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The International Writers Magazine: Review

The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice, by Stephen Deas
Publisher: Gollancz (19 Aug 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0575094482
Clare Sager
Stephen Deas’ The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice is a difficult book to review: on the one hand, I finished and even enjoyed it, but on the other hand, it was a frustrating read at times. 


This is a young adult novel, grittier than most, with a protagonist fascinated by violence and several scenes of graphic hack’n’slash.  Neither of these are necessarily bad things, but something to bear in mind if considering the book for your ten-year-old nephew who faints at the mention of blood. 
            It tells the coming-of-age tale of Berren, a boy of around 14 who works for a Fagin-esque Master Hatchet shovelling shit and cutting purses.  One day he picks the wrong pocket and suddenly finds himself living on the right side of the law, becoming, as the title suggests, the thief-taker’s apprentice.  Needless to say, it isn’t an easy apprenticeship and Berren finds himself facing threats old and new.  Even his new master, Syannis (mysterious, touchy about his past, unpredictable), isn’t exactly the safest guy to be around especially when they uncover a piracy plot that exposes them both to dangers beyond their expectations.  The story starts off well, but is not ‘unputdownable’, however about a third of the way through, the pace picks up and Berren becomes more likeable and less passive.
            Deas paints his fantasy world with flair and adds some interesting details, particularly around the religion and Deephaven, Berren’s home city.  Similarly, his main character is written for the most part convincingly and with his fair share of flaws.  Generally, Berren is a believable character, but he does have his moments that leave the reader wondering what on earth he’s doing – of course people don’t always act logically, but Berren seems to do things that are too obviously foolish too often.  That was one of my main frustrations with the novel. 
            The other irritation was that while the writing was for the most part great (definitely above average compared with many fantasy books you see on the shelves), there were times where it seemed repetitive or even redundant (with over-description of character actions, for instance), which came across as slightly patronising towards the reader.  Perhaps it would have been easier to overlook these failings if the back-cover copy did not compare Deas to Brent Weeks (one of the ‘new generation’ of fantasy authors who also writes about the underworld of a fantasy city) and Robin Hobb (master of believably flawed characters and world-builder par excellence).  As it is, his publishers do make the comparison and this novel does not live up to it.
            Having said that, I did enjoy the story and the two central characters, I would probably read a sequel and I would consider his other books next time I’m browsing the fantasy section. This apprentice has potential. Please, Mr Deas, can I have some more?
© Clare Sager July 2010

Clare is writing her own fantasy novel and has an MA in Creative Writing from a South Coast University
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