Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: THIEF'S COVENANT by Ari Marmell

Once she was Adrienne Satti. An orphan of Davillon, she had somehow escaped destitution and climbed to the ranks of the city’s aristocracy in a rags-to-riches story straight from an ancient fairy tale. Until one horrid night, when a conspiracy of forces—human and other—stole it all away in a flurry of blood and murder.

Today she is Widdershins, a thief making her way through Davillon’s underbelly with a sharp blade, a sharper wit, and the mystical aid of Olgun, a foreign god with no other worshippers but Widdershins herself. It’s not a great life, certainly nothing compared to the one she once had, but it’s hers.

But now, in the midst of Davillon’s political turmoil, an array of hands are once again rising up against her, prepared to tear down all that she’s built. The City Guard wants her in prison. Members of her own Guild want her dead. And something horrid, something dark, something ancient is reaching out for her, a past that refuses to let her go. Widdershins and Olgun are going to find answers, and justice, for what happened to her—but only if those who almost destroyed her in those years gone by don’t finish the job first.
I bought this book on a whim several months ago, goaded by recommendations and the book's unique title. I'm a sucker for thieves, and a girl thief named Widdershins was too good to pass up.

The book opens with Adrienne (Widdershins) clinging to the rafters of a secret room in a blood-soaked gown. Below her, the room turns red as friends are slaughtered by an unidentified being. Then we watch as, some time later, the Davillon City Guard enters to view the carnage. Adrienne remains in the rafters, watching and conspiring frantically with the god inside her head.

I love an opener that encapsulates the feel of a novel.

Widdershins, we are told in the beginning, is an adverb that means "in a direction contrary to the apparent course of the sun; clockwise." The girl Widdershins is certainly contrary enough to fit the bill. She was born to a poor family, made an orphan, turned into a thief, adopted by a member of the aristocracy, and then thrust back into the shadows again once she is suspected of playing a part in the deaths of her friends. She is snarky, headstrong, reckless, and frequently argues out loud with Olgun, the demi-god who takes a special interest in her survival.

The story jumps (somewhat annoyingly, at times) back and forth between the present and various times in the past. The bloodbath at the beginning of the book was labelled "Two Years Ago." We then jump back further to "Eight Years Ago" and learn the circumstances of Adrienne's orphanhood. Then, quick as a flash, we're back in the present as Widdershins scopes out a jewelry heist. Fun lass.

I'll admit, other than the chilling bloodbath in first pages, much of the beginning made me wary. I was thrown off-balance by the many changes in setting and time (a trend that continued the length of the book), and so much seemed set up to impress upon us how clever Widdershins is, how resourceful, how funny.

Still, I did find Widdershins/Adrienne to be very clever in a dry way and also very resourceful. Then again, when one resource is a demi-god, it tips the scales a bit. Olgun and his brethren reminded me of the system set up by Tamora Pierce in her Tortall books, with Olgun specifically linked with Kyprioth in the Trickster series. Olgun is neither omniscient, omnipotent, nor omnipresent. As Adrienne is his sole living believer, he focuses his attention on her exclusively (except in parts when he is inexplicably absent) and only has limited power. He is also a tad reckless, pushy, and sarcastic, which is always fun in a fictional god.

Other than Olgun, Adrienne's friends total at three: Genevieve the tavern owner and requisite mother figure, her serving maid Robin, and fellow thief Renard. Genevieve and Robin are the ones our thief went to when she needed to rest or hide. Both are valiant defenders, and I enjoyed them greatly, but Renard was by far my favorite. Short and flirty, he has the knack of popping up right after Widdershins extricates herself from trouble. He has an obvious crush on our thief (as well as one other secret that I guessed almost immediately) and comes across as shallowly built in the beginning but is allowed to deepen some as the book progresses. My other favorite character, who isn't precisely Adrienne's friend, is Julien Bouniard, the captain of the Davillon City Guard. He is placed in the role of the respectful adversary to Widdershins' honorable thief and does a marvelous job.

Back to dear Widdy. Despite some poor choices on her part, she was hardly a weak-wristed damsel in distress, which I loved. In fact, she managed to get into more scrapes in this book than I've seen a character manage in long time. In this story, she catches the attention of several different groups of unsavory characters. Well, the Davillon City Guard is hardly unsavory, but Julien has his sights set on justice for both Widdershins the thief and Adrienne the murder suspect. Then there's the Finders' Guild, a sort of thieves' union that has it out for Adrienne when she falls behind on her dues. Its tax collector, Lisette, has had a grudge against Widdy for ages. Oh, and let's not forget whoever ordered the violent murders of Adrienne's friends, a someone who very much dislikes loose ends and living witnesses...

As you can see, our lady thief has quite a full plate. The three groups of antagonists twist around each other, weaving together until I wasn't sure who to blame for what. This blending is important, as it helped keep the identity of the power behind the murderous monster a secret until the end. It also got a little confusing, so I'm still not entirely sure that all the threads were plausibly wrapped up.

The entire book was hard to follow in places, actually, and not just because of the different antagonists. In addition to the weaving threads, I also had to keep track of the shifting timelines and the different viewpoints. The shifting timelines were more annoying than anything else. Based on what happens in the present, I was able to construct what happened in the past long before the events were confirmed, which made the retelling drag in places. However, I will say that when the past wraps up into the moment when Adrienne becomes Widdershins, the emotional impact was worth it.

I can't, however, say the same for the various viewpoints. The narration of Thief's Covenant was a touch too omniscient for my taste. It's one thing to ditch the protagonist and follow different people around from time to time. It's another thing entirely to constantly be given direct thoughts from ancillary characters. I didn't want to hear Renard think about how chagrined he was for doing something stupid in front of Adrienne. I wanted to see it through his actions and body language. Show not tell!

This book, in places
To be honest, I was a little stunned to find out that Thief's Covenant was traditionally published. While an engaging and adventurous story, it lacked a great deal of editing that could have made it shine. The shifting viewpoints should have been cut, the details sharpened, the changing timelines streamlined. Even the language was off in places. Despite the thoroughly French names, Widdershins' world is portrayed as straight fantasy. For the most part, the voice fits, but then the author would throw in strange things like a reference to castanets or an octopus or would use the word "weird." Each time, I was jerked from my immersion as I stopped to wonder, "Would these characters REALLY know to use that word?"


Yes, this book made me grumpy and frustrated in places. Honestly, though, I enjoyed myself. It had hints of other books I adore, such as the aforementioned Trickster series and The Thief. However, I'd like to see a more professionally put-together story in the next book. (I'd also like a book told solely from Renard's point of view, but I suppose I can't have everything.) If you like snarky gods in a polytheistic society, even snarkier thieves, and gory mysteries, I suggest you check out Thief's Covenant. Just don't encourage Widdy to steal Julien's keys. He hates that.

Points Added For: Widdershins in all her feisty glory, Olgun and his quirkiness, Julien and Renard, being able to work in an affable archbishop, the shrouded statue giving me chills, the overall entertainment factor.

Points Subtracted For: Lack of editing, including but not limited to word usage, omniscient viewpoints, tangled storylines, and shfiting timelines.

Good For Fans Of: Tamora Pierce, polytheistic societies, lady thieves, the trope of a mutual respect between a crook and a lawkeeper.

Notes For Parents: Language, gore, murder, polytheism, drinking. I also have some vague memory of certain inappropriate body parts coming up in conversation.

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