Published by DAW Books on Oct. 1, 2002
Source: my personal collection
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Also by this author: The Serpent's Shadow, The Gates of Sleep, Phoenix and Ashes, Home from the Sea, Steadfast, Elemental Magic:, Blood Red, House of Four Winds, The Fairy Godmother, The Lark and the Wren, Owlflight, From a High Tower, Owlsight, Owlknight, Closer to Home, Hunter, Closer to the Heart, A Study in Sable, Closer to the Chest, Beyond, Gryphon in Light
Mercedes Lackey's triumphant return to the best-selling world of Valdemar, Take a Thief reveals the untold story of Skif--a popular character from Lackey's first published novel, Arrows of the Queen.Skif was an orphan who would have died from malnutrition and exposure if he had never met Deke the pickpocket. By the time he was twelve, Skif was an accomplished cat burglar. But it wasn't until he decided to steal a finely tacked-out white horse, which was, oddly enough, standing unattended in the street, that this young thief discovered that the tables could turn on him--and that he himself could be stolen!
If you’ve read Lackey’s Valdemar books, chances are you’re familiar with Skif, the former thief and Talia’s friend and fellow trainee in Arrows of the Queen. (He’s also in Arrow’s Flight and Arrow’s Fall, and has a larger role in the Mage Winds trilogy.) Take a Thief is Skif’s backstory: his childhood, years as a thief, and first year as a Herald Trainee. And apart from a few small inconsistencies with both earlier and later books, it’s fairly well done.
Skif is one of those “charming rogues” that are all but ubiquitous in fantasy. A thief by necessity, his essentially good-hearted nature and sense of justice are never in question. For instance, even as a youngster, he looks out for a younger girl attending the same compulsory school. He’s a scamp, no question, but a likeable scamp, who does what he must to survive. Once he takes up with the thief-master Bazie, Skif doesn’t prey on those who can’t afford it; his targets are always the well-to-do. He’s loyal to Bazie, his substitute father, and considers Bazie’s “boys” his family – to the extent that when the unthinkable happens, Skif single-mindedly pursues justice/revenge. (The two are somewhat intertwined due to his rage and grief; he does eventually sort out the difference.) This gives him more complexity than the typical “charming rogue,” and matches well with the more complex man we come to know in the Mage Winds trilogy.
Bazie, the thief-master, is no Fagin. He cares for his boys and has a surprisingly sophisticated sociopolitical awareness. His rules are sensible and down-to-earth (stay clean so your odor doesn’t betray you when you’re sneaking around; “don’t mess yer nest” – in other words, don’t steal within your own neighborhood.) Yet as a former mercenary, he has some concept of how the wider world works, and a healthy respect for Heralds, which he tries to impart to his boys.
Heralds hold a unique place in Valdemaran society; they serve as an alternate and impartial justice system, communications network, army/national guard auxiliary, and occasionally espionage agency. They are, essentially, the monarch’s arms, legs, and voice, and they hold the country together. The characteristic they all share is an overwhelming devotion to helping others, to making the world a better place. They are trusted in large part because of their bonds with their Companions, white “horses” with human intelligence. Heralds can’t volunteer; they are Chosen, each by his or her Companion, and Companions simply don’t make mistakes.
As a thief, Skif is one of the more unusual Chosen, and the way his Companion Cymry comes for him is priceless. Watching Skif adjust to the idea of being a Herald is both fun and funny, and occasionally moving as well. The interplay between Skif and Herald Alberich, the Heralds’ Weaponsmaster, is also entertaining, and it opens a window into Alberich’s character that previously published books only gave occasional glimpses of. (Take a Thief was written before Exile’s Honor, the first in a duology detailing Alberich’s back story.)
One of Lackey’s strengths as a writer is her ability to bring the setting to life, and to make the everyday interesting. While SKif’s essential goodness may be a little hard to believe given the harshness of his early childhood, Lackey doesn’t sugarcoat the world in which he lives: the dirt and squalor, the things people will do to get by, the homeless children, the sexual slavery. Her honesty, and the detail she invests in both setting and the characters’ thoughts and actions, give the book substance, while the humor of some of the situations gives it buoyancy.
I’m of two minds whether to recommend Take a Thief as an introduction to Lackey’s work. It’s readable and entertaining, and you don’t actually have to know anything about Valdemar or the Heralds to enjoy it. On the other hand, if you do have some familiarity with Heralds and Companions, you’ll appreciate some of the scenes more than you might otherwise. Either way, I think you’ll have fun!