Juliet E. McKenna – The Thief’s Gambit

In Einarinn, the secret of magic is known only by an elite few. They live in deliberate isolation, under the watchful eye of the Archmage. But nothing lasts forever.

Livak is a part-time thief and a full-time gambler. Long accustomed to living by her wits and narrowly avoiding serious trouble. When she attempts to sell a stolen antique to a passing merchant, she finds herself pulled into a new and dangerous world of political intrigue in which the stakes are higher than anyone involved can imagine.

For the antique she has acquired dates from a particular period in the history of Einarinn about which little is known, but much has been speculated. And when the truth begins to emerge, Livak decides to take the greatest gamble of her life.

The Thief’s Gamble is a great traditional fantasy, of the kind that made me fall in love with the genre when I was fourteen years old. Which shouldn’t have been a big surprise as the book was actually first published in 1999, which was in the same decade as when I first discovered fantasy. It’s epic and fun – none of that modern gritty stuff here – and very much a part of a series. Of course ‘modern’ fantasy often is part of a trilogy or series as well, but it seems as if these days more of an effort is made to make books more readable on their own, to have their story be somewhat self-contained. Not so The Thief’s Gamble; this is clearly the first book of a series, introducing us to our main characters, giving us an idea of the world we’re moving into and setting up the overarching story arc, i.e. who is/are the baddie(s) and what’s the problem that threatens the world as we know it? And you know what? I loved it!

Our main character Livak, the titular thief, is a wonderfully self-reliant and strong female lead. We meet her as she’s hanging around, waiting for her companion to arrive and she learns of a nice ‘business’ opportunity. As said business opportunity also provides a way to get revenge on the man who tried to rape her years ago, Livak decides to take advantage and lands herself in far more trouble than she expected. But she never expects anyone but herself to get her out of this trouble, which I really liked. Another factor I loved is that there is no sweeping romance in the book, she’ll take her pleasure, but Livak doesn’t need a man! Ms McKenna doesn’t need her protagonist to be a-sexual or the tomboy type to be strong and independent in her own right and it was very good to discover another such character, as I think you can’t have enough of those in print.

Through Livak we meet most of our main characters; those she doesn’t introduce have their own viewpoint, specifically the Archmage and Casuel. I liked how Ms McKenna played with the narrative voice for the different viewpoints, keeping all but Livak’s in third person and hers in first. This lends an immediacy and intimacy to the pages spent with Livak, that is less present in the other passages. Unsurprisingly, this also led to Livak being my favourite character, closely followed by Ryshad, Shiv and Planir, the Archmage. Another character whose development I’m interested in following through the other books, that is if she returns, is Allin. Her growth through this story was fun to watch, moving as she did from a shy, diffident and insecure young girl away from home for the first time to a young woman still unsure of her place in the world, but far more assertive and present in the foreground than she had been. I especially liked the scenes where she didn’t let Casuel bully her any more; those had me cheering for her in my head.

The plot was quite interesting – even though at times it moved a bit slowly – with a very creepy evil overlord and interesting societies, both the Elietimm and Tormalin. The Elietimm were a mixture of berserker warrior and a strange docility. They are a mysterious people and I look forward to finding out more about them. The same is true for the Tormalin. They are equally mysterious, though somewhat less so, due to the presence of modern Tormalin descendants, such as Messire D’Olbriot and Casuel. And while they seem equally warlike to the Elietimm, there doesn’t seem to be much docility in the Tormalin character. Another thing I liked, were the opposing magic systems. On the one hand there are the elemental magics, which seem completely aptitude based and on the other hand there aetheric magic, which seems accessible to all who know the spells and how to chant them. I found it interesting that the elemental magics, which would logically be harder to attain as they need an innate affinity is the form that has survived, while the aetheric magics have been mostly lost in the time the book takes place.

The Thief’s Gambit is a strong start to the Tales of Einarinn. I originally picked this book up at Amanda’s suggestion during our London book shopping spree and I’m glad she put it on my pile, as I really loved this book. At the same time, she’s made it so I have at least twelve more books to buy and read to catch up on Ms McKenna’s backlist. I don’t whether to hug her or curse her for that! But it is also a clear indication of how much I enjoyed The Thief’s Gambit. If you like your old-school epic fantasy, Ms McKenna’s first outing is definitely worth your time. Me, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the other books of the Tales of Einarinn, as I really want to return to Livak’s story and see where adventure will take her.

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  • I have the fortune, or misfortune in this case, to know Ms McKenna of old, and remember being at the launch party for this one. But I've never read it! It's just…too weird…to read something written by someone you used to work with. That makes no sense now I'm writing down, lol. Anyways, glad you enjoyed it :)

  • That's so cool that you go back so far with Ms McKenna. But you're missing out! It's a really fab book!

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