Thief Lord

The Thief Lord (Audio Book version)

by Cornelia Funke
Read by Simon Jones

This time I decided to check out the new branch of the Audible Library — they now have a whole section of audio books devoted to kids, from infants to 13 and up. I love young adult fiction, it’s such an opportunity to see the world with fresh eyes. They say that your musical tastes are set in stone when you are in your early teens — I’d guess that your taste in literature starts gelling even before that. What better gift can you give your kids than the love of a good story well told?

My first choice was The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, which I chose in part because it is set in the city of my dreams, Venice. It’s a watery and magical place that young Prosper and his little brother Bo find themselves, watery, strange and very cold, not quite the canals rippling with gold that their recently deceased mother described. But Venice was the city of her dreams and they have to honor that, and honor her. This book is full of absent, replacement and ill-suited mothers, and poorly behaved fathers, and also full of children struggling with responsibilities far beyond their years.

After running away from their unbearable aunt, Prop and Bo take up with a gang of runaways and orphans who live in an abandoned movie theater. Funke really strikes a balance between the high adventure fairy tale life the kids like to pretend they’re living — no responsibility, no school, no parents setting bedtimes — and the reality of hunger, fear, and cold — cold is everywhere. The leader of this little gang is a slightly older and very glamorous boy named Scipio — a figure of mystery referred to as The Thief Lord, and boy does he have secrets of his own! They steal from tourists and sell to their fence, a repellent shopkeeper named Barbarossa. The story unfolds in a series of chases and narrow escapes culminating in a genuinely scary trip to a deserted island in a remote corner of the bay, except maybe it’s not deserted. The later third turns away from the hard knock realities of the kids’ existence and towards fantasy and wish fulfillment — the ideal dream of a perfect mother, the realization that a sworn enemy might be a good replacement father, the conquest of a villain by his own hand, and finally a warm home for orphaned children. Despite and sometimes through the fantasy element, Funke manages to get a few messages across — watch what you wish for, there sometimes is no going back, you can choose your own family, you can make your own fate, and even the most beautiful city in the world is a cold hard place when you’re on your own.

My only real complaint is the lack of a strong girl character in that mess of boys. Hornet, the lone girl runaway, is the model of a Wendy to her lost boys — she’s the de facto mother, caregiver, staying at home and watching the little ones while the big boys go have adventures. Giving her a bad temper doesn’t make her a player on the main stage.

But other than that, the overriding sense of mystery, menace, ancient secrets and grand adventure — and the chance to visit Venice, which takes its turn as a character on every page — made this a lovely and excellent choice.

The Thief Lord is read — with too many accents and dialects to count! by Simon Jones. I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.

Update —

I wrote this one week before my own first visit to Venice, and I had to comment on how well Funke gets the unreal feel of the city. It’s more water than land, and more beautiful than livable, if that makes sense. We noticed how few people seem to actually live there full time — everywhere, the first floors of buildings (and often entire buildings) were boarded up. We guessed that centuries of fighting the sea coming in the front door was finally too much for a lot of people. One does get the idea that a band of homeless children might move into a crumbling, faded-but-still-grand movie theater and the carabinieri (as good looking a bunch of police as I have ever seen!) might really never have reason to notice.

Venice exists in its own reality. As a stage setting for a fairy tale, I can think of no better place.

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