Format: oversized omnibus paperback
Reading Time: about 3.5 hours
One Sentence Synopsis: The thief Amra Thetys must avoid getting killed by foes both mundane and supernatural to avenge her dead friend and recover a powerful artifact before her enemies do.
I struggled a bit with how to approach a review for this title. The Amra Thetys Omnibus is actually a collection of three books: The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids, The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye, and The Thief Who Knocked On Sorrow’s Gate. Each of these stories was a self-contained, self-published work by Michael McClung, and were combined into one volume to make this Omnibus. I’ll admit that I’m not typically a fan of the omnibus format…I normally prefer to read each story on its own. In this case, however, as a self-published series of books, they were easier to obtain through the Omnibus than to try to chase down physical copies of each story. Since I can be lazy at times I took the easy way out with the Omnibus. McClung, despite scoring a publishing deal, has since had issues with his publisher and has returned to self-publishing, so I’ll need to learn what to purchase in the future that bests supports the author.
Unfortunately I could not find any reviews of the Omnibus edition itself other than Amazon or Goodreads. Therefore I decided to post this as a series of three separate and shorter-than-normal reviews, with each review focusing on one of the stories, and at the end of the final review, some additional thoughts on the Omnibus format itself.
Here, then, is Part One of the Omnibus review, The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids, and guest reviews from around the Internet:
Richard Bray of Fantasy Faction states: “At 210 pages, The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids isn’t trying to be the next bookshelf-bending epic fantasy that changes the way you think about the genre. Instead, it’s a straight-forward adventure noir featuring a touch of action, a bit of mystery and a wealth of interesting characters…Amra relays her story with a touch of world-weary cynicism combined with a quick, sarcastic wit. She’s tough as nails and takes a lone-wolf-against-the-world approach to everything, but as her story progresses, we find that she has plenty of friends willing to offer assistance as she needs it…As someone who enjoys noir mysteries where the protagonist follows lead after lead, getting themselves bruised and bloodied in their quest for the truth, this book was right up my alley…McClung doesn’t spend a great deal of time describing the city or trying to make it feel different from your stock fantasy city (though his take on the city’s funeral ceremonies – complete with a final meal with the dead, professional mourners and a demon guardian who makes certain the dead need not fear grave robbers – proves to be fascinating). Instead, he relies on a steady assortment of characters to make the city feel alive and create our interest in the setting…McClung relies upon the people to make this city different from any other. The never-ending forward momentum of the plot means we never linger too long on any one character or portion of the city – instead, we’re always meeting someone new or discovering some small detail about the city that helps to flesh out the setting as the story moves ahead…This is a self-published novel, and there are a few typos and errors in the text…Fortunately, the text is mostly clean, and the writing is strong enough that for the most part the lack of a publishing house’s editing team doesn’t detract from the experience or pull the reader out of the story.”
Chris at Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviews says: “Amra’s world is one of active magic, one where a cataclysm wiped out a major civilisation, and left survivors scrabbling to rebuild. There’s a fair amount of social construction under the surface – allusions to mass migration of refuges after a total disaster, for example. There’s also a fair amount of history, which is quietly laced through dialogue and world description – the odd mysterious ruin, references to long-ago conflicts, and so on…There’s a vibrancy and energy coming off the page from the environs – they’re plausible, detailed, complex, and suggest a living, breathing world around the protagonist. Amra, as a protagonist, is rather a lot of fun. She’s smart, quick, and interesting. Not a moral character, per se, but one with deep loyalties to friends. She’s a charming, pragmatic rogue, with a penchant for one-liners, and the ability to fight her way out of at least some of the sticky situations she ends up in. Over the course of the text, her loyalties are tested a little, and the reader gets to see her expand outside of her behavioural comfort zone – taking on a wider view, perhaps…I rather liked the competent, smooth, and somewhat dangerous feeling police inspector, and there’s a nobleman or two on the page who manage not to be total idiots in some fashion or other, which is rather nice. The feel from the villains is, in a lot of ways, more absolute – trying to get into their morals and motives is left secondary to watching them scheme, rampage, and generally slither in and cause havoc…The plot – ah, I did love this. It feels like someone took a dram of Chandler and a soupcon of Hammett, and blended them into this fantasy world. The noir themes are strong, and there’s a delightful string of byzantine crosses, double crosses and triple crosses. Motivations are obscured, trust is hard to come by, and everyone seems to be looking out for number one. Then there’s some brilliant chase scenes, a sense of high stakes wrapped within an intriguing mystery – and a feeling that no-one and nothing is quite what it seems. Is it worth reading? Emphatically yes. It’s a clever, high energy book, with an absolutely top flight protagonist, and a plot which kicks off from the first page, and didn’t let me put it down thereafter.”
David S. at Fan Fi Addict opines: “Starting off with intrigue and murder, the pace doesn’t let up for the 208 pages that it spans. There was never a point where I was bored or wanted to stop reading. I was always on the edge of my seat because even in the most mundane of situations our characters found themselves in there was always a hint of danger and the unknown. Fast paced, dark, and gritty at times, this was a ride worth taking. Michael McClung does a great job of building the world as he goes. I was really impressed by the amount of world building that he was able to get into such a small book…I will say that the magic is not explained in depth. The author does not go into great detail about it and you will not understand everything about it by the end of this book…There were times throughout this story that I laughed out loud, but I also just found myself smiling often. Amra’s humor especially was right up my alley and reminded me quite a bit of the irreverent and sarcastic characters of the Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch…Amra was a compelling character. A stubborn, brave thief with a conscience just trying to avenge one of her only friends. I found it very easy and enjoyable to follow her in first person and get to know her. We also get to learn about the world as a whole as she learns about it which I really enjoyed.”
Perhaps no book exemplifies the recent success of self-published works more than The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids. I have read and reviewed several books from Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO contests, but I have finally gotten around to tackling this first McClung book, which was the winner of the inaugural SPFBO. As I began reading, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids was not only a sword & sorcery style, but was also written in first person. In addition to the references the guest reviewers above have made, my personal feeling is that there are elements of Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. series, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Robert Asprin’s Thieves’ World, and Howard Andrew Jones’ Asim and Dabir stories. In addition, the city in which the story is placed feels like a blend of Cook’s Tunfaire and Thieves’ World’s Sanctuary. It’s a fully realized and believable setting that seems well thought out, if a little mundane…what I mean by that is that there isn’t really anything you’ll find in this city that hasn’t been thought of somewhere else, with the lone exception being the city cemetery – there’s definitely some unique things happening there.
Amra is a joy to read. Part Garrett P.I., part Harry Dresden, and most of all, a competent thief, she manages to maintain not only a sense of humor, but a self-deprecating sense of humor in spite of the scars she bears. She’s under no illusions about the damage she’s experienced and consciously acknowledges it, while at the same time dismissing it with a wry and sarcastic sense of humor. Dig deeper, though, and subconsciously it’s a big problem that affects her ability to trust others and make friends, while lovers are seemingly out of the question. She’s not all-powerful, or magical, or even the best fighter; however, what she does have is a will to survive, good instincts, a thorough knowledge of the thief’s craft, and the ability to understand motivation and spin it to her advantage. In short, she should be quite average and nothing special, and yet she’s an amazing character.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Her friend that is murdered isn’t in the story long enough for me to be invested in Amra’s quest for revenge, and that’s a problem. Other characters seem a bit two-dimensional, which is to be expected from a story of this size and that isn’t a problem. The mage Holgren, on the other hand, is a wonderfully developed supporting character and a great addition to the story. His actions and attitudes go a long way towards getting Amra where she needs to go in the story. In other books, sometimes the protagonist has a dependency on unbelievable events that get the plot where it needs to go; Holgren allows McClung to neatly sidestep that problem. Everything that happens here with regard to plot is neatly in place and makes sense.
Spoiler Alert!!! As the reader follows Amra’s quest for revenge, which fortunately turns into a fight for survival (as I mentioned above the revenge plot is a bit thin), we meet an assortment of shady characters and settings. One of my favorite scenes involves entering the lair of a crime boss. A later escapade involves demonology within a house outside the city, which in some ways reminded me of a scene in Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. But my favorite scene involved the aforementioned city cemetery. This leads to a satisfying ending in which Amra is transformed from ordinary to something else. We just don’t know it yet.
The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids is a fun, if all too brief, romp through a great world McClung has created, and worthy of it’s historic SPFBO win. The influences are many, from noir detective stories to wild sword and sorcery tales, and yet McClung has put his own stamp on it by allowing us to see the world through Amra’s cynical eyes. I was thoroughly hooked by the story, and though there isn’t really anything groundbreaking here, it is nevertheless a compelling read that has me looking forward to the next story in the Omnibus with great relish…