September 2018 The Thief Lord: on the trail of winged lions

The Thief Lord: on the trail of winged lions
Cover © Chicken House Press

Journey to the River Sea, by Eva Ibbotson, is one of those children’s books which opens up magical new worlds for its readers, be they young or young at heart. After the death of her parents, Maia is taken in by relatives who live on the other side of the world – in Brazil. In a Cinderella-like plot, her aunt, uncle and twin cousins turn out to be horrible, but Maia’s thirst for joy, friendship and adventure lead her to just those things. The book is a spirited celebration of friendship, even in unexpected places, while Ibbotson’s evocation of the Amazon region is enchanting, prompting a whole generation of children to dream of rainforests and a golden theatre with monkeys on the roof.

Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord (perfect for 9- to 12-year-olds) is set closer to home, in Venice, but Funke weaves the same sense of magic in her conjuring of the place, a golden, watery city of carved angels and winged lions. Venice casts its spell over the novel’s characters as well as its readers, and – as in Journey to the River Sea – the failure to appreciate the place’s charms is a sure sign of a character to despise.

The Thief Lord follows 12-year-old Prosper and his 5-year-old brother Bo who have run away to Venice together, rather than be separated by their aunt (who – hint – doesn’t like Venice) after the death of their mother. They fall in with a gang of children living in an abandoned cinema and looked after by Scipio, the Thief Lord, a mysterious boy whose thefts from (it would seem) palaces and mansions keep the children fed and clothed.

The children’s hard yet beloved life is threatened by a worried detective on the trail of Prosper and Bo, but also by a strange commission for the Thief Lord: the theft of a wooden wing which leads to a web of rumours and fairy tales.

Children’s books about resourceful kids who run away from home are hardly rare, but this one is a particular treat. Funke grants her young protagonists a joy in their independence and a keen ability to outwit adults, but she also gifts them some really solid adult friends when they need them – the sparky and generous Ida Spavento is a glorious addition to the cast. The book doesn’t skate over the hardships the children face, but – like Journey to the River Sea – it celebrates the unconventional families formed through friendship, reminding us that these unexpected alliances can be just as thick as blood.

Children’s books in translation can be particularly hard to find, so it’s great to see Chicken House Press bucking that trend – although their failure to name translator Oliver Latsch on the book’s cover and title page is disappointing. With its whimsical plot and refusal to fit neatly into any pigeonhole of a genre, The Thief Lord is a perfect example of precisely why it’s worth seeking out these international gems. Characters to love and hate, some glorious comic moments at the expense of the latter, and adventure and enchantment galore: Funke ensures The Thief Lord has plenty to keep any young reader in its thrall.

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