Crimes, Capers, and Gentleman Thieves: 5 Must-Read SFF Heist Novels

Heist stories always seem so straightforward at the beginning. All that stands between our protagonists and possession of whatever it is they covet or require is a team with the right skills, a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a fox, and a bit of concerted effort. What could possibly go wrong? And yet, something always does.

It doesn’t matter if the heist takes place in a mundane world or a science fiction world or a fantasy world. There are always complications…because otherwise, where’s the fun?

Here are five heist books you may have missed.


An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass

Sold to a brothel by her mother, Romy reinvented herself as Cantagna’s premier courtesan, mistress to the city-state’s Shadow Lord. When Romy begs the Shadow Lord to intervene on her father’s behalf, the affronted lord sends her back to the city’s slums. She reinvents herself again, this time as a scribe, but her efforts to reform her brother prove less successful. The Shadow Lord’s spiteful wife Gilliette approaches Romy to beg a favour.… Well, it’s more of a demand. Romy is to help Gilliette conceal an ill-considered theft. If Romy fails? Gilliette loathes her husband’s mistress and will simply frame the low-born prostitute.

As it happens, Romy also has a magical talent. So does her brother. So do two of their associates. There are just two small problems:

  • Each person has one particular ability and the group is stuck with whatever abilities the four allies happen to have, not the talents they might want for their heist.
  • Possession of magical talent is a crime punishable by death.


The Big Boost (A.I. War, Book 1) by Daniel Keys Moran

2080: The Unification has a simple dream. It wants to conquer every independent community in the Solar System, and then give the survivors the same firm governance the Earth has enjoyed ever since the UN crushed the last terrestrial resistance at the beginning of the century. Life is so straightforward when a legion of killer cyborgs enforces the law. (Damage to civil liberties or innocent bystanders can be expected, but…safety trumps all!)

The linchpin of the UN’s plan is the Unity, a seven-kilometer-long warship which the UN has been building since the early 2070s. Losing the Unity would be a tremendous setback for the UN. Famed criminal Trent the Uncatchable is asked to…ah…deal with the ship. Trent’s employers are comfortable with collateral damage. They expect Unity to vanish in a vast explosion. Trent is a thief who lost his entire family to the idea that “the ends justify the means.” He has a much more ambitious plan for the Unity….


The Crown Jewels by Walter Jon Williams

Drake Majistral owes his career as a famous gentleman thief to a long-dead kleptomaniac emperor. Rather than admit that their revered emperor might have has a flawed character, the alien Khosali invented the role of the Allowed Burglar. Mere theft is still illegal, but escapades performed with style and panache? That’s another matter.

Drake is very good at flamboyant theft, which permits him to continue enjoying a life of pampered luxury despite recent setbacks to the wealth and standing of his aristocratic family. Complications ensue when Drake steals the wrong object. Those who covet it might not be able to capture the charming scoundrel, but they can certainly try to kill him.


Steal the Sky by Megan E. O’Keefe

Detan Honding is a confidence man. A supremely skilled confidence man. He takes on identity after identity, scamming the gullible and then moving on.

This time Detan and his buddy Tibs have cut it too fine; they’ve stayed too long on Aransa and a quick departure is necessary. Transportation? Commodore Thratia’s elegant airship seems just the thing.

But there’s a problem. A face-shifting killer is assassinating Aransa’s ruling elite, one by one. The rulers are jumpy, paranoid. Security has been tightened. Detan needs to leave before his identity is revealed, but it’s going to be tricky. If he fails, death awaits.


Carve the Sky by Alexander Jablokov

Fine art is a wonderful thing and the priceless, enigmatic figurine at the center of this tale is of wonderful beauty. Of more interest to Lord Monboddo, however, is the material from which the artifact has been carved: pure transuranic ngomite, a relic of the mysterious, long-vanished alien Acherusians. A figurine implies a larger sample from which it was carved—find the original and reap untold wealth. It sounds so simple, save for two trifling details: Monboddo is not the only person hunting for the ngomite, and he has entirely misunderstood the treasure’s true significance.


No doubt the genre abounds with many other fine examples I could have mentioned but didn’t. Feel free to mention them in the comments.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, is one of four candidates for the 2020 Down Under Fan Fund, and is surprisingly flammable.




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