Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme: If it’s not nailed down, you can take it (and if you can pry it up, it wasn’t nailed down to begin with): stories of thieves doing their thing.

The thief is one of fantasy’s archetypes, and there are a number of reasons for that, from our collective love of seeing the powerful get outsmarted, to the fact that any party on a quest will do better if someone can get around without tipping everybody off. It always makes for a more interesting story to see characters being clever and finding some angle to beat the odds rather than brute forcing their way through and hoping to stay lucky. With that in mind, these three books are great examples of using brains over brawn.

So if you like

Women in over their heads.
Loot that’s gonna be difficult to fence.
Fantasy that falls between Glen Cook’s Garret Files and T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

…with a bit of Nicholas Eames and Christopher Buehlman mixed in.

You might like

The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids, by Michael McClung

Overview

The murder of one of Amra Thetys’ fellow thieves sets her on a path to avenge him, and figure out why everybody wants the relic he’d left with her after stealing it from the temple of a forgotten god.

Sample passage

“Which is all very interesting, but what about these blades?”

“I knew you’d like the stabby bit. I’ll tell you what I know, but it isn’t much. I’m a priest, not a weaponsmith. Each one has some function pertaining to its particular aspect-Goddess. So Abanon’s blade will use or feed on hate in some fashion, and Moranos’s dagger will in some way be connected to desire. And so on.”

I waited for him to continue, but apparently he was done. “That’s it?” I asked.

“Well, in the presence of one, I’d rather be on the end that you hold. And given the choice I’d rather not be in the same country as any of them.”

“Thanks so much for that useful bit of advice.”

“They’re the tools of an insane goddess, forged from the body of a demon lord. What did you expect? ‘Weapon A can cut through armor as though it were butter, and weapon B lets you walk on water?’”

“Well, yes. Sort of. But I guess I see your point.”

He shifted on his stool and his watery brown eyes got sort of glinty. “You came seeking information, but let me give you some advice. The world is still littered with artifacts left over from before the Cataclysm. None of them are safe to play with. I don’t know why you want to know about the Eightfold’s Blades, nor do I much care. But if by some mad chance you find one of Her Blades, or one finds you, remember one thing: Such tools want to be used, and to them, any mortal hand that wields them is a tool in turn. Be very, very careful. And leave your offering in the box in the foyer. Silver is good, gold is better. If you want more information you can go dig in the stacks. Jessep will help you since I very much doubt you can read. I’ve got to take my nap.”

Takeaway

If you’re a fan of any of the “If you like:” authors listed above, you’ll want to add The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids to your bookshelf, virtual or otherwise. In addition to good pacing, interesting twists, and the odd comment about the ridiculousness having-a-bad-day situations the protagonist finds herself, Amra is really good at her job, but not force-to-be-reckoned-with good, so every encounter has some level of danger. Plus, if you like this sort of thing, this book is the first in the Amra Thetys series, which is neatly teased by a witch telling Amra, “While you think you are done with the Eightfold Goddess, She is far from done with you.”

Or if you like:

Books slightly less Grimdark than those of Joe Abercrombie.
Ed McDonald’s Ravens Mark series.
Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld.
Smart ass thieves with a juvenile sense of humor and a talent for trouble.

You might like

The Blacktongue Thief, by Christopher Buehlman

Overview

An indebted graduate of thieves school has to take on a spy mission to pay his masters back, and to keep him from having any qualms about it, the guild has implemented…certain safeguards to make sure he stays on task.

Sample passage

Now they were thieves, but not subtle thieves like me. I was trained in lock-picking, wall-scaling, fall-breaking, lie-weaving, voice-throwing, trap-making, trap-finding, and not a half-bad archer, fiddler, and knife-fighter besides. I also knew several dozen cantrips—small but useful magic. Alas, I owed the Takers Guild so much money for my training that I found myself squatting in the Forest of Orphans with these thick bastards, hoping to rob somebody the old-fashioned way. You know, threaten them with death.

So there I was, crouched in ambush, watching a figure walking alone down the White Road toward us. I had a bad feeling about our potential victim, and not just because she walked like nobody was going to hurt her, and not just because ravens were shouting in the trees. I had studied magic, you see, just a little, and this traveler had some. I wasn’t sure what kind, but I felt it like a chill or that charge in the air before a storm that raises gooseflesh. Besides, what could one woman have on her that would be worth much split seven ways?

I looked at Pagran and gave him a little shake of my head. Pagran used a soldier’s handcant he’d learned in the Goblin Wars, only half like the thieves’ cant I learned at the Low School. When I shook my head at him, he canted at me. I thought he said to repair my purse, so I checked to see if money was falling out, but then I realized he was saying I should check to see if my balls were still attached. Right, he was impugning my courage.

I pointed at the stranger and made the sign for magicker, not confident they would know that one, and I’m not sure if Pagran did; he told me there was a magicker behind me, or at least that’s what I thought at first, but he was actually telling me to put a magicker in my arse. I looked away from the chief bastard I was about to die with and back at the woman about to kill us.

Just a feeling I had.

Takeaway

If you liked Eames’ Kings of the Wyld, I’d highly recommend The Blacktongue Thief. Whether it was some tonal similarities between the two, or the fact that I thought that both were some of the most interesting, refreshing and well paced fantasy novels I’d ever read, I couldn’t tell you, but this was for sure a great read, and just fun. Granted the whole ‘party on a quest serves as travelogue’ thing has been done to death, but The Blacktongue Thief puts a fresh spin on it with the stakes being important, but not the end of the world important, the protagonist being talented, but not Chosen One talented, and pacing that doesn’t leave the reader waiting for the interesting stuff to happen. Add in worldbuilding that feels the best possible influence of fairy tale imagination tempered with role playing game logic and you’ve got a fantastic book… or some day, a series. While the book resolves most of its plot threads, the ending is left wide open for a bigger story to be told, and apparently Buehlman has a publishing deal for another two books, which I am wholeheartedly looking forward to.

Or if you like:

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables
France in the early 1800s
Guilds. Lots of Guilds
Playing the long game

You might like

The Court of Miracles by Kester Grant

Overview

When a young girls sister is sold in to the Flesher’s guild, she joins the Thieve’s guild, and it turns out that revenge is only one of the things she’s going to take.

Sample passage

Although Father sends me up walls and down chimneys to grab whatever he instructs, I have never stolen anything from someone who was actually present for the theft. The rule is always to hide until they are gone. But that is not the rule tonight.

I rub my hands together to warm them and lean over the boy. There it is! A chain, long and heavy. It’s the largest stone I’ve ever seen, a sapphire set in a gold casing thick with smaller pearls and jewels. He will surely wake if I lift it, or if not then, when I try to get it over his head.

You’re small and you’re quick, and those, too, are weapons.

I count to three and then I move. As smooth as water, the necklace is whipped off, and there’s only a whisper of a second when the metal chain brushes his skin. When he opens his eyes, he’s looking right into mine.

You’re clever, Nina, and that is a weapon.

If he shouts for help, he will rob me of important seconds I need to escape. I might make it to the balcony, but not beyond.

This is the art of thieving….Femi’s words echo in my ears. Deaf are the distracted, and blind are the surprised. Those mesmerized by a face do not notice where the hands may creep.

I need to distract him, keep him surprised—or at least, more surprised than he currently is. His mouth opens, so I do the first thing that comes into my head: I kiss him, pressing my lips to his in a style that I’ve seen played out too many times in dark corners of Father’s inn. He tastes like chocolate. And that’s the last thought in my mind as I push away from him and start to run, leaping for the balcony.

I’m over the edge, into the freezing night, my lips still burning. I hear a strangled sound as I drop and roll onto the balcony, then start to scale the wall down to the ground.

“Wait! Please!”

I should not look up, but I do, fingers raw and wind at my back. He’s staring down at me from two floors above.

“Who are you?” he asks.

I pause for only a second before I smile at him. “The Black Cat,” I say. Then I let go and drop like a shadow into the night.

Takeaway

The Court of Miracles owes a lot of its setting to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and indeed, a few re-imagined characters provide supporting roles. In this four act story, our master thief protagonist, known to the city as The Black Cat, has to navigate a network of underground societies specializing in providing special services, like gambling, to drugs, assassination, mercenary work, and oddly but appropriately enough, accounting, to both get her sister back and live with the decisions she has to make to do so. Frequently outmatched, but rarely outmaneuvered, she has to use her wits in addition to her skill to survive what becomes an increasingly dangerous environment. If you’re looking for a bit more on 17th century Paris, or a protagonist who has to get creative, you’ll want to give The Court of Miracles a read.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.

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