Juliet E. McKenna – The Thief’s Gamble

I return back to some traditional fantasy with The Thief’s Gamble (1999) by Juliet E. McKenna, the first book of The Tales Of Einarinn. The traditional element originates mainly from the standard medieval setting, the selected cast of characters and the quest-like nature of the story. Some secondary races are somewhat familiar although this is more culturally than physically. On the other hand there are some original elements which provide some welcome deviation from the expected fare. The world of Einarinn shows no resemblance to Earthly analogies in names and culture. The cultures are not particularly developed and remain on a generic medieval level, but that’s not really a requirement.

McKenna manages to provide a different group of characters. In central play are the mages. For a change they are not of the assisting kind but the ones on the forefront that move the plot. They take up an independent position while being an accepted part of society. This is a refreshing stance compared to the usual fare: either mages hold leading power over normal people, move events from the shadows or are persecuted and hunted. Here the mages are no different from anyone else.

The magic system itself is not much explained and follows the typical usage. Nevertheless she puts in a twist. As it is a part of the story I will not go deeper into the details. There were some minor oddities which were not really explained, although they are not of such a great importance.

McKenna’s storytelling is quite decent. This was her debut novel, so it is not unusual that some things are not right yet. Earlier in the novel there is some infodumping, but this quickly decreases. Instead McKenna uses the typical device of starting each chapter with some extract providing background information. Unfortunately these felt somewhat clumsy. This device has been used plenty and it should be rather simple to copy. To me McKenna did a poor job of it. As they do not hold a real part to the main story I do not count them much for the overall opinion. The plot itself develops fairly well. There were some moments where the plot had some weak moments and some plot devices were used to set the right stage. There were also some confusing moments which have not been explained to full satisfaction.

The narrative is a bit peculiar. McKenna has opted to use one character for a first person narrative and all the others for a third person narrative. The difference in the approach is rather small. Because of that the switching between types of narratives is somewhat of an annoyance. There are not extra benefits. The reader does not learn more or less. It does break the flow of the narrative. The first person narrator takes center stage frequently, but there is not alternation between the other characters. McKenna uses them as they are most fit.

There is not much character development although all the characters are fairly well set up and avoid the typical archetypes. They all have some history which are disclosed early on in the aforementioned infodumping style. In most cases they are of little importance to the story and while the characters go through some ordeals the changes were minor. If this had been done it would certainly have improved the quality of the novel.

Overall my opinion of The Thief’s Gamble is partially as expected. The quality is of an average traditional fantasy. McKenna manages to steer away from the predictable in several ways which makes this a more worthwhile read. The story holds some weaknesses but none of them are lethal. The plot is entertaining enough for me to have a go for the next novel in the series and that is the minimal requirement I was looking for. There is room for improvement and as usual I give the author the benefit of the doubt as in most cases the first novel if often not the strongest.


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