Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mark of the Thief (Mark of the Thief #1) by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Books that have an unreliable narrator oftentimes have terrific plot twists and turns. Jennifer Nielsen used it in her first book, "The False Prince," that had me captivated as a reader. The formula she used in that story had nonstop action, in-depth plotting, and a complex character. This book attempts to use the same formula with the setting in Rome during the time of slaves and gladiators, but it didn't work as well for me. Part of the reason was I looked more closely for clues pointing to an unreliable narrator again and I didn't think the character's inner monologue was as interesting and the plot had some holes. Students are not going to care. They'll clamber for and enjoy the fast-paced action scenes, fights in the arena, and facts on Rome with magic tied to the gods and goddesses.

Nic is working the mines as a slave when a Roman General asks for his assistance to retrieve Caesar's bulla, said to have the power of the gods. One slave has already died in the recovery attempt and another has gone mad. Unfortunately, slave Nic is next in line to be forced to give it a go. He not only gets the bulla, he accidentally absorbs its magic getting god or goddess-enhanced superpowers he doesn't understand or know how to control. He gets caught up in the Praetor War conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor and destroy Rome. Nic is a puppet to Senators and Generals being tossed into their deceitful fights when his heart's desire is to just live free from slavery with his sister.

While the action is nonstop, the plot didn't surprise me often. The unreliable narrator works when the reader doesn't know the twists and turns of the plot. I guessed the main twist way too early and it took much of the fun out of it. Of course, I'm onto Nielsen having read her previous Ascendence series so perhaps if I hadn't been on the lookout I might have overlooked the clues. So I'm not sure if her plot signals were too obvious or my brain was just too engaged. You'll have to decide for yourself.

Nic reacts more than he thinks about things deeply. Part of this is to setup for the end and it didn't quite work for me. The pathos behind some of his decisions seemed ad hoc at times. At times Nic is too trusting. Other times he doesn't take action when he is exposed such as when Sal spots him in hiding. The villains don't kill when it seems obvious that they would. As a slave, Nic is rebellious versus being demoralized by those oppressing him. He doesn't act with much fear toward situations and his thought progression from being a slave to wanting freedom at all costs was somewhat contradictory. I wished the author had explained he remembered a time when he was free and the power of that memory made him get over his fears. I kept thinking for someone who'd been oppressed, Nic was awfully bold (another clue).

I would also think if he really wanted to flee with his sister, why didn't he run when Horatio gave him the chance and use his powerful magic to rescue his sister on his own? That would have been less risky than going into the arena. He had been there before and it sounded terrifying. And why did the General ask for Nic's help in the first place? Was Nic the only person that could get the bulla? Wouldn't he have picked a different slave than risk what he knew. Why didn't Nic take the bulla from the General when given the chance? These questions are revealed at the end with the plot twist, but I thought it weakened the plot by causing contradictory actions in several different characters. I had several "Huh?" moments.

Aurelia is a strong female character that is good with a knife and bow and arrow. She saves Nic at times when he is in bad situations - which is most of the time. She had a great character but Nic spends too much time distrusting her. It started to not feel authentic. When Nic ends up in a colosseum where only he can help himself, the author shines. Nic uses his superpowers in unpredictable ways that will make readers flipping the pages for more. The cliff-hanger ending will have students asking me nonstop when the sequel will be released. A story that will get students excited about reading.

3 Smileys

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