After an interminable time where reading was a challenge, or I could only read nonfiction, or my brain simply refused to remember anything about the books I read, I picked up City of the Uncommon Thief and read it in two days straight. Lynne Bertrand’s first YA novel is a puzzle box, a mystery, a feat of constrained world-building, and a tale about growing up fed as much on old tales as on anything edible. It’s not a pandemic novel. But it does involve a lot of people who can’t go outside.
The inhabitants of a walled city live in a thousand doorless towers. There are no animals here, no plants. Each tower is home to a guild, and each guild produces a certain item: barrels, beads, fireworks, astrolabes. Once a year, ships come bearing everything they need to live and keep working. The sailors, who fear the city’s residents, take all their beautiful creations out into the world. Names and languages suggest there are people from all over the world in the city, but everyone within is cut off from their own history, their own place and time. There’s no way to live as part of the world when they don’t know how they fit into it.
Apart from two important bookending sections, City of the Uncommon Thief is told by Odd Thebes, a polyglot youth and one of the handful of runners who live on the roof of Thebes tower (export: knitting needles). Runners are daredevils of transit: they leap from towers, run ropes, cross planks, scorn the need to connect themselves to wires and flylines. Rumor has it that the towers are a mile high. People do not set foot on the streets, far, far below, unless they are dropped there as punishment. Everyone else lives indoors, working, incessantly working for the guild.
Odd’s story weaves around in time, skipping back to slowly cover much of his young life and the lives of two other major characters: Errol Thebes, Odd’s cousin, and Jamila Foundling, one of the orphans who eke out a living in the tower morgue. Foundlings are scorned, ignored, treated cruelly, but Jamila is resourceful and clever, and capable of more than anyone assumes.
At the outset, two new runners steal a strange pair of knotting spikes. It’s just supposed to be a prank, but they steal from the regnat, who rules over the city from a tower in a neighboring district. Why the regnat is so obsessed with these spikes, what they do, and what it means for the city—all of these things will become clear. But they become clear in the pursuit of other truths: the truth of Odd’s family, and the histories of his friends; the truth of the city’s limited exchanges with the outside world; and the truth of the lives lived all the way down at the bottom of the towers, in the shadows and muck.
So very, very much happens here: near-starvation; celebration; heartbreak; the crushing obligation of tradition; the drudgery of work without hope. In Thebes, everyone’s name comes from one of the books or scrolls stashed in the library. These stories form a framework for life, like stories always do, and Odd has his favorites: Ovid, the bee wolf (the kids’ name for Beowulf), the grail knights. They are largely stories about men and power, which shapes how he tells his own story, in which Errol is the hero and Jamila the prize. If I would’ve liked to see more of Jamila’s perspective, well, that’s kind of the point: When you’re raised on a certain kind of narrative, it can be hard to see your own story through any other lens.
City of the Uncommon Thief is dizzying and bright, a masterful novel that sits somewhere in the space between Frances Hardinge and Philip Pullman. It’s literary and demands your full attention—Bertrand rarely stops to explain anything, but everything becomes clear in time—but the drastic difference between the roofs and the towers, the towers and the streets, makes for a dynamic, occasionally gruesome, and intricately knit tale. The system is corrupt; the system is doing what it is meant to do. The people are exhausted; the people are just trying to get through their days. What stirs them up is a kind of magic, a strange creature, and maybe the hand of something else unseen.
This unnamed city has some peers in other novels for young readers: The City of Ember, with its underground world (also corrupt and troubled); the towering, mobile predator cities of Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines; and sure, it’s not technically for young readers, but I encountered Tolkien’s Minas Tirith as a tween and never forgot it. This city, jammed full of trapped craftsman, curious teens, dreamers and inventors and people doing their best (and sometimes worst) in an impossible situation—it got to me. It stuck its knitting spikes straight into my reference-loving heart and pulled.
Every reader will find their own path through City of the Uncommon Thief—a path shaped by their own personal references, by the names that jar associations for them, the snippets of language that ring bells, the whispers of stories barely remembered. Bertrand’s answer to a recent interview question gives a sense of the breadth of her interests—ancient mining! tattoo methods! perfume reviews! etymology!—but you needn’t have her knowledge base to appreciate Odd’s story, which is as much about the teller as it is about the adventures contained herein. One of Odd’s touchstones is Parsival, the grail knight, whose presence in these pages spurs two important questions. The way the story is structured—told looking back, but with crushing immediacy—is balanced by the two bookend sections, which are a vital reminder that one person’s version of a story is inherently limited, no matter how many stories they’ve heard or read. There’s so much more happening outside Odd’s focus, and many ambitions yet unreached.
And there are also mysteries left unsolved—though City rises to a symphonic, impressively satisfying finale. I’ve no idea if there will ever be a sequel; there doesn’t need to be one, yet I’m craving more of the city’s secrets. It has a thousand towers. If this is what happens with Odd and his friends, what’s happening in the rest of them? How do the fleet-footed runners not grow depressed when they grow up and become apprentices indoors, never to run the lines again? What other mysterious objects lurk in the lively shadows? Maybe someday we’ll find out—or maybe I’ll just return to the ambitious and brilliant City of the Uncommon Thief for another jaunt through its breathtaking cityscape.
City of the Uncommon Thief is available from Dutton Books.