Saturday, January 28, 2017

Mark of the Thief by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Buddy read with TL. You can check out her review here.

I recently read and loved THE FALSE PRINCE - it was amazing! TFP was a high-stakes fantasy thriller about a young boy who is competing with several other young boys, Hunger Games-style, to impersonate a long-lost prince & save a kingdom from rebellion. I finished that sucker in a single sitting, blown away by the non-stop action and surprise twists. Immediately, I told myself that I had to get all of her other books, pronto.

My library didn't have the sequel to TFP, but it did have books one and two of her other series, Mark of the Thief. Now, ordinarily, the middle grade label would have given me pause, but TFP was labeled as middle grade as well, and it was really good, so I was willing to step out of my genre comfort zone again.

I should have heeded my gut's instincts.

While MARK OF THE THIEF has a great concept, it lacks the subtlety and nuance of TFP. Nic, the main character, is a slave in Ancient Rome. One day, in a gave, he finds a bulla that used to belong to Caesar and contains the powers of one of the Roman gods. A whole bunch of bad people want the power of that amulet and are willing to do bad things to get it. Because they are bad people.

The female characters in TFP - a princess and a serving girl - did not get much "screen time" but were still interesting and layered when they did appear. Both had agency, bravery, and hidden agendas that were sometimes at odds with the main character, Sage. By contrast, the two female characters in MARK OF THE THIEF, Livia and Aurelia, were incredibly irritating. Livia is a whiny damsel in distress, sister to Nic, whose only purpose is to serve as a lust object, a bargaining tool, or someone to be rescued. Aurelia, on the other hand, is selfish and annoying, and you can tell she's a love interest because she's one of those "I don't need a man to live my life!"-type characters, only to be converted from the error of her ways and throw all her plans away as soon as the hero steps on the scene.

To the MARK OF THE THIEF's detriment, I recently read a good book about Ancient Rome that also took place in and around the gladiatorial arenas and dealt with corrupt politicians as a theme. That book was BLOOD GAMES by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. It was written for a totally different audience, but is solid proof that good research and an immersive, well-developed world can compensate for narrative flaws. BLOOD GAMES could be dry at times, but I rounded up for substance.

THE MARK OF THE THIEF, on the other hand, has incredibly modern language that detracts from the story. It almost would have worked better if this was one of those time-traveling stories, because Nic sounds like a modern boy. I'd suspect the author was incapable of writing in a more old-fashioned and serious way, if I hadn't read TFP, which had at least a semblance of courtly speech.

I got the impression that THE MARK OF THE THIEF wanted to be Artemis Fowl and Percy Jackson, all at once. If that was the intent, it failed. It doesn't have the creativity of Artemis, or the research of Percy, and the tone of the story feels like it's talking down to its young readers. I loved TFP and really wanted to enjoy this, but THE MARK OF THE THIEF just felt like a rehashing of the same basic plot and characters, only watered down and voided of any excitement or complexity.

If you're new to this author, start with THE FALSE PRINCE. Not this one. I'd normally give this a one-star probably, except I really liked Caela the griffin, and the last thirty pages of the arena battle.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

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