Cornelia Funke (translation from German by Oliver Latsch), The Thief Lord
(Cecilie Dressler Verlag, 2000; Scholastic, 2002)

'There were so many hiding places, so many narrow alleys with names no one could remember - some of them with no names at all. Boarded-up churches, deserted houses... the whole city was one huge invitation to play hide and seek.'
If you're a Neil Gaiman fan, you fondly remember Neverwhere, his novel set in a richly re-imagined London Below where the train stations were anything but mundane with an entire civilization living below the skin of London Above. Or you've read Emma Bull's The War for The Oaks, where the apparently ordinary streets of Minneapolis are actually home to the Seelie and Unseelie courts. It might be that . Bone Dance was to your liking, and you figured that it takes place in a future Minneapolis where the Apocalypse has come and gone, but is still recognizably that city. Now me friends, it's time to add Venice to the list of settings for great urban fantasies that take place in actual cities. Yes, Venice! The Thief Lord takes place within a richly imagined version of Venice where hidden canals, deserted cellars, and not very safe rooftops are the antithesis to the city that both tourists and locals know all too well. The press on this novel is that -- and I kid you not! -- it is the next Harry Potter.  Methinks not, but it is an enjoyable and fast-paced read set in a unique landscape. Will it, like Harry Potter, make a certain American publisher rich beyond its wildest greed? Prolly not. And that, me friends, is as it should be. We here on the Committee to Keep J.K. Rowling from Taking Over Literature and Everything Else in Our Universe (referred to hereinafter as KJKRTOLEEOU) applaud any author who does something original in the genre of fantasy. And Cornelia Funke has certainly done so.

Ok, the trick with using young adults as your protagonists is that the readers don't really want them in true danger (Certainly J.K. Rowling has, by just hinting that one of the characters in her universe will die in a future novel, caused great anguish among her readers). The basic tale here is about a group of runaway children in Venice whose lives are affected by more than a hint of magic -- not surprising given the history of Venice, both real and imagined. (Don't look too hard for the magic, as it only shows up late in the novel.) They survive in part through the good graces of the Thief Lord, a mysterious child who provides stolen treasure that can be sold. But the real star of this novel is Venice, a city that is indeed perfect for a novel grounded in reality but with a touch of magic. There have been hundreds of novels set in this city including Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Maurice Dekobra's The Phantom Gondola (La Gondole aux Chimeres), a Lovejoy mystery by Jonathan Gash called The Gondola Scam, and Ellen Fitzgerald's Venetian Masquerade, a brilliant imagining of a future neo-cyberpunkish Venice. But I can't at all recall any novels involving children that are set in this city.

Now let's back up a bit. Generally speaking, novels translated from one language to another vary widely in how well the translation is done.  Michael Ende's The Neverending Story was a superb translation, but his novel, Momo, suffered greatly in translation from its native German. And Emile Zola's many, many novels, when translated from his native French, range from superb to truly awful. And surely you remember the tale of how Mark Twain translated his own 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County' back ito English after it has been rendered like a poorly made sausage into French? Shudder... Oliver Latsch has, to me relief, done a nice job of making the novel read like it was written in English. Not that I can say how faithful it is to the original text, but who cares -- you and I are reading The Thief Lord in English.

As would be expected, an antique-looking map of Venice is located right after the title page. Created by Lothar Meier, a talented German cartographer, it gives us a feel for where the action is taking place, but not much detail as to what the places are like. That's the job of Funke, who has a true feel for a space.  Venice comes alive in a way that is similar to Minneapolis in The War for The Oaks, or the London Below.  Prosper and Bo, the two children who run away to hide in Venice, discover a world where adults never go. Call it Never-Never Land with lots of water. Or a playground where things are mysterious but not really dangerous.

Yes, I've avoided telling you anything at all about plot. Nor will I do so now. The charm of this tale is in discovering along with Prosper and Bo the wonders of a Venice that might be. All I'll tell you is that Prosper and his little brother, Bo, are being pursued by Victor, a detective hired by their not well-meaning Aunt.  But fortunately, they and the other kids are watched over by their gang's mysterious and self-assured leader, Scipio (Italian for the Thief Lord). As the kids have repeated near captures by Victor, they're also intent on completing the job Scipio gave them -- to steal a precious wooden carousel wing. Yet when they discover what the secret is that Scipio is hiding, they decide to befriend Victor. In the end, they realize there is more to their fantastic world than meets the eye. Now go read The Thief Lord -- you won't be disappointed.

[Jack Merry]