Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson tells the story of Ethan Kaille, a man with a checkered past, who uses his conjuring skills to track down thieves and return stolen goods to their owners. When the daughter of a prominent citizen is found killed by non-conventional means, Ethan is hired to track down her missing brooch and to shed light on her murder. Tor McMillan was kind enough to send me a copy of this book to review. Here are my thoughts.
D.B. Jackson's writing style is light, easily accessible and engaging. It was very easy to become drawn into the story and to empathise with Ethan, the protagonist. Set in mid 18th century Boston, the book is a fun blend of historical drama, fantasy and murder mystery. Now, I am neither American nor a student of American history, so I am unfamiliar with the historical events referenced in this novel – The Stamp Act of 1765, The Sons of Liberty, the riots in Boston – but I was inspired to read more about this period of American history. I was intrigued to read in the author's note that the novel was originally set in a fictional world and that it was his editor who persuaded him to change the setting to 18th century Boston. It's remarkable how well that change worked and how seamlessly D.B. Jackson has woven historical events into his narrative.
The fantastical aspect of the novel is relatively subtle. D.B. Jackson's Boston is grounded in realism except that certain people can cast magic spells. The magic system is well thought out and reasonably well explained. I would have appreciated perhaps having the limitations of the system made clearer; sometimes it's as interesting knowing what a character cannot do as what he can do.
The plot is driven by the murder mystery aspect of the novel. It is what brings our protagonist into the situation, and all the other action follows from his involvement. I felt it was nicely done that right from the beginning Ethan admitted he was out of his depth, that murder isn't usually something he investigates. Having said that, this was the aspect of the novel that I, personally, found the weakest. That is not to say it was poorly done; I suspect I just have very high standards when it comes to crime mysteries – I'm thinking of the BBC's recent adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps I simply missed the clues, but I felt that the identity of the murderer came out of left field somewhat.
Naturally, when there is a mix of genres, some things get lost. The historical detail isn't quite as rich as it might have been in a purely historical novel; the murder mystery isn't quite as well planned out as a pure murder mystery; the magic system isn't quite as well developed as in a purely fantasy novel. (incidentally, regarding magic systems, it's well worth checking out Brandon Sanderson's article on their development).
All that being said, in the case of Thieftaker, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The blend of genres that D.B. Jackson has created works extremely well and makes a fun, interesting read. I would definitely recommend it, and have also picked up the short story set in the same world from Tor.
I gave Thieftaker four out of five stars.