Thieftaker is the first book in a series by D.B. Jackson, introducing eighteenth-century Boston thieftaker Ethan Kaille. In the absence of a police force, if a citizen wants a thief, or stolen goods, found, then they must employ a thieftaker. Kaille, however, does not rely merely on traditional legwork – he can do magic.
Unlike many magic-is-real urban fantasy settings, this alternate 1767 Boston does not seem to have magic-users and magical beings all over the place. Magic-users – conjurers – are not common, and they risk being arrested and convicted of witchcraft by the church. Kaille understandably keeps quiet about his gift, although it’s clear that quite a few people know about it all the same. Obviously the church isn’t too zealous in hunting conjurers down, or he’d be dead.
The current case revolves around the seemingly senseless death-by-magic of a rich young woman who was, for reasons unknown, out in the street during one of the riots due to the Stamp Act. It’s clear that she was killed by a powerful conjurer, but who might this be, and why was she killed? And were other possibly-mysterious deaths related? And, again, why?
In the course of pursuing this case, Kaille gets repeatedly beaten up, kidnapped, threatened, etc. Although conjurers have the ability to heal themselves, the man must have a constitution of iron and the courage of a lion to make it to the end of the book without deciding to retire from thieftaking and take up some nice, safe, boring occupation like alligator dentistry.
The author is a historian, and he has consulted other historians in the writing of the book. The setting felt real; however, it is neither overloaded with unnecessary detail (meant to impress on the reader that the author Knows His Stuff) nor so lacking in detail that it felt bland. I was worried that the book might not make sense to someone who didn’t know the period, but I needn’t have worried. Although knowing what the Stamp Act actually was would have helped, just accepting that it was important to the characters was enough since it was only background, and not part of the plot.
On the down side, some of the dialogue was a little modern (I’m pretty sure people didn’t say ‘hi’ in the eighteenth century), but I’m against the use of deliberately ‘archaic’ speech patterns in novels – I think it causes more interference with the reader’s enjoyment of the book than it increases authenticity. I prefer to read dialogue I can just absorb rather than something I have to decode.
Although the book had a slow start for me, and I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like Kaille enough to devote my evening to his problems, in the end he grew on me. I read the book pretty much in one sitting, and did not find myself stopping reading to do something aimless. I even carried on reading through dinner, which is one of my yardsticks of is-this-a-good-book (you can keep any comments on my table manners to yourself, thank you). So I will definitely be looking out for the second one in the series.
If you like urban fantasy, with fairly low-key magic in a historically realistic setting, then you’ll probably enjoy this book.