The Thief’s Gamble is the debut novel of British fantasy writer Juliet E. McKenna and is the first installment in The Tales of Einarinn epic series. Though it may seem as yet another clichéd fantasy tale, which I keep on coming across lately, the story is infused with ironic and rather intriguing plot twists that mark the book as definitely above the mediocre level.
The plot is focused on the adventures of the joke-cracking, witty and thievish character of Livak, who casts the runes deviously, does not care for the consequences and therefore, manages to earn a decent livelihood. But a shortage of gold forces her to rob a noble’s house and from this point on, her life becomes a mishmash of magic, blood and love.
Hadrumal, the island and sanctuary of elemental wizards, is a place dreaded and found intimidating by ordinary people. However, the magi have stumbled across a jumble of ancient objects which give their owners the ability to dream of a mighty Empire lost in the carnage of chaos centuries ago. Are these artefacts actually remains of the ancient knowledge, of the old magic, which kept the Empire whole and inalienable?
Hired by agents of the archwizard, with sudden and uncharacteristic reluctance but with prospects to show off her abilities, Livak is now entangled into an inevitable intercontinental war, as an unknown race (which is strangely reminiscent of Vikings) roams unchecked, killing and demolishing, with powers completely inexplicable.
Juliet McKenna has succeeded in developing an immense world divided into numerous pieces by greedy fractions and frail alliances. So far as her worldbuilding skills are concerned, she is one of the best in the genre, as she manages not only to enliven Einarinn with a jumble of authentic and original individuals, but also creates dynamical and intense relationships that contribute to a certain level of plausibility.
In The Thief’s Gamble we face an engrossing plot, which might suffer from stereotypes of the fantasy genre but is presented masterfully, and all the prerequisites that should turn The Tales of Einarinn series into a solid debut have been met. For me, though, the main inadequacy of the book is the mixing of humorous scenes with unaccountable cruelty, like depictions of rapes and murders, which are definitely not suitable for all audiences. Nevertheless, violence in literature is nowadays largely regarded as normal, so this minor flaw cannot outshine the indisputable assets of the novel.
Fortunately, the protagonists are well-developed and likeable; only those few who join the group of companions later on lack decent background and motivation. Livak as a main character is an enigmatic figure, impulsive and entertaining in her somewhat ruthless and practical logic. In conclusion, The Thief’s Gamble offers a multitude of amusing characters, original manifestations of magic, a mixture of politics and intrigue, as well as a vast world yet to be discovered – thus, Juliet E. McKenna has every right to be considered one of the best adventure fantasy writers out there.