May 9 2014 2:00pm

Thief’s Magic: Now I’ll Cut This Story Into Two!

Trudi Canavan Thief's Magic

It says it right on the cover of the Thief’s Magic advanced review copy that Trudi Canavan has sold two million books worldwide—which is roughly 1/50th of the Super Bowl’s audience, or about 100 times the audience of a moderately successful debut novel. You might think that’s a common level of success. It isn’t. It’s an absurd total, demonstrating a huge commercial appeal to Canavan’s fiction.

And I get it. Heavy investment in character development and setting creates an enticing remoulade to tempt the eye-buds (those are like taste buds, but with tear ducts). Even when the narrative drags—and it does—Canavan has that indefinable knack for capturing a reader’s imagination.

Tyen is an archeology student and burgeoning magician. On a dig with his mentor, he finds an ancient book, named Vella, who happens to be alive, more or less. Twisted into her current shape by a long dead sorcerer, Vella knows more about how the world works than anyone alive. Meanwhile, in a land ruled by religion, Rielle has been taught that to use magic is to steal from the divine. Unfortunately, she’s one of the rare people who can sense the stain magic leaves behind and it’s becoming an increasingly difficult secret to keep.

Canavan replaces our modern conception of electricity with magic—everything relies on its availability or lack thereof. A renewable resource, to some degree, magic swirls around humanity, but when tapped leaves behind a residue the sensitive experience tangibly. In Tyen’s world magic is strained to capacity, burning off at a rate not dissimilar from our modern relationship to fossil fuels. As a magician he’s concerned with its long term viability, and Vella, his sentient book companion, leads him to believe that alternative energy sources might exist if he’ll only look for them.

Rielle, on the other hand, exists in a world where magic is taboo. Hoarded by the ubiquitous church, it is a sin even to see the stain magic leaves behind. As someone cursed with that very ability, her world is a scary place, with constant fear of discovery around every corner. If the magic of Tyen’s world is our fossil fuels, Rielle’s magic seems an analogy for the haves and the have-nots. It’s a demonstration of the inherent flaw in a system where privilege and power are consolidated with a very few. Given the availability of safe and reliable energy outside the developed world, the themes in both points of view seem to work hand in hand.

As characters, both are on journeys of self-discovery, a bildungsroman of a sort. Such narratives are always compelling in their quest to discover who someone will become. Unfortunately, Thief’s Magic makes the choice to force that development not through the character’s desire to be something better, but a crucible of personal tragedy manifested by others’ attempts to appropriate our protagonists’ freedom. This lack of agency is noted and the process of identifying with and imprinting on Rielle and Tyen becomes more difficult as a result.

The general plot details revealed in this review imply that Rielle and Tyen are connected. While that may be true in the long term, the events in Thief’s Magic are in contrast to that idea. In fact, through the entire book the two protagonists never interact or even spend time in the same city. The result is two novels sandwiched together, telling separate and distinct stories that are only connected by a shared strain against cultural norms. It’s an odd choice by Canavan, and one that leaves the novel dreadfully unsatisfying and confusing as to its eventual destination.

This lack of connectivity reminds me something Chuck Wendig, published author and writing guru, once wrote: “Bring the reader to the story as late you possibly can — we’re talking just before the flight leaves, just before the doors to the club are about to close, just before the shit’s gonna go down. Tension. Escalation.” It’s the kind of advice that’s anathema to Thief’s Magic. The entire novel is one long first chapter that introduces the reader to Rielle and Tyen and a unique setting, but does nothing to begin answering the questions Canavan proposes.

Even so, there is quite a bit to recommend Trudi Canavan’s latest novel. The setting is absorbing and Vella, the sentient book, is a tremendous plot device. But, by not taking Wendig’s advice, what could have been an incredible novel becomes something more akin to your average Superbowl. The promise of a great game between two immensely talented teams that too often ends in a rout, not a nail-biter. And how interesting is that, really? Sure, we still watch because we’re always going to be attracted to talent, but we’re left hoping that next year’s game, or book two in this case, will be a little more compelling. I can’t imagine a better metaphor than that for Thief’s Magic.


Thief’s Magic is available May 20 from Orbit.

Justin Landon runs Staffer’s Book Review where his posts are less on-color. Find him onTwitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.

Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
I saw this as a "pre-order sale" on the publisher's website, so I've pre-ordered it. I don't know when I am going to actually read it, a lot of set up to get to the real story feels like a lot of work to get to the meat.

I find it amusing (per your chat earlier this week) that you would use football as an analogy here. I do think, as an aside, there are more sports fans (especially number crunching lovers) in genre, than you'd at first think.
Pirmin Schanne
2. Torvald_Nom
Just out of curiousity, Mr Landon, what would you consider Tad Williams' build-ups to be like?
I'm sadly not particularly familiar with American football, so I could use a comparison with that for scaling purposes.
Justin Landon
3. jdiddyesquire
Tragically, I've not read Tad Williams. I don't mind a good slow build up, but only when it's necessary. I just didn't feel it was terribly necessary here. Felt like the story suffered because Canavan starts too far away from the tension.
4. Ristea
Starting away from the tension sound similar to what Robin Hobb does in her Rain Wilds Chronicles series.

It worked for me because I'm a super-fan of hers and didn't mind. Having never read any of Trudi Canavan's work though, I'm curious to see what my reaction to Thief's Magic will be.

(The book launch for this happens to be in Melbourne where I'm travelling, so by a stroke of good luck I'll be able to meet the author and pick up the book.)
J. Akimatsu
5. DesertLorelei
Sounds mildly interesting, if not outright compelling--the sort of book I might pick up if I happen to see it at the library, not the type that I'll buy and devour on sight. Thanks for the review, and for bringing it to the attention of Tor fans!

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