Copyright 2013 by Paula S. Jordan
Juliet E. McKenna’s The Thief’s Gamble, Book one in her Tales of Einarinn series (thanks for the recommendation, Elizabeth,) provides a world of varied human races and medieval-style societies, with a well-drawn cast of one-of-a-kind personalities.
As such a world might suggest, their main source of conflict is political. But not from the usual enemies. Vague reports of unlikely thefts and brutal murders suggest an insidious form of magic at work, a system utterly alien to the one the local mages practice.
A small cadre of wizards and scholars, seeking to identify the unknown magic, find that documents and artifacts necessary to their work are being denied them. So they hire Livak, a gambler and sometime thief, to acquire what they cannot purchase. And Livak, bless Juliet McKenna’s heart, is the kind of heroine that female readers dream of.
In a world not prone to seeing a woman’s full potential, she makes her way through the borderlands of respectable society, living reasonably well by her wits and remaining true, whenever possible, to her own values. She is intelligent, well trained in the skills that suit her–she uses the weapons and develops the fighting styles that work for her size and strength–and, with never a hint of bravado, shows more genuine confidence in her abilities than any other female character I have read. She is the best at what she does and will not brook contradiction, especially when success, and particularly lives, are on the line.
Yet for all her toughness she is not callous. She understands people, recognizes the needs and appreciates the skills of others, grieves when innocents suffer, acknowledges and learns from her mistakes, and will brave death to protect or avenge a friend.
Best of all, as with many of us, there is room in her character for contradiction. Though she knows what she needs to be safe, she is willing, even eager, to undertake any challenge that appeals to her, at almost any risk.
Not the sort of woman you’d expect in a medieval setting? Let’s think about that.
The names of a few such capable women have come down to us from earlier times: Brighid and Boudicca of the British Isles, Eleanor of Aquitaine who accompanied her husband Louis VII on Crusade, Joan of Arc, and Molly Pitcher in our own history. Also, Artemisia of the Amazons and others half remembered in myth and legend.
And for each of those, how many more could have lived active lives without attracting the same attention? And how many whose exploits and contributions have been discounted, or credited to men?
Remember too, as McKenna does, the difficulties of the medieval world: primitive hygiene, ignorance of contagion, medical treatments often more likely to kill than to cure, frequent brutal battles, and other hazards. As Allin, the young mage apprentice, said, when complimented on her nursing skills, “You learn a lot when stupid men spend half the summer dying in your hedgerows.” In such a world, capability and survival go hand in hand.
I’d say that Livak is not only plausible, but inevitable as a character in her world.
But please, just set all that aside and enjoy the book. It’s a great read.
Available in digital formats at Wizard’s Tower.
For more information about the Tales of Einarinn, see Juliet’s website.