Mark of the Thief

By all rights, I should have adored this.  It has so many components that I love: ancient Rome, mysteriously powerful tokens, the Greek/Roman pantheon, espionage, escape ... and yet.

I felt like there was a wall dividing me from this book.  It was a curious sensation.  Like I was watching all of the action unspool in front of me, but I couldn't reach out and engage; I couldn't be fully immersed.  It's unsettling, to say the least.  I struggled to engage and to read every word and follow the action diligently, but I would find myself at the bottom of a page wondering a) what just happened and b) did I really care?  Generally the answers were a rather halfhearted "I dunno" and "not really," respectively.

Mark of the Thief is the story of Nic, a slave working in gem mines outside of Rome.  The Emperor at the time is Tacitus, which places the story in a very narrow window: 275-6 C.E.  The Emperor's power is not particularly strong, and he's looking for a way to enforce the whole "Hey, I'm a god!" thing.  Simultaneously, different groups are plotting, counter-plotting, and counter-counter-plotting to overthrow Tacitus.

One of these men, General Radulf, who commands the Imperial Army, arrives at the mine one day, just as Nic is trying to escape.  The mine's owner, Sal, wants to marry Nic's very underage sister, and Nic thinks he can get them both out.  Alas, the arrival of Radulf thwarts the escape and thrusts Nic into the spotlight.  Radulf enlists him to go down into a newly discovered chamber and look for the bulla of Julius Caesar, which Radulf says he will then use to take over the Empire!  Ha-HA!

NOTE: If you are planning a coup, it's generally not a good idea to tell random people, even if they are "just a slave."  This will come to bite you in your armored tukhus later on.

And what's a bulla?  Well, I'll let the book describe that for you: "Every freeborn boy in Rome wore the pendant around his neck."  Uh, okay.  So it's like a necklace ... thing.  Very descriptive.  Let's see, anything else?  "Charm against bad luck" blah blah blah ... ah, here we go: "It was a golden bulla, the size and shape of my fist, with a brown leather strap to hang from the neck."  Hmm.  I'm a girl (in case you missed it) and my fist is pretty big.  Pictures of bullae that I found with a quick Google image search look more like they'd fit in my palm.  I would think that a fist-sized hunk of metal would be cumbersome and heavy, but what do I know?  I'm not an author, just a confused reader.  My confusion mounted when Nic would later grasp the bulla in his fist, or hide it in the folds of his clothing.  So, how big is it again?

But back to Nic, the slave-thief.  As soon as he snatches Caesar's bulla, a griffin appears and begins to attack him.  This is no Diana Wynne Jones griffin, but a seriously cranky creature with the head of an eagle and the body of a lioness.  As he scrambles to escape, Nic does what anyone in his situation would do: he names the griffin.  Wait, what?  Yes, her name is Caela, because she came from the heavens (griffins were viewed as creatures of the gods).

Caela does not want to make friends, though, until she scratches Nic on the shoulder with one fierce claw. However, instead of bleeding out, he heals and develops a curious mark.  Caela then lets Nic hop on her back and they soar out of the cave together.  After their escape, Nic eats a ton of strawberries and takes a nap, thus being captured once again.

Thus begin the adventures of Nic, hapless wielder of divine magic.  After his ignominious recapture, Nic is sold, along with Caela, to fight in the Flavian Amphitheater, which we know as the Colosseum.  Caela joins the venatio--basically a menagerie--and Nic is assigned to control her, which he can now magically do.  Actually, now he can magically do a lot of things, which makes him a Threat to the Emperor and a Threat to Those Threatening the Emperor.

To make an exceedingly long (well, it felt that way, anyway) story short, Nic escapes, is taken in by one senator, leaves, is taken captive by another, all whilst accompanied by a sort of freeborn Katniss who lives in the sewers.  Her name is Aurelia, and all she has is a crepundia, the girl version of the bulla.  She was cast out by her family and stalks around being mad at people.  Later, this really awkward "romance" (I hesitate to leave off the quotation marks because there's no real feeling there) is shoe-horned into the narrative because somebody thought it would be a good idea.

No.  Bad idea.  Horribly uncomfortable to read.

Aside from all the jumping around in the story (I'm here!  No wait, I'm with this guy!  No wait, I escaped!  No wait, I'm in a sewer!), the thing that confused me the most was Nic's magic--really, the entire magic system of the book.  The spells performed are your sort of standard wizard-spells: shields, fire, calling storms, etc.  We don't learn enough about ancient Romans' belief in magic to make this authentic.

Additionally, the mark on Nic, the Divine Star, which gives him magic, jumps around a lot--really!  Sometimes it's on his arm, other times on his back.  I am reading an ARC of this that I got at ALA Midwinter, so I'd be curious to see if this was rectified in the final edition.

Finally, I didn't understand how the magic of the bulla and the magic of the Divine Star were different but still entwined.  Nic received the Divine Star from Caela because he took the bulla.  That would make it seem like you need both to do magic.  Instead, most of the time, Nic just uses the bulla and has to learn how to control his Divine Star magic, if you will.  The ending confused me even more as to the relationship between the two.

I'm very confused by all of the glowing reviews for this.  While it has action and magic, it's also uneven, rather flat, and features a main character who conveniently forgets about his griffin until it's time to drag her back into the narrative again.  There's also some truly cheesy dialogue on par with James Bond villains.

This was a slog, like the one Nic took through the Cloaca Maxima, and I don't want to do it again in following books.


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