The Thief’s Gamble is a difficult book to review. The difficulty arises primarily from the same thing that my lukewarm 3-star rating does: the uneven, jam-packed narrative and the periodic confusion that it caused. The narrative is really three-fold: (1) the main story, as seen through the eyes of Livak, a tough, lucky female thief who stumbles into a quest for artifacts that may somehow be linked to a lost race and new kind of magic; (2) near-simultaneous events occurring elsewhere, told from a third-person viewpoint but focusing on an irritating, pompous minor wizard, Casuel; and (3) excerpts from treatises in the fantasy world that are supposed to provide key information to understanding things that will soon happen. The problem, in a nutshell, was that there were just too many things — a pantheon/religious system that is only explained piecemeal; systems of magic explained sometimes in too much or too little detail for comprehension; scenes where you can’t tell how many wizards are talking in a room or exactly which villain is which in a combat; etc.
To the McKenna’s credit, Livak is an engaging protagonist, and her narrative (often filled with clever details of thieving) is usually fun to read. Just when things tend to get moving, though, the next chapter begins with a dense passage from a treatise or, worse, whatever Casuel is doing — and the frustrating thing (having read it through now) is that he really is only a bit player in the story! Why so much of the story focuses on him (an unlikeable character) is a mystery to me, as is using “stuff the chicken” repeatedly as a synonym for sex and having the wizard Livak accompanies declare his homosexuality (apparently for no other reason than to make it a “modern” fantasy) when to keep him straight might have actually done more for inter-character tensions and connections. (And the name for the main villain is “The Iceman”…)
One bright note is that Juliet McKenna’s writing does seem to improve in both substance and style as The Thief’s Gamble progresses (although the final battle scene is still a mess). I don’t know whether the next books in the series benefit from tighter, cleaner plotting and description, but on the strength of The Thief’s Gamble, I’d recommend Robin Hobb‘s Liveship Traders series if you’re looking for a strong, vibrant female protagonist (and fascinating story). A library loan or used book buy at best.
Tale of Einarinn — (1999-2012) Publisher: Livak is a part-time thief and full-time gambler, long accustomed to living by her wits and and narrowly avoiding serious trouble. When she attempts to sell a stolen antique to a passing merchant, she finds herself pulled into a new and dangerous world of political intrigue in which the stakes are higher than anyone involved can imagine. For the antique she has acquired dates from a particular period in the history of Einarinn about which little is known, but much has been speculated. When the truth begins to emerge, Livak decides to take the greatest gamble of her life.