Mark of the Thief by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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mark of the thiefMark of the Thief by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2015.

With this exciting fantasy adventure, set in Ancient Rome, Jennifer A. Nielsen (The Ascendance Trilogy) launches another winning middle grade/YA series. Nicolas Calva is a slave working in the mines south of Rome, when General Radulf commands him to go into a recently discovered cave where it is reputed that Caesar’s treasure is buried. But there is more to this command that meets the eye, as Nic discovers when he is attacked by a griffin and then finds a bulla, a protective amulet worn Roman boys, that gives him magical powers.

After Nic’s abortive attempt to flee with both the griffin and the bulla, he ends up in Rome, where a series of adventures, including two thrilling episodes in the Colosseum, brings him closer to understanding what he has taken, and what it means to the Empire. He has to work to both develop and control his magic, which initially seems a bit amorphous, while at the same time decide which, if any, of the many seekers for the bulla has the most honorable motives.

Nic doesn’t have quite the charm or deviousness of Sage in The False Prince, though he is equally quick-witted. Like Sage, he is a reluctant central character in a complicated conspiracy and can only rely on himself, as he doesn’t know who else he can trust.  Nic has no real desire to have the bulla and its magic, but cannot see an alternative that would allow him and his sister to live as free people. Many other characters are introduced, and while they are not particularly well-defined, with the exception of the feisty plebian Aurelia, their roles are more to keep the plot moving along, which they achieve admirably.

Unlike the completely fictional Carthya, Nielsen places Nic in an alternate Roman Empire of Emperor Tacitus, some three hundred years after Julius Caesar. Along with Nic, the reader learns about the social structure of Rome, the duplicitous and sophisticated political world, and gets a behind the scenes look at the Colosseum.

I am a huge fan of The False Prince, though I felt the series tapered off pretty disappointingly in books 2 and 3. Encouragingly, Mark of the Thief leaves Nic needing to find two other magical objects, so it feels like Ms. Nielsen has a solid plan and structure for the remainder of the series.

The Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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the-scourgeThe Scourge by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, 2016.

I have really enjoyed The Mark of the Thief series, and quite liked, though not as much as many did, the historical fiction A Night Divided. But my favorite JAN by far is The False Prince, and I’m excited to say that The Scourge is almost as good in some ways and even better in that it’s a one-off!!!

Like The False Prince, the setting is an imaginary country in a sort of 16th/17th century. This time, the country is Keldan, with the population acrimoniously divided into town dwellers and the River People. The country is being ravaged by the Scourge, an incurable plague, which has so far only hit the towns. But when River People Ani and Weevil are picked up to be tested, it’s discovered that they are both infected and they are sent to Attic Island – a colony for Scourge sufferers that nobody ever leaves.

Ani is our narrator and is a typically feisty Nielsen protagonist – one who just can’t keep her mouth closed or her head down. Though not quite a female version of my beloved False Prince Sage/Jarod with his delicious snark and unreliability, it’s good to have a female action hero and one who can lead, as well as just get herself in and out of scrapes. Weevil (terrible name – sounds like a Disney sidekick) is the cooler headed of the two, and is also a love interest.

The plot rips along, and though I could see the big twist coming, it was a good one and well-executed. There is a balanced mix of tension and action, and the backdrop of the tension between the two Keldan cultures gives an interesting overlay of social injustice.

And did I say it all wraps up in one book? Hooray. The downside is that the support characters don’t really have room to develop, and it would be nice to have seen more of Della, the initially snooty townie sent to the colony with Ani.

This is JAN at her peak and I would happily press this into the hands of any middle school reader.

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Rise of the Wolf by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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Rise-of-the-WolfRise of the Wolf by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Mark of the Thief series; bk. 2
Scholastic, due out January 26, 2016.

Part two of Jennifer A. Nielsen week!

In this satisfying and exciting sequel to Mark of the Thief, “runaway slave with magic” Nic continues his fight against the Praetors in Ancient Rome. Having stolen a magical bulla from Caeser’s tomb, Nic is now on the trail of the powerful Malice of Mars, which is buried in a temple that only he has the key to – at least everyone thinks he has the key, though Nic has no idea what or where it is.

Ms Nielsen writes terrific action scenes – they’re grippingly exciting, particularly the chariot race at the Ludi Romani, which races along with dramatic twists and turns, and the climax in the temple, which is chilling and cinematic.

Nic remains an engaging narrator with his sharp wit and intelligence, and other characters re-appear, and have developed depth and complexity: Aurelia, the feisty plebeian, continues to joust with Nic in a way that can only mean that they’re destined for each other; Crispus more clearly emerges as the straight man to Nic’s magic and quips; Livia, Nic’s sister, stops being a drip (mostly); and their grandfather General Radulf develops a second dimension.

However, there isn’t as much interesting stuff about Ancient Rome as there was in the previous book, and, I must admit, I got a little lost in the ins and outs of the back story to all the magical items, though it was fine to just roll with it. The plot is probably more complicated than I’d like, but it rattles along with some good twists and reveals. And I do dislike a cliffhanger ending – I feel novels should be complete in themselves, even when part of a series.

Nonetheless, this is a very solid sequel, which middle grade fantasy action readers are sure to enjoy and I look forward to the final book of the trilogy.

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.