Friday, 2 July 2010
‘The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice’ – Stephen Deas (Gollancz)
As I’ve said on here before, you won’t normally find me reading very many ‘Young Adult’ books for the simple reason that there’s a hell of a lot of ‘Adult’ speculative fiction that I want to work my way through. The reading pile is big enough as it is without adding more books to it! Every so often though I’ll make an exception if the author is one that I’m interested in reading more of. Neil Gaiman was one such example, I didn’t hang around when ‘The Graveyard Book’ was published, and Stephen Deas is another. I had a lot of fun with ‘The Adamantine Palace’ and although I haven’t had the time to read ‘King of the Crags’ I still want to read more of Deas’ stuff. ‘The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice’ seemed like an ideal compromise until I can get round to tackling ‘The King of the Crags’!
Having not read a lot of YA stuff I also wanted to see if I could get a feel for what Young Adult fiction is all about. ‘YA fiction’ can be used as a derogatory term, aimed at books that people might feel are ‘light reading’, so I wanted to get some kind of idea of what YA fiction really is and how well ‘The Thief-Takers Apprentice’ fitted the bill...
Berren has lived in the city of Deephaven all his life as one of a gang of pickpockets and petty thieves. All this changes though when he visits an execution and decides to try his luck at stealing the prize purse of the man who gave the criminals to the headman’s axe. Berren is caught out but his luck is still in, or is it...? The Thief-Taker takes a liking to Berren and takes him on as his apprentice, definitely a step up from living in an attic and scrabbling to survive. The pay off though is that Berren is about to take his first steps into a world of political plotting where the real criminals go to great measures to protect themselves. Can a former alley rat survive in such high society...?
So, what defines Young Adult fiction and does ‘The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice’ match up to it? Having read through ‘The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice’ I’m still not sure. While it’s not as ‘high brow’ or self absorbed as some adult works (preferring instead to focus moving the plot forward with lots of action) there’s definitely an edge to this work that suggests adult undertones. The dangers that Berren faces are not sugar coated in any way and you’re left in no doubt that the city of Deephaven is a place that can easily draw in a young boy and then spit his corpse up a few days later. The mixture of this and a number of strong characters, that were easy to engage with, were what ultimately kept me reading along with several small mysteries that were tantalisingly presented and demanded a resolution.
The only area where ‘The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice’ jumped out as YA at me wasn’t so much the fact the main character was a teenage boy as it was the fact that events forced Berren to grow and develop over the course of the book. There was very much a ‘rites of passage’ feel to the book as a whole; Berren begins the story as a boy and if he makes it through what happens then he’ll be a few steps closer to being a man. This definitely struck a chord with the part of me that used to read books like this as a teenager.
Deas handles this approach superbly and really shows the reader how Berren grows as a character. The Berren who begins the book isn’t the Berren who ends it... What I particularly liked was the way that Deas gives the same level of intensity to all of the obstacles that Berren must face. The first date with a beautiful girl can be just as frantic as facing a kicking from people who used to be your friends; that’s what it’s like to be a teenage boy on the cusp of manhood and Deas gets that feeling spot on.
What I would say though is that Deas has an unfortunate habit of sometimes not paying as much attention to resolutions as he does to the events preceding them. This may just be because of the relative shortness of the book (my advance copy is a mere two hundred and seventy one pages long) but it still feels like certain resolutions come across as a bit of an anti-climax as a result...
Deephaven is a beautifully realised city that serves very well as the backdrop to a surprisingly dark tale. If you’re writing a tale of skulduggery then there has to be a selection of dark alleyways, cellars and taverns. Deas clearly knows this as he gives his readers a number of these for the action to play out against. I also like the way that he contrasts these settings with more opulent surroundings to really show his readers just how grimy the underbelly of the city really is. Regardless of where the story goes next, I’m looking forward to spending more time in the city of Deephaven.
‘The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice’ may be flawed but it’s only a little flaw that doesn’t overly detract from the book itself. What you’re getting for your money here is a gripping read, with engaging characters, that bodes well for future books in the series (and it has me that little more eager for 'The King of the Crags'). I’ll be there to see what happens to Berren next.
Nine and a Half out of Ten