SYNOPSIS: She’s a thief/former aristocrat. He’s a Small God. Together, they fight crime!(sort of).Thief Adrienne Satti, aka Widdershins, navigates intrigue and adventure from aristocratic balls to the underside of a city as the enemies who ruined her rags to riches story return, and with even bigger game in mind than the last worshiper of a little god.
PROS: Strong notes of humor, appealing empowered female protagonist, and a good relationship between Widdershins and her unlikely sidekick.
CONS: Novel takes a bit too long to really get rolling, especially for YA readers. Rags to Riches portion of the story feels a bit unlikely.
VERDICT: Marmell convincingly brings his talents for secondary world fantasy to a YA audience.
Adrienne Satti, street rat, has had an unlikely rise from poverty to the aristocracy of the Galicien city of Davillion only to be followed by tragedy, blood, murder, and a fall back into her former life, but with an unlikely companion – Olgun, a small God who, in Discworld tradition (and likely homage) has but one worshiper: Widdershins. But those who ruined her life have surfaced again. Not only do they want to finish what they started, and eliminate Widdershins once and for all, but also have a higher profile target in their sights, someone whose fall would have dire consequences for far more than just Widdershins…
Such is the story of Thief’s Covenant, the first Widdershins novel by Ari Marmell. Marmell is far better known for his adult fantasy, both his Corbis Revaine novels and The Goblin Corps. Here, Marmell turns his attention to a late Renaissance/Early Enlightenment fantasy world, much like Martha Wells’ Element of Fire in terms of time period and technology.
The strengths of the novel revolve around our protagonist, Widdershins, and her unlikely ally, Olgun. We get to see Widdershins in a number of time frames and flashbacks, ranging from orphan on the street, to crashing an aristocrats ball, to doing the thief thing with aplomb. She is competent, has agency, is sometimes a bit reckless, and although she has grown up fast, she is still recognizably a teenager.
And then there is Olgun, the constant companion in her head. The nature of Olgun and why he is in her head is slowly revealed. But suffice it to say, he is a Small God like Om in the Discworld verse, and Widdershins is his Brutha.
The use of this god as a narrative device by Marmell is two fold–the god has a small amount of power to influence reality to Widdershins’ benefit, and it provides someone for Widdershins to talk to. We never really hear Olgun’s voice, but are only given Widdershins’ half of the conversations. There is a break in this Chinese wall, though, where we get a brief perspective from Olgun’s point of view. I think its a slight misstep on Marmell’s part, even if it conveys a key piece of information to the reader that would be difficult to bring to their attention otherwise.
Another strength of the novel is the humor. The novel is relatively light in tone, especially in the action sequences, nearly to the level of slapstick. Despite the sword prominently shown in Widdershins’ hand on the cover, Widdershins is NOT a stone-cold killer, and the novel is not grim or dark with its action. (That said, there are a couple of fairly dark action moments that do stand out). Plus, there is plenty of snappy dialogue and conversations between Widdershins and Olgun.
Weaknesses? The rags to riches story is a classic trope. Widdershins’ path is revealed gradually. Suffice it to say that I don’t think Marmell sells the reason for that elevation quite well enough for me.
The other major weakness to the novel is the usual problem of origin stories, the novel takes a while to really get the full momentum of its plot and adventure going because there is so much history and backstory to reveal. You also have an origin for a rags to riches to rags thief who can tread as well in an aristocratic ball as she can wielding a blade or across rooftops. The use of the flashback structure and jumping back and forth, had the effect of breaking what momentum the book’s narrative managed to achieve. The banter and humor do serve as good stopgaps until the latter portion of the book when the real plot of the novel starts firing on all cylinders.
I can see young readers finding their attention wavering with the start and stop flow of the narrative, and the death of a character that felt discordant, mechanical and unnecessary for the plot of the novel.
The worldbuilding in Thief’s Covenant isn’t particularly deep or detailed. The novel has a small ball sword and sorcery scope in terms of the stakes. As such, we don’t get a big detailed map of Davillion. Just how big the country of Galicien is beyond Davilion is not quite clear. As the back-story of Widdershins fills in, we do learn a bit more, but there is a lot of room for the author to explore and reveal in this world.
I suspect that a majority of the readers of Thief’s Covenant are likely to be previous readers of Marmell’s adult work. There is nothing wrong with that, and its why I read it. YA novels, though, rise and fall on how appealing they are to their target demographic. I think that teenaged readers, especially female readers, are going to find lots to like here. This is exactly and precisely the same sort of readership that, for example, Sherwood Smith aims for in her YA novels, and I think they, especially, are the kinds of readers that will like Thief’s Covenant. And as for teenaged male readers? I’d hope they’d find enough action and adventure to suit their sensibilities too. I know, personally, I would have devoured this up at age 15.
There is a sequel coming out in a few weeks as of the time of writing this review, and I do wonder, without the flashbacks and the slow paced origin story, what Marmell will bring to Widdershins’ next adventure.