At first glance it seems likely that Cornelia Funke’s novel The Thief Lord (2000) (find it on Bookshop) will center around the Thief Lord. All the same the story actually starts with Prosper and Bo, brothers who have run away to avoid their nasty aunt who wants to separate them. Convinced that all of the wonderful stories their late mother told them about Venice will be true and keep them safe, the boys make their way to that fair city.
Unfortunately Venice is not as magical as their mother had told them (at least not right away). Just when Prosper is prepared to accept defeat and return his younger brother to the warm and safe, if not loving, home of his aunt, the boys are taken in by a very unusual band of children. Led by Scipio, the Thief Lord, the children live in a condemned theater living off the riches that Scipio steals from Venice’s elite. The children know little else about Scipio, but in exchange for his support and protection they are willing to overlook that small detail.
Meanwhile, the brothers’ aunt has enlisted a private investigator to locate the boys and bring Bo back to her (Prosper will be sent to an orphanage). Like any other investigator worth his salt, Victor soon picks up the trail of the children. The more this trio sees of each other, the more tenuous the children’s existence in the Venice theater seems. Indeed, Victor’s investigation could unearth a secret about the Thief Lord that will change all of their lives. Forever.
The Thief Lord is told in the whimsical, ethereal tone common to some fairy tales. It is entirely appropriate for this story, but also manages to make it that much harder to believe that the story is real. While the book was enjoyable, it always felt like the characters were at a remove–visible but not near enough to discern subtleties. Funke describes Venice and its landscapes beautifully but leaves the characters much less dimensional
I liked that the story had a lot of twists and turns, but by the end of the novel it felt a bit like one too many turns. Funke blends realistic incidents with pure fantasy creating an uneasy combination that sometimes works well in the text and other times left me scratching my head. In some ways it feels like the first and second half of the the story come from two different plots.
After realizing that the novel was originally written in German, I suspect that the different culture and writing conventions might have contributed to my uneasiness in deciding whether I actually liked the book. In summary, The Thief Lord was entertaining and will likely please any young fantasy readers in the house even though it was not completely wonderful.