Mark of the Thief on the Mark?

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Mark of the Thief Jennifer Nielsen Book Roman Historical Fiction

Getting middle schoolers to read is as easy as pushing a boulder up a hill with an anvil attached to your back as monkeys bounce on your head. I would know, I teach them. It's just a generalization, but the majority of them claim to have much more interesting things to do then sit down and read a real, page-turning, wood-fiber-smelling, honest to God book. And I'm not too big to admit, when I received the book in the mail, I had wandering thoughts of seeing if I could just download the book on my iPad and read it. Seriously, who carries around a book in the hand anymore? But as soon as I opened the first page and the waft of new book smell carried through the air, I remembered how wonderful it was to hold a book in your hand and feel the weight of the author's words printed on paper. It caused me to wonder if my students ever knew the enjoyment of trying to figure out how to transport books with them so they would have it on hand for any free moments to read just a few more pages. The first time my husband and I went abroad, I'm pretty sure we brought more books with us than clothing. I mean, seriously, how else do you keep yourself entertained for eight hours on a plane? Then, of course, when we landed, I don't think it was more than twelve hours before we found ourselves in a bookstore.

But I digress, back to middle schoolers. This book is labeled for ages 10 and up. When you read the description of this book, it's hard to imagine a 10 year old saying, “Oh yes, I want to read the book about Roman slaves!” But when you throw in magic and alternate histories, the story becomes much more enticing. Essentially, we follow a young slave named Nic and his whirlwind journey into becoming a powerful magician. Nic has no family, save for his sister, and no future because of his surroundings. It's the stereotypical sci-fi/fantasy coming of age story: boy is alone in the world, boy gains great power, boy learns to use great power, adventure ensues.

Normally, I don't delve too deeply into the actual story in reviews, but I found myself constantly drawing correlations from this book. For insistence, the protagonist is a young, poor kid who is forced into a cave by a wealthier, upper-crust baddie to find a mysterious treasure. All the author needed to do was call it the Cave of Wonder, and Aladdin could have actually had a crossover! Then Nic finds out there is magic in the world, he's a powerful wizard and is the only person who can save the Empire. If only he had Luke Skywalker's or Harry Potter's number, he could have texted them for advice. And, let's not forget the bow-toting, aggressive, strong female character whose passion is to protect her charges and find her family. She would make Katniss extremely proud. Realistically, I understand that there are very few original stories and every story has vague connections to those already created, but the evidence is glaring here. There is a scene in Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban movie that my husband mentions he loves every time we watch it where the hippogiff, Buckbeak, drags his claw across the lake while Harry is riding him. In Mark of the Thief, the hero, Nic, rides his griffin, Caela, out of the caves and, upon their escape, the griffin drags her talon across the water. It was that exact description that made me start to see all the similarities to other works.

Nevertheless, despite this, Jennifer A. Nielsen weaves a wonderful story of adventure and intrigue. The hero is in constant danger and angst-ridden, the story never slows down, and there are enough twists and turns to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. For a young adult book, it's quite well written. It perhaps could be enhanced by a bit more imagery or characterization, but overall offers plenty of story in a 340 page book. The author has created intricate backstories for each character, but not so confusing that it is unintelligible. At no point did I feel like I was slogging through useless muck to get to the important storyline. Nielsen's writing is smooth and handles the winding story with ease. Although I read the book in one sitting, a fifth or sixth grader would get at least a week or two's enjoyment out of this story. This is book 1 of the series and I'm excited to see how Nic's adventures turn out. I'll be reading the next book.

 

The TL; DR: An enjoyable, if slightly derivative, story that should pique teenagers' interest. They will need to do a bit of research on Roman history to fully understand the backstory, which is excellent. Sure, give it to the young'uns to a read, they'll like it!

Grade: 
4.0 / 5.0