Gareth Ward, The Traitor and the Thief, Walker Books Australia, August 2017, 352pp, $17.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9781925381504
The most obvious point about The Traitor and the Thief is that it is a steampunk adventure, and anyone looking for fascinating steampunk features, from the mekanikal fish that direct you where you need to go, to the darkly gothic laboratories that Sin finds himself in, is going to find plenty to enthrall them. Much as I loved the rich steampunk background of this story, though, it was the gripping adventure and the twists of the characters that kept me coming back for more.
Fourteen-year-old Sin thieves for the Fixer until the day that he’s caught in action and chased down by the sinister and mysterious Eldritch Moon. That is the moment when his life changes. Sin is offered the chance to become a part of the Covert Operations Group and train to be a spy. Sin and the other spy students are pushed hard, and pitted against each other, and Sin begins to realise that there are many mysteries within the school, and possible traitors at every turn. The biggest mysteries are linked to his own history and the reason why he was brought into the school in the first place.
There is a fascinating play on motives of loyalty, self-interest and altruism, and one of the things I enjoyed about this book is that you’re never entirely sure of the motivations of any of the characters, even Sin. As likeable as he is, there are frequent suggestions that his reasons are not always pure of heart – or possibly they’re more altruistic than he would like to admit – and this makes him very interesting as a protagonist.
These themes of loyalty and self-interest are most evident in Sin’s growing relationships with the effervescent and quirky Zonda, and the beautiful, cutting Velvet, who rules the students and trades ruthlessly on her mother’s position. Who can he trust? And should they trust him?
I loved, too, the cleverness and trickery that marks the way the COG students deal with the challenges of their training. Brute force matters far less than intelligence and cunning in these moments, and in the broader story the moments of brute force are best met with guile, brains, and loyalty. The trick is knowing who you can count on in those moments.
The writing style of The Traitor and the Thief would fit well with anyone who has enjoyed Eoin Colfer’s books, and particularly his Warp series. There are nuanced nods to the classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and a certain Dickensian atmosphere, but Gareth Ward doesn’t allow the pace of the action to become bogged down in classical references. This story is going to appeal to readers aged 11 and up who like their spy action with a steampunk twist.
Reviewed by Emily Clarke