Of course, this is not a book written by the likes of Stephen King or Dean Koontz, but instead by the beloved author of classic books for children such as "Inkheart." Yes, there are elements of danger and fantasy that if spun together by another writer might result in a far more disturbing novel, but Funke’s handling of the story is more like what Charles Dickens would have penned if he had set his tales in modern Italy instead of 19th-century England, and was writing for kids instead of adults. Peril and peculiarity might exist in this world for a child trapped in tough circumstances, but there are always some good-hearted souls to help a person out along the way.
The story begins with a wealthy but unpleasant couple, Esther and Max Hartlieb, engaging the services of a rather odd private detective named Victor Getz to find their missing nephews. The orphaned children have run away from their grandfather’s house in Hamburg and have somehow managed to make their way to Venice. They fled because their aunt wished to get custody of five-year-old Bo but selfishly refused to take in 12-year-old Prosper, as well.
Despite his instant dislike of the couple, Victor agrees to track down the boys, for their safety more than anything else, while the Hartliebs return home on urgent business. Meanwhile, the two boys have been “adopted” by a small group of other youngsters who live in an abandoned theater. Their leader is an enigmatic youth named Scipio, nicknamed “the Thief Lord,” who brings in enough loot from his daring heists to keep the gang in food and clothing, even though they often contribute to the general fund through petty thievery of their own. Unlike the others, however, Scipio doesn’t live in the theater but only shows up when he chooses. His true identity and dwelling place are kept secret even from his friends.
One day while working as Scipio’s errand boys and selling some of his stolen goods to the unscrupulous shopkeeper Barbarossa, Prosper and another gang member, Riccio, are told that one of Barbarossa’s most important clients has a job for the mysterious Thief Lord. However, what the client wants him to steal is far from ordinary. In fact, as the group will soon discover, it is potentially life-changing.
Funke has proven over the years to be a skilled novelist, and the techniques she employs in this book illustrate how well she has mastered her craft. First, she deliberately keeps her content family-friendly to appeal to a larger group of people. Some mild bad language on rare occasions should be the only drawback for Christian readers. Second, she obviously desires to give her readers a tour of Venice and the surrounding region, yet does so without sounding too much like a guidebook. Third, she seeks to keep her young audience engaged with plenty of suspense, fantasy, and humor. Yet all three serve merely as an appealing package for what seems to be the author’s true goal with her novel: to explore the concept of maturity.
The author approaches her theme from several angles and through the lives of practically all of the characters in the book. For example, although Prosper is only 12, his moral sensibilities and sense of responsibility far surpass his years. In contrast, several older characters in the novel show by their selfish natures that being a grownup does not necessarily mean you have grown up as a person.
The novel also looks at what it takes to become a good parent. Thousands of children are born daily across the planet, but many of the mothers and fathers they are entrusted to lack the spiritual or emotional maturity to properly care for them. Thankfully, the majority of these new parents manage to muddle through the on-the-job training to do a fairly decent job of raising their young ones, but some never grow up themselves, causing their children to dogpaddle their way through life’s rapids before learning enough to swim on their own. Funke scathingly shows that some who have been given the privilege of parenthood don’t deserve the role, while others who have been denied the honor by life are actually better suited for the job.
Full of adventure, atmosphere, and thematic depth, "The Thief Lord" has won many awards, including top honors from School Library Journal and Parenting magazine. More importantly, though, it is a book that your children should both learn from and enjoy.
Image copyright Scholastic. Review copy from the reviewer's personal collection.
John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for USA Today, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Oklahoman, the US Review of Books, and more.