2019’s secondary world fantasy An Illusion of Thieves is the first volume in Cate Glass’ Chimera series.
Cantagna has firm rules where sorcery is concerned. It is considered evidence of a demonic taint. Those born with magic are weighted down with chains and thrown in the nearest body of water.
When Romy’s mother discovered Romy’s magical talent, she sold young Romy to a brothel. If Romy’s magic is ever discovered, it wouldn’t be her family’s problem.
Years later, Romy is Cataline of Moon House and one of the most famous courtesans in Cantagna. She is mistress to none other than Sandro, Cantagna’s Shadow Lord, the grand Padrone who rules the city. Sandro is married, of course (to Gilliette), but Romy is the one with whom Sandro spends his time. It’s the best life to which someone from Cantagna’s slums might aspire.
Happiness is evanescent.
Romy’s father is arrested for theft. Romy makes the mistake of appealing to Sandro to save her father from the inevitable punishment. Not only are the facts in the case plain, but Sandro cannot be seen to be subverting justice for his mistress. Romy’s father loses his hand and property; he and all but one of his family are exiled.
The old man was innocent. The actual criminal was Romy’s younger brother, Neri. Like Romy, he is a sorcerer. A sorcerer who can walk through walls (unlike Romy, whose talent is altering memories). Where Romy is prudent and deceptively demure, Neri is loud-mouthed, aggressive, and lazy. He steals without any regard for the consequences his actions will bring down on others. The only reason he is not at the bottom of a river is because Sandro has, out of affection for Romy, detailed a man to protect Neri. No more.
Sandro bids farewell to Romy. She’s a political encumbrance. He does give her a parting bonus (enough money to tide her over) and a new job: she’s to make sure that Neri doesn’t offend again. If Neri is caught breaking any of Cantagna’s laws, both siblings will suffer the penalty.
Romy reinvents herself as a scribe. It’s hard work that pays poorly, but it’s a living. She also manages to restrain Neri. He takes sword lessons and finds a job as a bouncer. All would seem to be well, but …
Romy’s new life is upended when her former rival, Sandro’s wife Gilliette, asks for her help in concealing a theft. Romy, grudgingly, complies. If concealment fails, Romy will take the blame for the theft.
(Yes, there’s been a flurry of fantasy books lately. Blame me for finally reading the Dungeon World RPG rulebook I’ve had for ages, and getting a yen for secondary world fantasies.)
This book comes with a map. Picture a modified India with Italian place names. While the culture seems to have been modeled on Renaissance Italy, there’s no Catholic church lookalike. The Cantagnans worship many gods. They are also burdened with many laws (laws with draconic penalties) and rigid social hierarchies. It seems a cruel, unjust society. The only thing that made reading about it bearable is that the protagonist had no illusions about just how nasty it was.
This is a novel in which a bunch of characters work together to bring off a caper. Each character has special skills: fighting, metal-working, magical talents, etc. Romy seems to have a knack for convincing people who would otherwise avoid cooperation to ally with her. Oceans Eleven meets the Legion of Superheroes!
By the end of the novel, Romy has gone from slum girl to courtesan to scribe to burglar to … well, that would be telling.
You might think you’ve read similar books before and you probably have. For me, the main draw was Romy herself — although watching the characters pull an Apollo-13 to work out how best to use their particular assortment of special but very specific powers to carry out the heist was also entertaining. This was interesting enough, at any rate, for me to sign onto the series for at least another book or two. I’m looking forward to seeing where Glass takes the series.