Prior to reading D.B. Jackson’s (aka: David B. Coe) most recent novel, my only exposure to the idea of a thieftaker, or a private individual hired to capture criminals, was Julian Sandar from Robert Jordan’s iconic Wheel of Time. Interestingly, my only experience with pre-Revolution America in genre fiction also came by way of Robert Jordan in his Fallon Blood series written under the pseudonym Reagan O’Neal. Jackson’s Thieftaker lifts both limitations, deftly blending historical fiction and urban fantasy to create a who-dun-it dressed up with tricorn hats and blood magic.
Set in 1765 in Boston, Massachusetts, during The Stamp Act riots, Thieftaker follows the exploits of Ethan Kaille, Jackson’s protagonist and only point of view character. Making his living finding stolen goods, Ethan is also a speller, capable of turning organic material into magical energy. When he’s asked to recover a necklace worn by the murdered daughter of a prominent royalist, he finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy to upset the delicate balance between Britain and her colonies.
As that summation suggest, Ethan is the narrative impetus, and the vehicle that Jackson uses to snare the reader. His history, power, and moral center held my interest despite a standard crime fiction plot structure that won’t overwhelm anyone with its inventiveness. In particular, it’s Ethan’s back story and how conjurers interact in a world that reviles their existence which gives Thieftaker its unique flavor.
There were perhaps thirty other active conjurers in Boston. No doubt there were far more than that who had conjurers’ blood in their veins, but many of his kind did all they could to avoid notice. People were still burned and hanged as witches throughout New England; fear of discovery ran deep among conjurers, and those who didn’t have access to power tended to shun those who did.
It’s a flavor that tickled my taste buds to the degree that I finished the novel in a single sitting. Jackson does a tremendous job at closing chapters in a way that satisfies, but also demands turning the page to the next. It’s a skill I most closely associate with George R.R. Martin’s work, and while Jackson’s novel has little in common with Martin’s, there is some similarity in the inability to put it down.
“Well hero, since you can’t possibly escape my clutches, let me reveal my entire plan to you!”
If there’s any disappointment on my end it stems from two sources. The first is a fairly contrived ending that follows the patterns set down over scores of crime thrillers. Even then it’s well executed, leaving my only other complaint to be Jackson’s lack of exploration into the ethics of the Revolution.
Given the time period, and the frequent appearance of historical characters on either side of the debate, I felt Jackson gave Ethan a free pass, allowing him to wrestle with his tenuous position between the two factions, and occasionally reflecting on his own personal views, without ever reflecting on the credibility of either argument. That’s not say the issue is ignored, just that Ethan is never forced to act on his beliefs as they relate to politics. It leads me to believe that future novels in the series will more firmly enmesh themselves in America’s move toward independence. Or at least I sincerely hope they do.
Thieftaker is just a fantastically fun novel.
These negatives are more a reflection of my own expectations and shouldn’t necessarily be read as a criticism of the novel, which, while not exceptional in any particular way, is done with such deftness that the sum is greater than the parts. The writing is strong, but not so much that it will call attention to itself, nor is the plot so densely woven that it constantly surprises the reader. Rather D.B. Jackson has struck several different notes and struck them all well, combining just the right amount of historical veracity and magical alteration. I highly recommend it to fans of historical fiction, crime thrillers, urban fantasy, and anyone else looking for a great way to spend a weekend. Thieftaker is just a fantastically fun novel.
Justin Landon is the Overlord of the genre blog Staffer’s Book Review (and occasional musings). When he’s not writing things of dubious value to the world, he’s at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.