The first book in the Millennium Rule trilogy, Thief’s Magic is set in a different world – or worlds, rather – to Canavan’s previous works, and as such makes a good entry point to her writing for any new readers. In the interests of full disclosure, Trudi is a friend, which means I’m potentially biased; that being said, Thief’s Magic is definitely a book which kept me engrossed on its own merits.
When Leratian history student Tyen Ironsmelter discovers Vella, a sentient, magical book, while on an expedition with the notorious Professor Kilraker, he knows he should turn such a valuable artefact over to the Academy. Instead, rather than see Vella doomed to decades of neglect and obscurity by those who don’t appreciate her – or worse, destroyed – Tyen keeps her for himself. But Vella, as the creation of a legendary magician, knows magical secrets, and when her powers are discovered by Tyen’s masters, their treachery forces him to flee. Meanwhile, Rielle, a dyer’s daughter from the city of Fyre, struggles to conceal her ability to see Stain, the shadowy absence of magic. Men who can see Stain become priests, using their powers to serve the Angels, but for women, such work is forbidden. After being attacked by a tainted, an illegal magic user, Rielle is pushed into the company of Isare, a handsome artist, and exactly the sort of person her family doesn’t want her to marry. But as her connection to Isare grows – and as her ability to see Stain forces her to keep secrets from him – Rielle’s position becomes more and more dangerous. What is the true nature of magic? What does it mean to travel between worlds? And how does it change those who do?
Fyre and Leratia are both deeply flawed societies whose social norms restrict the agency of women, and whose authorities are riddled with corruption.
Though the two separate narratives never directly intersect, the journeys of their respective protagonists both parallel and complement each other in a number of interesting ways. Superficially, our heroes are two very different characters: Tyen is a white, working-class man from an imperial nation whose commonplace use of magic is technological to the point of being industrial, while Rielle is a privileged woman of colour from a setting where the use of magic is highly restricted and spiritual. Crucially, both settings are constructed with equal care. For all their individual strengths and differences, Fyre and Leratia are both deeply flawed societies whose social norms restrict the agency of women, and whose authorities are riddled with corruption. It is this latter fact which ultimately provides the main impetus behind Tyen and Rielle’s adventures, as both characters are betrayed by systems – and by individuals within those systems – they implicitly thought they could trust, which forces them to question their place in things.
There’s a strong tendency for Western narratives to assume that passive characters somehow equal bad storytelling: that the hero must always be instigating, not reacting.
What makes their steady transition so effective is the fact that neither character is, by nature, rebellious. From the outset, Tyen and Rielle are both hardworking and obedient, albeit within very different social contexts, but for all this, they’re not wholly complacent, either. Tyen resents the class differences which separate him from his richer friends at the Academy, while Rielle – whose family, though rich and respected, are dyers rather than nobles – suffers a similar stigma among her temple classmates, as well as chafing at the limits of acceptable behaviour for a young woman. Their steady realisation that things are not as they seem – and that they themselves are in charge of their own destinies – provides the story with a solid emotional core.
Canavan has a particular knack for telling internal narratives in ways that feel active rather than passive, fluid rather than purely introspective. At every turn, we understand exactly why Tyen and Rielle are making this decision or that, even if, from our position as objective readers, we’re better placed to see the ways things can go wrong for them. This, I think, is Canavan’s real strength as a writer, and a prominent factor in her widespread popularity: her ability to construct an engaging, fast-paced story based on how her characters think. As Aliette de Bodard has pointed out, there’s a strong tendency for Western narratives to assume that passive characters somehow equal bad storytelling: that the hero must always be instigating, not reacting, even when this results in their making arguably stupid decisions for the sake of continuous action. And yet, precisely because this trope is so ubiquitous, we are often trained to read more passive, internal narratives as slow or pointless, or as having started too early; as though the inclusion of any sort of dramatic build up is just so much irrelevant faffing. Canavan, though, delivers the best of both worlds: thoughtful, intelligent characters who are both active and reactive, and whose internal decision-making drives the story without ever becoming stagnant or self-indulgent.
Her worldbuilding works along similar lines. There’s a pleasing sense of detail in her descriptions of the arts of bookbinding, dyeing and painting, and yet these sections never feel like infodumps. By contrast, the magical technology of Tyen’s world, with its railsleds, aircarts and magical automata, was described so sparingly as to provoke, rather than restrict, the reader’s imagination. For me, these scenes felt positively Miyazaki-ish, and a pleasure to visualise.
Thief’s Magic is an enjoyable, engaging book from an accomplished author
My only real complaint concerns the ending, which felt a bit rushed: Rielle’s section ends, if not abruptly, then with the sudden introduction of new information we’re not quite given time to digest before the story changes again, while Tyen’s climax feels a bit too simplistic. But this is a small concern in a novel which otherwise held my attention throughout, and whose overall themes – of culture, consumption, history and trust – are otherwise neatly mirrored between two different stories. In the end, Tyen and Rielle are both the titular thief of magic: Tyen is forced to steal Vella in order to keep her safe, while Rielle has been taught all her life that using magic means stealing from the Angels. Thief’s Magic is an enjoyable, engaging book from an accomplished author, and as such, I look forward to seeing what happens next.