I regret to say that The Thief and The Demon has landed in a bad spot.
The book has a very promising premise. Fistmar is a thief wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Unfortunately for Fistmar, the offense he’s accused of carries a penalty far harsher than any of those he’s actually guilty of, and so he must break out of prison, clear his name, and find out who framed him. The task would be straightforward enough, but over the course of his escape he frees an evil demon from its own confinement and unleashes nastiness upon the world.
I picked up this book first, because the quality cover and intriguing blurb made it stand out. It’s clearly the product of hard work and attention to detail. But frankly, so is a bottle of bourbon, and I don’t enjoy bourbon either.
The setting is both grim and dark, and while I admit that such gritty fantasy books have a large following, I don’t count myself as part of it. The language is intentionally archaic in a way that some enthusiasts may find authentic or fun, but made the dialogue seem stiff and stilted for me. Fistmar is a morally-grey antihero of the sort that commonly skulks around the genre, but he neither captured my interest nor piqued my sympathy.
Initially I was bored with the protagonist, but that was before he started ogling almost everything female in the book. Once out of prison, Fistmar admires the “generously perfect bodies” of a pair of statues by the city gate, looks a merchant up and down, smiles when he thinks a fruit seller will fall out of her dress, and discusses the sex life of one of the few women in the book worthy of a name. (Fistmar is unhappy about said lady’s sex life, because it does not involve Fistmar.) The frequency with which Fistmar’s indiscriminate libido asserts itself seemed about equal to the frequency with which women appear in the story. Initially it made me roll my eyes, but eventually I found myself disliking him.
The reason I stopped reading The Thief and the Demon, however, was the pacing. The book spends a lot of time on Fistmar’s every thought, dirty or not. Swaths of text are dedicated to him sneaking back and forth through the dungeon. Some readers like that sense of closeness with a protagonist. But all the extra play-by-play can grate on me, especially if I feel like the main character is somewhat of a creep.
Twelve chapters in, I wasn’t enjoying the book. When I saw that I had fifty chapters left to go, I threw in the towel. This book was just not for me.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you wouldn’t enjoy The Thief and the Demon, or that you shouldn’t give it a try. Do you like introspective prose and grimdark world building? Do you enjoy archaic language and sinister, formless demons? Do you miss the days when fantasy was told from an undeniably male perspective? Perhaps The Thief and the Demon is for you.
My first outing as an SPFBO judge has begun a bit rough, but hopefully there’s smoother sailing ahead.