Monday, January 14, 2013

Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell

Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell is the first book in the Widdershins Adventure series published by Pyr. Covenant is presented in an interesting dual narrative with an irreverent tone that softens the darker elements of the story. Marmell’s character, Adrienne Satti (a.k.a. Widdershins), is an interesting and fun character with a love of snark and sarcasm. Marmell’s emphasis on humor occasionally threatens to derail the story but rarely crosses the line.

Covenant is the origin story of the novel’s protagonist, Adrienne Satti-- a young woman whose early life is very much a roller coaster. By the time of the story’s introduction, she has lost her parents, survived as a street urchin, adopted by a noble, framed for murder, and become a thief. When she becomes a thief, Adrienne adopts the name Widdershins to leave her past behind, or so she thinks. The murder is the central mystery of the story and her primary agency.

The narrative itself is composed of two linear storylines. The primary thread is set in the present, and the secondary thread starts in the past. The primary thread begins with the gruesome murder of a secret religious cult’s followers; Adrienne Satti is a member and the only survivor. The secondary thread begins with the death of Adrienne’s parents. It is interesting that Marmell chooses to begin both threads with murder because both tragedies cause Adrienne to be reborn from the destruction of her old life. This narrative element also foreshadows the novel’s end.

Marmell executes Covenant’s the novel’s structure with great success. The parallel nature of the story helps break up the narrative. By alternating between threads, Marmell creates a nice ebb and flow to the story and keeps the pacing brisk. It also provides a means to develop Widdershins’ character quickly. Widdershins is an assumed identity meant to hide her past and her life as Adrienne Satti. It also hides her from the reader. The second thread, set in Widdershins’ past, reveals the girl hiding behind the mask of Widdershins. In this way, Marmell is able to neatly reveal the whole character to the reader.

The most interesting aspect of the narrative is how it places the slaughter of the cult at the center of the story. Widdershins’ tried to flee and hide from these events, but her past will not stay hidden and catches up to her. In the present, Widdershins is drawn into a conspiracy-- one that she discovers is somehow linked to the opening massacre. During the flashback sequences, the links between the two are slowly revealed. By the novel's end, she solves the present day mystery and also comes to understand why her cult was murdered. In this way, Adrienne as a character is made whole again. Structurally, the novel resembles an Ouroboros.

Widdershins is a fun character, which is a good thing since the narrative revolves around her. Her life has been one of constant upheaval, and she has had to largely rely on her own skill and cunning. It also means she has been alone. As a result, Widdershins is a brilliant thief who has poor interpersonal skills and uses sarcasm to keep people at arm’s length. Widdershins is a wonderful and complex character who is easy to cheer.

Providing balance to Widdershins character is the god Olgun, who was the focus of her cult’s worship. When his followers were slaughtered, Olgun hid inside Widdershins. So, while Widdershins may be bereft of human companionship, she has a god hiding in her head. Olgun helps protect Widdershins and lends her a hand during her thieving activities. The most important function of Olgun is to be Widdershins’ friend and conversation partner.

The pairing of Widdershins and Olgun is important because it allows the narrative to have dialogue when it otherwise would not. When Widdershins is alone, she can maintain a running conversation with Olgun. This allows Marmell to explore the environment, crack jokes, and advance the narrative without a lot of awkward inner monologue from Widdershins. The humor would have been very difficult to pull off without making Widdershins appear as an unhinged sociopath constantly cracking jokes to herself.

The humor in Covenant is a two-edged sword and an area where Marmell occasionally stumbles. It functions best when it is irreverent and droll, helping to soften the dark imagery and topics. Covenant’s humor is at its weakest when it veers too sharply toward slapstick or the author’s voice intrudes too much with the sarcastic observations. When this happens, it threatens to trivialize the narrative and break the reader’s sense of immersion. The humor is generally spot on and is one of Covenant’s defining qualities, but the sarcasm may make it off-putting to some readers.

Widdershins was a wonderfully developed character, but some of the secondary characters were lacking. Most of this can be attributed to word count and a worldview where Widdershins dominates the story. As a result, the supporting cast was underdeveloped. Thief Henri Roubet and guardsman Julien Bouniard particularly suffered from underdevelopment. They were interesting and had potential but struggled to break away from basic stereotypes. I look forward to seeing how they develop throughout the series. Yet the character that frustrated me the most was Widdershins’ friend, Genevieve. Ultimately, she felt like little more than a plot device to help wrap up the novel’s ending.

The greatest weakness of Covenant was the beginning. Covenant is an origin story, and a lot of time was spent establishing the setting and characters. As a result, it was not until the middle part of the novel that the story starts to take off. That is not to say the first half is slow or boring; it just doesn't have an apparent direction. Things are happening but there doesn't seem to be a reason. Some readers may find this frustrating. By the second half of the novel, the narrative gained significant momentum and became especially gripping. I hope that this momentum continues into the subsequent Widdershins Adventure novels.

There is a lot to like about Thief’s Covenant. It is a great story that that is well told with a solid sense of humor. Widdershins is a wonderful character with a well- balanced blend of capability and vulnerability. The setting and supporting characters, while a bit flat, have great potential as the series progresses. If you don’t mind the humor and have the patience for the slow start, Thief’s Covenant is a great read that I can easily recommend to all fans of fantasy.

Memorable Quotes:
"'Oh, what?' 'Figs.' 'That's my girl.' The door clicked shut."
"Julien's frown grew even deeper, a feat of true muscle contortion that threatened to flip his entire face upside down on the front of his head."
"The sound of tiny splinters being gouged from the wood snuck through the chamber and went to go lurk in the corner, where it occasionally bounced back at them as an echo."
"'That doesn't remotely alter the fact that I think you're mad as a syphilitic hatter.'"
"'I intend to drug you, and force you to be my guide.'"
Pyr: Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell
Image Source: Pyr
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN: 978-1-61614-547-7

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