Like everyone else I know who read The False Prince (it won the Cybils Award for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction award in 2012), I loved it, so of course I had to read Jennifer Nielsen’s new book. Bonus points for being set in ancient Rome!
Mark of the Thief by Jennifer Nielsen. Scholastic, 2015.
Nic insists that his full name is Nicolas Calva – because he will be more than a slave someday. He would have escaped the mines long ago, but planning an escape that includes his gentle sister Livia has been harder than he can manage. Then a clearly corrupt general comes to the mines, convinced that the magical bulla (a childhood amulet for boys) of Julius Caesar is hidden in the mine. After a string of older slaves fail to return, Nic is sent down. There he finds the bulla guarded by a griffin. Somehow, between the bulla and griffin, Nic gets magic for himself. But will this be a way to escape, or only another death trap for Nic and Livia? Along the way, Nic has to figure out who to trust, with a senator and his son and a tough street girl who’s made it her job to look out for as many of the street kids as she can. Not only is Nic now key to supporting or bringing down the emperor, but his beautiful griffin is much desired for fighting in the rings. Nic will have to use every one of his limited resources for both himself and the griffin to make it out alive…
This is another taut fantasy thriller from Nielsen, sure to appeal to kids turned onto ancient mythology by the Percy Jackson books. There are a few small flaws – I didn’t find the twists quite as shocking as those in The False Prince and I didn’t quite buy the villain’s motivation – he was going to extreme lengths over something that, while certainly upsetting, was after all fairly common in the time period. Nic himself was possessed of an unlikely amount of self-confidence considering he’d been raised a slave – but as that made him a much more sympathetic and enjoyable character, I didn’t mind it. I wished his sister Livia had had a little of his gumption, though her passiveness was balanced out by the street girl. There is a lot of pretty graphic violence towards children and animals, making it best for older and/or less sensitive readers. This is still a solid series opener, with strong characters and plenty of action and intrigue, and I’m feeling glad that I read it rather late this year as I now have just over a month to wait before book 2, Rise of the Wolf is published. It could pair well now with Diane Stanley’s The Chosen Prince.
This book has been nominated for the Cybils, but this is just my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.