Happy Tuesday, bibliophiles!
I forget exactly where I first heard about Little Thieves, but I think it may have been from seeing other people’s reviews here in the blogosphere. Now that I’ve read it, let me just say this: whoever’s review it was that inspired me to pick up this book, thank you so much. YA fantasy has started to become formulaic for me at worst, but Little Thieves was filled with charm, humor, and refreshing spins on the subgenre as a whole. Enjoy this week’s review!
Vanja Schmidt is the thirteenth daughter of a thirteenth daughter. Her mother knew how bad her luck would be, so when she was a child, she surrendered her daughter to be raised by the goddesses of Death and Fortune. But as Vanja grows older, she doesn’t seek to follow the paths of her surrogate parents and runs off on her own, making a living swindling and picking pockets. Vanja’s swindling gets as far as the royal palace, and with the theft of a charmed necklace of pearls, she assumes the identity of Princess Gisele.
But Vanja’s life of crime has attracted unwanted attention. When a Low God curses her body to turn to jewels at the full moon, Vanja must retrace her steps and right her past wrongs. Her trail of thievery will reach into the heart of a conspiracy that leads to Princess Gisele’s betrothed, and soon, Vanja realizes that she’s in for more than she bargained for.
TW/CW: child abuse, animal death, blood, descriptions of injury, sexual harassment
Barely halfway through the first month of the year, and I’m already running into books this good? SUCH a relief after the brief slump I was just in…
YA fantasies—fairytale retellings in particular—are books that I’ve started to steer away from slightly; over the years, they’ve gotten blatantly formulaic for me, and it’s rare that any have an impact on me anymore. It feels sad saying that, but after a while, I just got sick of all the secret royalty and love triangles and the lack of good worldbuilding. But Little Thieves showed me that there’s still faith in a sputtering subgenre and treated me to an exceptionally fun time!
It’s been a while since I’ve read a fairytale retelling—after a while, there are only so many Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast retellings one can take. But Little Thieves retold a fairytale that I hadn’t even heard of before—The Goose Girl, written by the Brothers Grimm. It also puts a spin on the fairytale’s antagonist, making her the main character and giving her more nuance and motives. From the first page, Little Thieves felt like a breath of fresh air into a tired genre, and I am all the better for it.
Owen’s vibrant characters seemed to leap off the page, and each and every one of the main cast won my heart in record time. They were all so distinct: Vanja with her determination and sass, Emeric’s delightfully uptight and sensitive demeanor, and the absolute chaos that was Ragne; I got attached to most of the main cast fairly quickly, which is certainly a rare occurrence for me. Little Thieves is also one of the only YA books I can think of that actually gets a morally gray protagonist right. “Morally gray” characters have almost become a buzzword after the success of books like Six of Crows, but most of the time, they just end up being characters that Do Crimes™️ but they have a Tragic Backstory™️ so they’re a Complex Character™️. Vanja, however, actually felt morally gray—her way of life, however shady her dealings and actions were—was her way of survival and defiance. Maybe that’s what happens when you’re raised by two surrogate moms that also happen to be the goddesses of Death and Fortune, but either way, it was refreshingly well-executed.
For the most part, I was also a fan of the writing style! It reminded me a lot of Ashley Poston—it was very cheeky and filled with humor, which matched Vanja’s voice perfectly, but it was also capable of plenty of nuance and depth, resulting in some spectacular bits of prose. Some of the humor bordered on meme-y at times, which was more than a little jarring, but in comparison to the rest of the book, I can let it slide. It’s the kind of charming writing that made me laugh, smile, and swoon, and it suited Owens’ story wonderfully.
The worldbuilding was also excellent, and I loved exploring the pseudo-German, medieval setting! It’s clear that Owens spent lots of time and energy into not only making a fleshed-out world with the appropriate amount of history and constraints, but also trying to stay faithful to German folklore and the original Brothers Grimm tale. All of the gods, shapeshifters, and other creatures were a delight—another reason why I’m a little bored with most YA fantasy is because they often shy away from having lots of mythical creatures (in place of just slapping a magic system onto a vaguely European setting), so, like so many other aspects of Little Thieves, this was such a breath of fresh air. I know I sound like a broken record every time I say that, but that’s seriously how reading all 500+ pages of this book felt.
Going off of that, I loved the casual queerness in Little Thieves! With a lot of fantasy settings where queerness is present, homophobia is still present because there’s a misconception that an ancient/older setting automatically equals homophobia/transphobia. I get the purpose of that on some level if the book is trying to share a message or theme about homophobia or transphobia, but on the other hand, if you can have a complex magic system and dragons, the concept of homophobia not being a thing in your fantasy world isn’t that strenuous of a stretch to make. Owens once again bashes all of these fantasy tropes and integrates queerness into her worldbuilding as something normal, and it made my heart so happy. Although no labels are specifically used in the book, Vanja and Emeric are both implied to be somewhere on the demisexual/asexual spectrum, Gisele is implied to be a lesbian (and later is in a relationship with Ragne), and there are several nonbinary and gender nonconforming side characters! More queer fantasy like this, please! (Also, I just loved Emeric and Vanja together. Just Love Them So Much)
All in all, a rare YA fairytale retelling that subverts all of the tropes of the genre and dazzles with its nuance and charm. 4.5 stars!
Little Thieves is the first in the trilogy, followed by Painted Devils (slated for release later this year) and an untitled third book. Margaret Owens is also the author of the Merciful Crow series, which consists of The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!