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Take A Thief
Mercedes Lackey

Daw Books, 2001

With Take a Thief, Mercedes Lackey has delighted fans and self-abusers alike with another steaming pile of horrific crap.

Think I liked it? Well, I didn't.

Take a Thief is....

Dear god.

The Plot

Let's take this first. This is the main reason people read her books, I believe.

There is one thing that Mercedes Lackey does well, and that is escapism. Specifically, it is the boilerplate plot from which all her books are spawned.

There is always someone who had, or is having, a terrible, terrible childhood. There is always some waif who gets rescued by the Throbbingly Beautiful And Incidentally Psychic White Horse and becomes a Herald. Or a Herald who has repressed all the pain and torment of their childhood and is only now resolving it, in the middle of winter, trapped in a cabin with the one other Herald with whom they are destined to Do It, in a howling snowstorm which is the worst blizzard Valdemar has seen since the Most Recent Dramatic Historical Event Which Everyone In This Book Is Referencing.

The symbolism! The electricity! The DRAMA!

People read Mercedes Lackey for the emotional release, just like a good (or in this case, an asstacularly horrible) Greek play. The more tormented the teen, the more they will enjoy Mercedes Lackey. In fact, readers of all ages can dive into any one of her over-italicized creations and thrill to the vindication of the mistreated character du jour.

Most of the biographical blurbs about her specifically note the fact that she had a "normal childhood," and I've heard that she refuses to talk about her normal childhood in interviews. Other than to insist that it was perfectly normal. Yet many of her books involve the recurring theme of some mistreated youth overcoming tremendous odds to become a beloved hero and then graciously forgiving their family.

I'm just saying.

And it is addictive stuff; there is something exciting about the dramatic build-up and release of all these experiences, no matter how badly written. In fact, the worse the better - we don't want our dramatic orgasm to be all cluttered up with silly things like a cohesive plot!

The Setting

I'm not being entirely fair. There is one other reason I can see to read her books.

She spends a tremendous amount of time in each book simply explaining exactly how every single teeny-tiny aspect of this particular place in her imaginary world works.

This may not sound like a good thing. And it isn't. But there is something pleasantly hypnotic about it at times. She is the perfect author for any gamer who has ever spent more time fantasizing about creating a perfectly, infinitely detailed society than actually setting up a game.

Normally, this habit of hers drives me crazy. She desperately needs a decent editor, for this and other reasons. With proper editing, Take a Thief could have been a really snazzy short story instead of a mediocre novel. Of course, with proper editing, she would have far fewer books out, so it's not really in her financial interest to sacrifice quantity for quality.

But in Take a Thief, she got away with it a lot of the time. This is one of the few novels of hers in which some of the ridiculous exposition made sense; for example, having seven pages of endless natter about exactly why and how Skif committed each crime did actually add something to the book.

If she could only have omitted every other ten-page stretch of expository obsessive musings and faux-humorous asides....

The latter is one of my main problems with "Misty" Lackey's writing.

The Writing Style

Have you ever been invited to sit in on a game of Vampire: The Masquerade, or whatever the kids are playing nowadays? And you're surrounded by people you don't know that well, or at all, and they keep shouting out things that are clearly in-jokes, which don't make any sense to you, as if the in-joke itself is inherently funny?

"Look! A frog!"
(uproarious, hysterical laughter all around)

Kind of like the advertising for Napoleon Dynamite, which now offers a free watch that says "Iiiidiot!" out loud. I'm sure that's hysterical to the fans, but I'm left wondering why I want a watch that insults me.

Well, "Misty's" books are like that. She loads 'em up with italics, dashes, and exclamation marks and proceeds to make jokes that -- well -- aren't exactly funny! Like this:

This was not the sort of atmosphere he'd expect a priest to seek out!
To make matters worse, she elbows us in the ribs like that all the damn time. It's not just for jokes: any time she wants to make a point, or show someone's reaction to something, she breaks out the italics and the leftover bags of cut-rate punctuation.
Alberich examined the subject, asked his questions, made his statements, came to his decisions, and left it alone.

If he trusted the person in question.

And he trusted Skif.

That was a very, very strange realization.

And when all else fails, when she's hammered her points in so hard that the hammer broke, she starts veering out of the universal narrator voice and breaking the fourth wall:
So Bazie had built this thing in the first place?
Best of all is when she does all of them at once:
Even if this one hadn't actually murdered poor folks, he probably wouldn't care that his friend had. And my Lord Rovenar was oh, so conveniently away on his family estate in the country.
But wait, there's more.

The Characters

God help her, they speak in dialect.

Now, in real life, there are many reasons to write in dialect. But to invent her own accents and slang and differences in linguistic structure and then make everyone speak that way is... impressive, and also, damn annoying.

People had to fight for the ability to write in their own dialects, the way they spoke, the rhythms they grew up with, and still be published, and not get raked over the critics' coals. And this is what Misty does with that:

"Nah, I'll be doin' that t' all uv them, then into th' bleach they goes, an' no sign where they come from!" Bazie rubbed his hands together with glee. "An' that'll mean a full five siller fer the lot from a feller what's got a business in these things, an' all fer a liddle bit uv easy work for ye an me! Nah, what sez ye t' that, young'un?"

Skif could only shake his head in admiration. "That -- I'm mortal glad I grabbed fer Deek's ankle yesterday!"

And Bazie roared with laughter. "So'm we, boy!" he chuckled. "So'm we!"

It's a little-known fact that Daw Books had to create a special area of their budget just for replacing Misty's worn-out apostrophe key over and over.

The Screams Of Her Victims Before At Last Sweet Death Claims Them

I think my favorite thing about this whole wonderful fantastic book is the way she addresses child sexual abuse.

The plot, eventually, centers around what the FBI calls "child sex rings". Additionally, Skif grows up working in his uncle's tavern alongside a young woman who is forced into prostitution as well as taken into the proprietor's bed. This is how Misty deals with them finding out that the young woman has just barely turned fifteen:

"Fifteen!" Skif's eyes bulged. "I'da swore she was eighteen, sure! Sixteen, anyroad!"

Then again - he'd simply assumed she was. There wasn't much of her, and she wasn't exactly talkative. She had breasts, and she was of middling height, but some girls developed early. Wasn't there a saying that those who were a bit behind in the brains department were generally ahead on the physical side?

And she says it again later:
In the years since running off, Skif had learned a lot about his uncle, and he'd learned that when it came to women, Londer had to pay for what he got. Since he'd already paid for Maisie, it followed that he'd probably seen no reason why he shouldn't have her first. Not that he'd shown any interest in anything too young to have breasts, but half-wits often matured early, and Londer probably wouldn't even think twice about her real age if he'd taken her.
See? It's okay, because he didn't rape her out of a desire to fuck little kids - he did it because he PAID for her! And plus she already had breasts! And anyway, the real issue is that she looked eighteen!

Regardless of what it is that she meant to achieve with this subplot, all it does is detract from her later claim that child sexual abuse is "worse than death." If Skif really thinks it's worse than death, he should probably have a worthier reaction than "Oh well! Half-wits got some big boobs!"

That's quality writing, right there. And, while she keeps sort of obliquely referring to people sexually abusing much younger children, she never lets the characters actually think about it or reference it openly - the entire thing is kept pretty much peripheral to the plot, even when it becomes the denouement of the novel.

Actually, I take it back. My favorite thing about the book is the way that she addresses horsefucking.

Now, she doesn't talk openly about that either. But consider the following interactions between Skif and his magical pure white throbbingly beautiful psychic blue-eyed horse who "Chose" him:

She paced close to him, and once again he was caught -- though not nearly so deeply -- in those sparkling sapphire eyes....

He gazed into that abyss, and thought back at Cymry as hard as he could -- :Is that the only reason you Chose me?:

Because if it was --

-- if it was, and all of the love and belonging that had filled his heart and soul when he first looked into her eyes was a lie, a ruse to catch someone with his particular "set of skills"--

:Are you out of your mind?: she snapped indignantly, shaken right out of her solemnity by the question. :Can't you feel why I Chose you?:

That answer, unrehearsed, unfeigned, reassured him as no speech could have. And something in him shifted, straining against a barrier he hadn't realized was there until that moment....

:Skif -- do you really, really want me to leave you?: The voice in his mind was no more than a whisper, but it was a whisper that woke the echoes of that unforgettable moment when he felt an empty place inside him fill with something he had wanted for so long, so very, very long --

He rushed to greet her, and as he touched her, he felt enveloped in that same wonderful feeling that had been creeping in all afternoon, past doubts, past fears, past every obstacle. He pulled her head down to his chest and ran his hand along her cheeks, while she breathed into his tunic and made little contented sounds. He could have stayed that way for the rest of the afternoon....

Isn't that sweet? The pure, soft-core love between a boy and his psychic horse. It reads like the romance novels in the supermarket, the ones that used to inspire my friends to dramatic readings, the ones where people would gasp out things like "So bonny! So very, very bonny!"

Mercedes Lackey's writing bears every resemblance to a quasi-historical romance novel with a geek twist. She pumps it out at great velocity, with little variation in the basic characters, setting, or plot elements; she uses wildly purple prose at times, and lacks any subtlety in her language; she coyly skirts the edges of any really difficult issues, or treats them with very broad strokes, as if they were dressing for the main characters' emotional roller-coasters; and she puts most of her literary effort into trying to show off the sheer detail of her fictional setting, impoverishing the characters and robbing the novel of any emotional depth.

However, it must be said that this is not her worst book. Her stand-alone novels tend to suck less than the stories which she tries to stretch into trilogies. So if you must read a Mercedes Lackey novel, this might as well be it.

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