Thieves & Kings
Thieves & Kings is a classic fantasy adventure, with a young witch and a lost princess, a forgetful wizard and a boy thief, pirates and palace guards. Mark Oakley wonderfully creates the effect of another world. While I was reading the collections, anytime someone would interrupt, they’d ask if I’d been taking a nap, because surfacing from his kingdom was like returning from far away.
The first volume begins with Rubel, the thief, coming back to Highborn after four years at sea. Sadly, he finds that his grandfather has passed away, and his friends are gone — they’ve grown up and settled down. The only one left is Varkis, an imp; a form of demon, imps look like little people with bat wings. Something’s also wrong with the princess, heir to the throne. As Rubel hears more of the wild rumors surrounding her, he also gets chased a lot.
In the second book, Rubel sneaks into the palace, discovers more about what’s wrong with the kingdom, and escapes the prince’s guard during a coup. We also meet Quinton, the scattered wizard, and Heath, his tomboy apprentice, destined for great things. Quinton’s odd view of the world makes for nice comedy interludes as Rubel’s story gets darker and more complex, with dreams and journeys and the possibility of death becoming real.
The various forces begin to work together to share their knowledge and recapture the kingdom for the rightful heir in book three. The characters also contemplate the nature of love, including the danger of it turning possessive and inadvertently hurting the one beloved.
The fourth book becomes more complicated, adding new characters and more plotlines. The one that stands out as particularly important is the evil witch Locumire, who contributes to the new direction for the story. Heath, meanwhile, is concerned with the conflict between love and responsibility as she faces the fear of a life without love. She’s growing up. Events are moving faster; the characters have taken on life of their own, going about things in the background while we’re reading about someone else.
There’s a long winter in the fifth book during which Heath and Rubel and a new friend build a home for themselves. More witches appear and battle, not just for power but for who they’re going to be, using emotion and self-realization. Heath is growing into her power and into womanhood.
The distinctive feature of this series makes itself immediately apparent, as part of the story is told with illustrated text pages. There’s so much background to the world of this story that it has to be told in a variety of forms. As the series progresses, more of the story is comics, with that format used for action, conversation, or scene-setting while text is used for insight or history.
That’s not the only format experiment. In the fourth book, Oakley incorporates comic strips into the ongoing narrative. They can work on their own for the most part — each has its own punchline — while they also advance the story, an admirable balancing act well-executed.
The art is dense and scratchy, as though the creator kept doodling around the edges. It matches the story, which feels like it’s been polished over and over, continually revisited and elaborated upon. Given this detailed style, some of the fight scenes are a bit hard to follow, but that captures the confusion of the chase. I can imagine how Rubel, pursued by a squad out to get him, might feel. All of the characters have the same face with minimal features and dot eyes, providing for identification with them (if you subscribe to Scott McCloud’s theory).
Young thief Rubel is a goodhearted rogue with a spirit of laughter and escape, no matter his predicament. Thief here doesn’t mean “someone who steals possessions”, but “someone not constrained by society and its rules”. This special state lets him proceed with a clear uncomplicated heart, doing what he deems right. He also has a much greater responsibility; he can’t depend on someone else’s rules to show him where to go. That’s why he’s a battleground for the Shadow Lady, a mysterious figure of magic and danger.
He’s a child of the forest, a wild magical untamed place. Varkis and Rubel often spat verbally, reminding us of Rubel’s in-between state as not yet a man but more than a child. There’s a continuity of being special, ranging from being able to fit into society to always being outside it.
Heath is another battleground; she’s able to be part of society, even given her unique abilities, but that makes her choice more difficult. Similarly, mortality is shown as both strength and weakness. Characters are flawed and in danger because of it, but they’re also made vibrant and attractive by it.
The Shadow Lady, aka the Queen of Halves, can be confusing. Everyone, including herself, considers her evil, but there’s more to it than the simple dichotomy of good and bad. She seems one of the more truthful characters in the book, and she does help Rubel when he needs it. Oakley’s insights into human nature are complex and multifaceted.
When Rubel returns from the sea, his friends have settled for less than they could have had, although achieving their dreams would be hard and dangerous. There’s a deep loneliness involved in keeping your youthful enthusiasm and belief. The characters seem to be attempting to marry that innocent strength to knowledge and experience. Often, the adult characters are lacking, evil, or ineffective in the face of fear. Loss is a motivator; what do you do when you return home but home’s no longer there?
Throughout the books, emotion is the key to insight. Turning points come with despair, rage, or sadness, and the lead characters can be surprisingly vengeful and harsh at times. There are many twists, turns, and digressions throughout this epic. It’s not the book for you if you have to know what happens next immediately. With patience, though, the book reflects Rubel’s belief that stories are great treasure.
More information is available at the Thieves & Kings website.