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Thief with No Shadow by Emily Gee
Review by Juliet McKenna
Solaris Mass Market  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781844164691
Date: 24 April 2007 List Price £3.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

Solaris continue to impress their presence on the genre with another premium fantasy debut. Thief with No Shadow is a dark, romantic fantasy written by New Zealand author Emily Gee.

"Melke is one of the most unusual thieves ever to have walked the land of Bresse, aided by the magic which courses through her veins, allowing her to become unseen. When, however, it transpires that a necklace she has stolen holds the key to both saving her brother's life and to breaking a terrible curse, she has to do the unthinkable: steal it back from one of the most dangerous places known to man – the den of the fire-breathing salamanders.

Things are about to get very tough for Melke indeed, especially when she comes to realise that the people she thought were out to get her may actually be her only allies..."

Asked to define good fantasy fiction, most people will imagine tales of kings and princes and the subtle affairs of wizards in lofty towers, all embellished with rich culture, language and myth that's frequently established by way of lengthy preliminaries to the main tale. Emily Gee's excellent debut novel is proof that turning this template on its head can be superbly effective.

The story grips from the very first page. Melke is being chased. By a hound. But she's invisible. How is it following her through this parched landscape? Set aside wondering just how she's invisible because Hantje will die if she doesn't escape. Now the dog's master is coming. Every word evocative, no word superfluous, Emily Gee's writing conveys Melke's desperation and her determination as vividly as she portrays the river the girl plunges into. At which point we see her through the eyes of the man with the dog. Bastian is pursuing a scoundrel of a thief. A wraith, an aberration of nature who can become invisible at will, not human but mere vermin. When he catches her, he'll kill her.

Melke is indeed a thief, but she only stole Bastian's necklace because it's the price she must pay to get her brother Hantje away from the salamanders. They captured him when he tried to steal treasure from their den. But when Bastian catches up with her, as she struggles to help her dreadfully wounded brother, we learn the necklace is the only key to redeeming his family from a lethal curse. How will he get it back from the salamanders? Surely his only hope is a thief who cannot be seen? That's his price for saving Hantje so Melke and Bastian's opposition must become unwilling co-operation.

As the tale unfolds, we learn both families are victims of unwanted legacies. In Melke's case magical blood runs in her veins to give the single gift of invisibility that people either fear or covet. Bastian has inherited the enmity of the psaaron, an enigmatic sea-creature from whom his grandfather's uncle first stole that necklace. Emily Gee does a splendid job of portraying two people at the limits of their endurance, with both sympathetic and less amiable traits apparent. Unsparing writing brings both Melke and Bastian to life, winding the tension ever tighter as the reader engages with them both, at the same time realising the needs of one can surely only be met at painful cost to the other. Then there's Liana, Bastian's sister, whom he's raised from a child as the curse took their parents. Her relationship with Melke turns out to be quite different. Then Hantje wakes to find out where he is and what he's done, upping the stakes still further.

While the focus is very much on these four people, the story's setting in this remote rural region far from kings and mages is worth noting, not least because it's so unobtrusive. Bastian's farm, the local town, the salamanders' den are all drawn with a light touch using telling detail to make them real. The wider world that plays no part in this story is merely the briefest of sketches. Only necessary detail such as information about the salamanders and the psaaron is offered. Emily Gee handles the few secondary characters in the same way. Only those who have immediate relevance are drawn into the tale. Consequently the intensity is such that the death of one of Bastian's sheep is as cruel a blow as the loss of any velvet-clad emperor's army.

The story explores prejudice and ignorance, obligation and reparation, love, guilt, family ties set against individual desire, the relative values of sex, power and money, fear of the past and fear of the future. But that tight focus on the central characters means such themes remain in the background where they belong, to add depth and substance. It's the plot that keeps the pages turning, the pressure mounting, teetering between hope and despair. Where readers might struggle to identify with noble-born characters, the very ordinariness of the life that Melke, Bastian, Liana and Hantje aspire to, means their struggles are all the more understandable, all the more agonizing. Unexpected twists present each individual with challenges demanding heroism every bit as urgently as any armoured prince's call to arms.

I read this with enjoyment and admiration and await Emily Gee's next book with keen anticipation.

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