One day Berren goes to watch an execution of three thieves. He watches as the thief-taker takes his reward and decides to try and steal the prize. He fails. The young thief is taken. But the thief-taker spots something in Berren. And the boy reminds him of someone as well. Berren, not that he has much choice, becomes his apprentice.
And is introduced to a world of shadows, deceit and corruption behind the streets he thought he knew. A city where he must learn to take not purses, but lives…
The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice is Stephen Deas’ first YA novel. It’s is set in the same world as his A Memory of Flames trilogy and is the first in a trilogy of its own. The book, as mentioned, is YA, but Master Syannis, the titular thief-taker, offers adults a great connection and a way into the novel. The story never gets boring or too telegraphed and while the writing and length of the chapters are bite-size, Deas doesn’t talk down to his younger readers.
I really liked the protagonist Berren. I like the combination of Berren’s cunning and innocence. On the one hand he’s a tough-as-nails street kid, looking after himself, on the other hand, he really is a kid, with a kid’s way of looking at the world. For example, the unblinking fascination he and his fellow street rats show as they watch the beheadings at the start of the book is typically child-like. Another example is his naming of his little cut-purse knife Stealer, which is so very endearing. Berren grows during the book, where at first he is fascinated and excited by the beheadings and later the deadly fight he witnesses between Syannis and some thugs, by the end of the book, fighting and killing isn’t so glorious any more; Berren grown up and realises the finality of such an act.
In the same vein, Syannis is a great character, though he doesn’t show as much growth as Berren, in fact he largely remains a mystery. His gruff care for Berren seems driven by the latter’s mysterious heritage. We find out more about Syannis’ background in dribs and drabs, but the details of the story remain hidden. But despite all the mystery, or maybe because of it, I found Syannis the more compelling character in the book. While I loved Berren’s story, Syannis intrigued me and I hope we’ll learn more about him in the following books. In addition, I liked the bond that developed between boy and man. At the start, Berren is forced to stay with Syannis and Syannis only seems to take him on, because of Berren’s resemblance to someone in Syannis’ past. But, by the end of the story the bond seems genuine and they really seem to care for one another.
While Deas doesn’t reinvent the thief’s tale with The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice, he brings a new twist to it with the concept of the thief-taker and it’s an enjoyable one. In addition, it means he gets to roam the streets of Deephaven and show us all the corners and curiosities of the city. Deephaven is well-developed with its history well-documented in its buildings and its traditions. While we don’t travel far from the city, beyond the excursion down the river, the reader also gets a sense that the world beyond the city is as well-built, we just don’t need to see it in the course of this narrative. Hopefully we’ll be allowed to visit it in further instalments in the trilogy.
The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice is a story that can be read as a standalone and be satisfying in and of itself. But there remain questions on a larger scale that have yet to be answered, which promises a lot for the next book, The Warlock’s Shadow, which is out in July from Gollancz. I really enjoyed The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice and I’m planning to search out Deas’ other books as well, as I’m wanting to read more of his work now!