The Valdemar Reread has had a lot to say about Skif. I loved him when he was Talia’s fearless wall-climbing friend, and when he showed Elspeth how to throw a knife. I wasn’t so sure about his darker, whinier side in the Winds trilogy. Skif’s story has some mysterious gaps. Take a Thief offers the missing pieces to the Skif puzzle by laying out the parts of Skif’s childhood that had, until this point, been shrouded in mystery.
Skif had two songs in the collection that appeared at the end of Arrow’s Fall – “Philosophy” and “Laws.” The first of these explains Skif’s irreverent approach to life, and the second implies a dark contrast between life for impoverished urchins in Valdemar and Heraldic idealism. While Lackey preserves the veracity of both songs, Skif’s trajectory in Take a Thief bends toward “Laws.” The Skif we see here isn’t averse to crossing thin ice in a dance, but he’s wrestling with some pretty heavy stuff.
Trigger warning for sexual abuse of children.
Take a Thief was published in 2001, roughly 10 years after Winds of Fate, and 14 years after Arrows of the Queen. The story is set in the years before Talia’s Choosing. It’s sometimes considered part of the Exile trilogy which features Alberich, and Alberich does play a pivotal role here, continuing his work as a spy for the Queen. Reading those books may or may not enhance your enjoyment of this one, depending on your feelings about Herald-Chronicler Myste, Valdemaran plumbing, Karse, and weird Baby Jesus subplots. I consider the Alberich books interesting but not mandatory as prerequisites to Thief.
Snippets of Skif’s backstory were well-established canon before this novel appeared. We knew Skif had a dark past in the slums of Haven, a place he refused to take Talia to visit. We knew he was an accomplished pickpocket and cat-burglar, and that he tried to steal his Companion. We knew that he had some experience with women who had survived rape and sexual abuse on the streets of Haven. Everything we’ve ever known about Skif remains true. What Thief makes clear is that we didn’t know very much.
Skif’s childhood is a case study of Valdemar’s intractable social problems. The kingdom’s public education system, established by King Randale in the time of Vanyel, roughly 700 years prior to Skif’s birth, provides children with rudimentary instruction in reading and math. This program was intended to intended to create a more informed populace, less susceptible to rumors and misinformation which, I presume, they would read about in all the newspapers that Valdemar has never printed. In the reign of Selenay, elementary education is augmented with a school nutrition program that provides students with a daily mug of tea, and a bacon roll or piece of fruit – about 200 calories per school day. What these programs do not provide is a path to employment in the skilled trades. Or in the unskilled trades. Or in any legal occupation.
While attending school, Skif, an orphan, lived and worked at his uncle’s inn. This is not the kind of establishment where Heralds drop in to have a meal and hand out tax breaks. The food is, at best, a half-step up from pig swill. Skif’s adult cousin, the inn’s manager, repeatedly rapes another of the inn’s workers, an intellectually disabled child. Skif learned early that if he wanted a decent meal, he would have to steal one elsewhere, and was out with his street gang when his cousin was arrested and the inn transferred to new ownership as a result of a legal judgment.
The criminals Skif has fallen in with are comparatively benign. Together with their leader, a Karsite veteran who lost both legs in the Tedrel Wars, they are a crack team of napkin-stealing street urchins. Reselling stolen napkins involves a lot of laundering and dying, and I’m not certain why this group doesn’t deploy their skills and laundry equipment as a legitimate business. Haven’s guilds may be exerting excessive monopolistic pressure in these sectors of the urban economy. The income provided by black market napkins is supplemented by picking pockets and stealing jewelry. The death of Skif’s mentor and two younger boys, a result of a suspicious fire, triggers a period of vigilantism. Skif is like a young, low-budget Batman, stalking Haven’s nights. This brings him into contact with Alberich, who is the older, more effective Batman, also stalking Haven’s nights.
By the time Skif is Chosen, he finds himself torn between his Companion and his desire for revenge. Ultimately, Skif and Alberich resolve this tension by involving Skif in an effort to stop a human trafficking ring that is kidnapping children in Haven and enslaving them as prostitutes outside Valdemar’s borders. These are the child slavers referred to in the first Council meetings Talia attends in the Arrows books, and I’m confident that this is one of Orthallen’s projects.
Take a Thief accounts for Skif’s “personality change” in the Winds trilogy by suggesting that Skif’s personality has always been a performance. Skif and Alberich invented the carefree prankster who picks pockets to hide the spy who climbs through upper-story windows. This places Skif much more firmly in Alberich’s orbit than he appeared to be in earlier books. Skif’s Companion, Cymry, is another important reflection of his true self. She encourages Skif in taking risks, assuring him that she will find ways to help him if his plans go wrong.
Although I don’t always appreciate DarkSkif, I do appreciate Lackey’s exploration of the consequences of Valdemar’s problems. Haven’s street children are an eclectic and impressive group. Over the course of the Valdemar series, their number has included one of Savil’s proteges, at least one other Herald Mage, Vanyel’s lifebonded lover Stephen, Mags’s ragtag band of young spies, and a seemingly infinite number of abused, neglected and exploited children. In return for their centuries of suffering, Take a Thief gives them two part-time heroes. They deserve a revolution. Although the Herald Spy books are comparatively ancient history (and sometimes frustrating to read) they have laid the groundwork for the idea of political unrest in Valdemar. I would love to see Lackey return to Selenay’s time and bring these themes together.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.