12. The Thief’s Gamble, Juliet E. McKenna

26 Mar


I’m always looking for great, classic fantasy-adventure books, set in ye olde alt-medieval times, with mages, magical objects, heroic quests and enough character-drama to really engage me.

I sometimes think these are the very hardest books to write—errors and inconsistencies in alt-histories are glaring.  You have to have a knack for period detail, the ability to imagine and populate a world, the presence of mind to avoid anachronism, and then you still have to plot, character-develop and, oh yeah, write sentences.

So, a skilled almost, in this truly difficult field, is real praise. And since this book, The Thief’s Gamble, by Juliet E. McKenna, is the first in a popular series, it’s better than an almost. I would recommend it to fantasy fans, especially girl fantasy-fans, who want to read female characters who have the kind of skills and adventures that the male characters are known for in this genre, complete with wenching—or in this case, lusty liasons with erudite young scholars and the occasional mercenary soldier.

The lead character, a somewhat footloose young woman adventurer named Livak, has an appealing presence, a useful roster of lock-picking and sneaking-around tricks, and a good heart. Her world is classic alt-medieval, populated with wizards and monsters, and the technical features of how the wizards’ magic works, how they fight with it and otherwise use it, are some of the more interesting parts of the book. The tone is light and humorous, with enough violence, evil and adventure to create suspense, without ever getting too gory. I like a darker, toothier read, so I probably won’t be moving on to book two, but as a mass-market commercial series that’s following a formula, it’s pretty good. It’s also gay-friendly, which I always appreciate.

But—and I feel bad that I harp on this with so many mass-market authors whose work I fundamentally like—Jesus God, this book needs edited. I’m not talking about errors, but just about elementary, easily corrected bad-writing mistakes that a person with a red pencil and a brain could eliminate, making the book leap from good to pretty great.

The author over-writes. Ninety percent of the reaction, emotion, adverbs, explaining, etc. could go, and it would be a faster-moving, more gripping book. The author also does too much plot-explanation-through-dialog, and plot-development-through-characters “thinking things through”. It’s boring, and readers glaze over anyway. In this book, the reliance on interstitial historical documents, short though they were, to develop backstory was boring and also, not totally necessary. I found myself skipping most of them, to little detriment to my comprehension of the bold strokes of the plot.

Here’s a representative passage:

Casuel looked down with surprise at his hands, shaking with impotent frustration. “Raeponin pox the pair of them!”
     “What are you going to do about it?”       Casuel opened his mouth to deny any such idea but stopped, open-mouthed, staring at nothing for a moment. He coughed and took a reflective sip of ale.
     “Well, if they’re prepared to use such despicable tricks, I have a duty to do something about it, don’t I? What if it all goes wrong? If a plot like that is traced back to a wizard and an Archmage’s agent as well, the reputation of Hadrumal will be strung up on the gallows along with that red-headed bitch!
     Allin’s trusting, respectful gaze spurred him on. Casuel lifted a long, thick book from his bag.
     “What is that?”
     “It’s a set of itineraries, maps of the coach roads,” he replied with satisfaction. “Be quite a moment.”

This is all a simple matter of simplification…. People’s hands just don’t shake that often. Have yours ever shook “with impotent rage”? Nor do they stop and stare open-mouthed. They may shiver, but you don’t need to add “involuntarily” since all shivers are involuntary (from a different passage). If you’re “peering” at something it’s probably “intently,” and you don’t need the adverb. When a person blushes, the description “the color clashing with his sandy hair” is really unlikely—have you ever noticed a person’s blush clash with their hair? All of the descriptions of how things are said (“with satisfaction”, etc.) are probably implied from the tone of the response.

The author has created a world, a kicking plot, cool settings, characters, voice, pacing, humor…. couldn’t someone get off their ass and edit?

That is all.


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