An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass

In Cantagna, being a sorcerer is a death sentence.

Romy escapes her hardscrabble upbringing when she becomes courtesan to the Shadow Lord, a revolutionary noble who brings laws and comforts once reserved for the wealthy to all. When her brother, Neri, is caught thieving with the aid of magic, Romy’s aristocratic influence is the only thing that can spare his life—and the price is her banishment.

Now back in Beggar’s Ring, she has just her wits and her own long-hidden sorcery to help her and Neri survive. But when a plot to overthrow the Shadow Lord and incite civil war is uncovered, only Romy knows how to stop it. To do so, she’ll have to rely on newfound allies—a swordmaster, a silversmith, and her own thieving brother. And they’ll need the very thing that could condemn them all: magic.

Heist stories are fun. Ocean’s Eleven. Mistborn. The Halloween episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Romy is not exactly heist-heroine material, at first glance. As the former courtesan of the Shadow Lord (the most powerful man in the city, more on him later), she’s dismissed from her services after her idiot teenage brother, Neri, put her and their entire family in danger. Her main goal after this change of fortune is to fly under the radar, keep her brother in check, and earn enough money to scrape by.

But sometimes trouble finds you.

The story is divided into two parts.

In the first one, Romy comes to terms with her new status and tries to rebuild her life. It’s not an easy task, and this is where Glass shows off her incredible characterisation talent. There’s a lot going on with her heroine, and Romy’s inner turmoil is depicted with a fascinating realism. She’s angry and grieving and bitter and bored and sick with worry, but she fights and she yearns for better, still.

What was also wonderful in this first part was also her relationship with her brother. Siblings in a fantasy book, yay! Their love for each other is matched only by their irritation at each other. They are alone, up against a world that want them dead for their forbidden magic. It was a pleasure to follow the development of their relationship.

The second half of the book is the heist itself, and Glass respected the staples of the subgenre. Assembling a team of unlikely allies! A plan that may or may not go awry! Disguises and fake backstories! This part was more fast-paced, and I didn’t realise how tense I was while reading it until the very last page (why yes, I did let out a breath I didn’t realise I was holding).

I also had a lot of fun with the forbidden magic trope, with Romy gradually understanding, accepting, and taking charge of her powers. It’s very complicated to make magic seem unique and new but I think the author managed that.

The rest of the worldbuilding is interesting as well. The setting is Renaissance-Italy-inspired and we get tantalising peeks at the political machinations and power plays between the once-great aristocracy and the ascending merchant class.

My only real issue with the book was how Romy was still pining and waxing lyrical about her former owner, Sandro, the Shadow Lord. Each time she went into an flowery internal monologue about that jerk, I rolled my eyes so hard that I could have cosplayed Bran Stark. I guess it’s understandable, but I never wanted to “Oh Honey” a character so much in my life. The whole Benevolent Dictator/Glorified Mob Boss shtick made me mad enough to rant on 3 different platforms. She’s a work in progress, our Romy, and I think she’ll get over him. The depiction of the unhealthy attachment was done so well it actually angered me…but it mostly made Romy feel more real, a human being who develops a natural fondness for the first person who treats her “right” after years of abuse.

The ending sets the scene for the next book of the Chimera series, A Conjuring of Assassins, which felt very Marvel-y. And indeed, the book almost reads like a superhero story with complex character work and beautiful prose. If that sounds like something you’d like, I would absolutely recommend it.

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