City of the Uncommon Thief by Lynne Bertrand
Penguin, hb, £11.75
Reviewed by John C. Adams
When you hold a book by an author you’ve not encountered before, part of the joy comes in trying to work out genre and target audience. It’s a big part of deciding whether to take that book to the checkout or to put it back on the shelf and keep browsing. So I was intrigued by what was at work here because the dust cover back blurb was very limited, and the carefully crafted cover image was similarly mysterious.
Before I start, I want to state my only issue with the book is not any of the below, and most definitely not the author’s writing, which was excellent. It was quite simply that the hardback review copy supplied to be had ink smudges across almost every page. This may or may not have been caused by production issues arising out of the fact that some pages contained nothing but bold text, a device used to indicate when the storyteller was telling a tale rather than narrating the book. However, I’m not sure how this specific copy got through quality control to make its way into the hands of a reviewer. Oops.
Anyway, on with the review.
The inside-front cover provided a blurb that made the novel sound like it would be a fantasy of the Trudi Canavan, John Gwynne and Cinda Williams Chima ilk, featuring teenage heroes and heroines struggling against poverty in a fantasy universe of cut-throats where magic could be the hidden weapon they needed to stay alive and even-up the odds a little. But the references to Homer and Virgil in the first few pages of text showed that, in fact, the fictional world was our own. I tried to locate the novel in time, in case it was historical fiction, but found it peppered with so many references throughout the text to different authors from various time periods that I concluded it was supposed to be set in all and none. A sort of generic literary location within a melting pot of a city. This was an interesting idea.
The target audience wasn’t entirely clear to me, even by the end of the book. The back dust cover provided a web link to Penguin teen, but the Dutton imprint is Penguin’s boutique imprint aimed at adults. The style, tone and content didn’t seem likely to appeal to a teenage audience; in fact, it seemed likely to interest mature readers with literary tastes. Yet the maps at the front felt quite childlike, a style I wouldn’t be surprised to discover gracing the pages of a younger audience’s book. Again, a melting pot seemed to be taking place.
None of that mattered. After all, some novels simply can’t be categorised easily and over time, that turns out to be what readers love most about them. In the great ocean of Goodreads and Amazon reviews, cutting-edge algorithms take care of who might be interested in buying it by analysing an immense amount of information in seconds. Maybe blurbs and covers don’t matter like they once did when you’re buying online.
Bertrand is undeniably a writer of real talent with a bright future at the literary end of the spectrum. This is her first novel. The confidence with which form was handled in the storyteller’s presence in the narrative, moving from postmodern self-awareness and back again, suggests an interest in literary theory. I would expect to see more experimental works in the future emerging from her thoughtful style, which certainly possessed the heavyweight literary quality required to sustain that kind of material.
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