House for a sack of Judas silver, enough tainted lucre to feed her ever-growing brood for a year. Romy learned courtly graces, conversation, reading, writing, obedience, and every known technique for pleasuring both men and women during her time at finishing school. She was beaten if she had difficulties with her lessons. Once trained, the Moon House sold Romy to the highest noble in the city, Alessandro di Gallinos.
This worthy ruler is stuck between deadly world politics and his earnest desire to make the lives of all his citizens better. Unless they use magic or commit crimes. When he must wield the hammer of justice, the anvil is large and stained with blood and misery. Alessandro, also known as Il Padroné, is unerring in what he must do to protect the civil progress he has accomplished. He is equally unerring when he must enforce the law and keep his family honor above reproach. He can feel disgust at what sometimes must occur, but he cannot show it, and he cannot yet stop the worst of it. He represents and promotes a theme of civil justice and genuine noblesse oblige while fighting to maintain his hold against enemies. His civil projects and civic justice improvements progress, but not quickly.
Cate Glass dispenses with all this backstory very economically and clearly as part of the moving narrative. In fact, she is so skilled at combining narrative pace, dialog, backstory, and the ongoing plot that many authors might consider noting her skill.
As the present-time intrigue begins, Neri is about sixteen and is both rash and ignorant. His use of magic for thievery leads to barbaric corporal punishment for Romy’s and his father—chopping off the primary hand—and permanent exile for the entire family, except for Romy and Neri. Romy is dismissed from Il Padroné’s service, though he probably loves her, and she must take responsibility for Neri. If he puts one foot out of line, they are both dead. The police have observed Neri for years on suspicion of magic. Their Da’ admitted to Neri’s crime to keep the family secret. If Neri had been found to be magical, the whole family would have been executed. All the options Justice could offer were horrendous.
Romy and Neri have some serious family issues and behavioral attitudes to work out. This brings in a champion-for-hire named Placidio. He, too, hides a magic gift; he has his own demons with which to contend. He keeps trying to drown them in barrels of wine, but to date, the method has proved ineffective. Romy is looking for a swordsman to train Neri—he needs serious discipline and structure and a sense of mortality. Romy meets Placidio as a possible teacher; he comes highly recommended and cheap. He is in a puddle of vomit, wine, and his own excrescences at their first meeting. Well, he is cheap, and doesn’t fight or teach drunk, so it’s a match made in, well, who knows where? He still has a fit body and wicked skills with blades.
Quick progress is made to the formation of a thieves’ crew with the addition of one more magical character and his most excellent wife. The husband is a metal caster, artisan, and seller of metalwork. His name is Dumond the Metalsmith. His wife is Vashti, and though not magical, her support and mind are integral to the crew and to the plot.
Circumstances now place Romy, Neri, Alessandro, and the whole city in extreme danger. Alessandro’s young wife creates an impossible situation that will destroy Alessandro and all the good he has done for Cantagna. Thousands could die. Civil war could break out for a decade or two. Well, that might be what you get for marrying a fourteen-year-old girl and not giving her any instruction or affection, Oh Great Padroné…
The girl then dumps the whole problem, via blackmail, into Romy’s lap. If she doesn’t perform an impossible mission in three days, she and Neri will be revealed as magicians and executed, and Cantagna will crumble. No pressure, crew! Piece of cake!
I have never read a fantasy novel that had a three-day deadline for the quest to be performed. Not only did Cate Glass write a brilliant, fast-paced plot that is at least as suspenseful as Hitchcock and Fleming, she pulled off a complicated quest, and I have yet to find any flaw in the construction of the task or the planning and implementation of the conflict resolution by the crew.
After all the great pacing and successful climax of the plot, Ms. Glass creates a masterful last chapter, combining denouement with a whole new, very suspenseful, scene of confrontation between Romy and Il Padroné with imminent death implicit in every moment. There are several story elements developed in this scene, which I will not spoil for the reader. And it all leads to great anticipation for the next book in the series. The first one was well-plotted and well executed, and the author’s use of language is nuanced and rich. It would be wrong to give away details of the quest, but I highly recommend it as an intelligent read.
An Illusion of Thieves, by Cate Glass, is the first book in a new series titled Chimera. It is a Tor book published in May of 2019 by Tom Doherty and Associates. Copyright 2019 by Carol Berg. Carol Berg has adopted the pen name Cate Glass for this series of novels. Under the name Carol Berg, she has published several novels and won craft awards in the genres of fantasy and romance.