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.