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The protagonist of Helen Harper’s urban fantasy Gifted Thief lives the first eleven years of her life without a name. An orphan among the Highland Sidhe, she’s so despised that no one bothers giving her one. She lives in a castle, the ward of a nobleman, ignored or bullied until she escapes to the world of human beings. There she makes a life for herself with the help of a newfound human friend, Taylor. She names herself Integrity.

Taylor is a thief, so Integrity enters that profession.

Years later, she’s working with him and a team of magical characters, each with specialized skills. They look for high value targets, so when Taylor hears about a rare sapphire kept in a bank vault, he dispatches the team to acquire it. Integrity and her friends scale the building and break into the vault — only to find the sapphire isn’t there! Worse, Taylor has been lured into the debt of dangerous people. He needs money fast.

Then the trap closes. The debt and the elusive jewel are part of a Sidhe plot to force Integrity back to their lands. But why? For years they haven’t bothered coming after her.

Except in the prologue, the story is narrated by Integrity, and one of the novel’s attractions is her voice. She’s a funny, insightful, and self-deprecating narrator — the most likable protagonist I’ve encountered in a while. The band of thieves are endearing in their kindness and loyalty to one another. And then there’s the comical genie trapped in the letter opener.

Overall, the story is a bit too sweet for my tastes until the Sidhe show up. They come off as arrogant, vain, and treacherous — an entrenched aristocracy interested only in wealth and power.

With one or two possible exceptions.

Byron, the handsome son of a clan leader, may be hiding goodness beneath his jaded playboy exterior. He’s attracted to Integrity and offers to help her. Although she’s attracted to him, she refuses to give him her trust. He’s a Sidhe and she despises them all. Worse, he’s one of the Sidhe who made her childhood miserable. The romance between the two follows a predictable course of miscues and misunderstanding.

But once she returns to Sidhe lands, Integrity needs his help. She can’t be choosy about her allies as it becomes clear that the clan leaders mean to kill her once they have no more use for her.

Despite the danger, her return finally gives her an opportunity to find out about her parents and who she truly is. The search for identity is a central theme in literature, and Integrity’s quest adds weight to a story that occasionally seems frivolous.

I began Gifted Thief thinking it was pleasant fluff. But Integrity changed my mind. She likes to crack silly jokes, but she’s serious about defending herself and protecting her friends. By the end I loved her and hoped for her eventual triumph.

Gifted Thief is the first book of Harper’s Highland Magic series. The next one, Honour Bound, will be released on February 29.

I’m always on the lookout for a good urban fantasy. I found a great one in R.L. King’s The Threshold, the third book in a series chronicling the adventures of mage Alistair Stone. Alistair is a white mage; he doesn’t power his spells by siphoning the life force of other human beings.  In The Threshold, Alistair and his companions, Verity Thayer and her brother, Jason, are battling an extra-dimensional enemy called the Evil that feed on human emotions and seek world domination. The trio must find and destroy the portals through which the Evil are invading this world.

As incorporeal beings the Evil can possess the bodies of most humans, but not the bodies of mages, although a few black mages allow themselves to be possessed  in exchange for the power the Evil  gives them. A mysterious group known as the Forgotten are also immune to possession. The special abilities of the Forgotten come with a downside: — they suffer from various mental disorders that make it difficult for them to function in society. Most of the Forgotten are homeless.

The story moves briskly without sacrificing the descriptive detail so necessary to this genre. The author weaves the magic seamlessly into a very concrete everyday reality. The extra-dimensional portal in the basement of an Indian restaurant, aptly named A Passage to India, seems as real and believable as a broom closet.

Alistair and his companions are altogether sympathetic. I prefer antiheroes, so this threesome is a bit too white magic for me. But their quirks and passions keep them from being bland. Englishman Alistair comes across as a typical college professor, unconventional and sometimes acerbic. His mysterious past makes him intriguing. Teenager Verity is both Forgotten and a mage. Apprenticed to Alistair, she is discovering her abilities as she wrestles with the problems of adolescence. Jason’s only gift is the ability to power Alistair’s spells without depleting himself, a kind of magical battery, but his fierce love for his sister makes him stand out.

Secondary characters are well-drawn, even those who make only a brief appearance. Eleanor Pearsall, the white mage in the opening chapter, is so sweet that it hurts when she’s ambushed by the Evil. And gray mage Trevor Harrison is so compelling that I wish he had a larger role in the story.

Later books in a series are tricky. Often the beginning gets bogged down by exposition or the story cannot stand on its own. King avoids both these pitfalls. She gives just enough information so readers can understand what’s going on. At times the Evil seems like an abstract menace, though, and the trio’s history with the Forgotten feels thin. After finishing The Threshold I backed up and read The Forgotten, which filled in everything that was missing — and more. The first book, Stone and a Hard Place, tells a separate story featuring Alistair Stone.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, you don’t want to miss this series. You can read The Threshold first, like I did, but for the optimal experience, start with The Forgotten. Or better yet, Stone and a Hard Place. Once you enter the world of Alistair Stone, you won’t want to leave. And you won’t have to. The Source: Book Four of the Alistair Stone Chronicles, is coming soon.

 

 

The Threshold Cover