Margaret Owen, Little Thieves, Hodder & Stoughten, October 2021, 512 pp., RRP $22.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781529381702
Recent young adult fantasy novels have included many attempts at retelling fairy tales in any number of different ways. Not all have been successful, however, Little Thieves is an example of a very effective take on an old classic, The Goose Girl.
In this version, we jump back and forth in time and are told stories within stories. One clever element sees the beginning of each section in the third person ‘Once upon a time, a princess lived in a castle with her best friend, the loyal maid’ (p. 138) and somewhere in the middle without any warning, we are suddenly jolted into the first person, with our narrator revealing which of the people in the story she is (it’s different each time, naturally). Because Vanja exists as many different characters, readers learn quickly they need to keep up with what’s happening, what she’s telling us, and to discern what is lie and what is truth.
Vanja is the main character and one of the little thieves of the title, but she’s also a liar. Clearly there is more to the story and Owen allows time for us to learn the nuances of survival, resilience, and loyalty. She blends a fairy tale kingdom with a dystopian political system, and imbues it with not only magic, mystery but also (and thankfully) mischievous shenanigans. There are a lot of very dark moments, so the humour is appreciated and helps us to process and accept all the terrible events and people.
While there is a strong medieval hierarchy of social strata, there is also a faith system of many Gods and superstitions. This means the social commentary revolves around the selfish rich denying the rights of the lowly poor, and the political machinations involve avoiding angering the gods. The laws are clear, and procedures must be followed. Readers eventually realise there is a very long game occurring, and it’s up to Vanja and her growing collection of unwitting companions to figure out what’s going on exactly and how to stop it. Within two weeks! With a curse! And a wedding! And plots to kill! I tell you, the tension and action are both intense and non-stop.
This complicated, detailed novel includes many themes we see in teen fiction – dysfunctional family heartbreak, romances demanding all the feels and sacrifices, and a coming-of-age arc of a girl who yearns for connection and a place to belong, even though she appears to have long since given up and resigned to always being alone. Vanja’s journey to self-belief is littered with many trials and it’s not surprising that her reluctant posse must break down a lot of very high walls to reach her. It takes a while for the vulnerabilities she doesn’t show or share to become apparent, and this aspect puts the heart into what is otherwise essentially a quest/heist tale.
I was surprised at how much emotion this story aroused in me. I have read so many books like this, I was certain I would remain detached and unaffected. Its immersive twisty plot, and strong characterisation drew me in slowly and slyly until I was deep in its clutches and absolutely cheering our little thief on to her improbable happy-ever-after. When a protagonist has endured as much as Vanja, the high stakes of her success must be delivered with a believability that is often impossible to produce. I am happy to say Owen achieved this for me.
I found out that there will apparently be a sequel before I reached the end. I wonder what more she can put this crew through. They all deserve the longest holiday ever! I will keep an eye out for it with interest.
Reviewed by Trisha Buckley