The Practical Idealist

Book Review: Thieftaker by D. B. Jackson

Thieftaker by D. B. Jackson,

A review by Neil C. Olsen.

A combination thrilling urbane fantasy and well researched historical novel that rivals the best of each such genre series, and leaves you wanting to read the next in the series.

One hazard for those of us who read a great deal of science-fiction is the vast amount of imitative novels dashed off by authors without invention or style. If one author has a big success with seductive vampires, 100 more will attempt to hack out variations on the theme, almost always with less skill, and with little invention or attempt at consistent world-building.  They fail in imagination.  Inevitably, the characters and actions will simply be the stale clichés.  “Urban Fantasy” is now a genre like “Historical Romance”. You will find assertive wisecracking women with troubled family backgrounds confronting raving motiveless bad guys, with vampires, demons, werewolves or [fill in the blank] as heroes — as long as they are really good looking and they always are. Characters appear to be transported from one genre to another with cliché’s, actions, and even speeches intact. I could probably write a software program to compile one genre into another: SUBSTITUTE ALL {PIRATE->VAMPIRE, BODICE->LOW-CUT-DRESS} and you have a modern romance novel plot with blood and supranational fashion statements, or James Bond on a horse with a pistol chasing Master Goldfynger in a coach.

Sometimes there is a witty cross-fertilization of genre: film nior plotting and characters were successfully brought, for example, to Glen Cook’s Tunfair series, and to a lesser extent, to Jim Butcher’s urban  fantasies. Lindsey Davis and Stephen Sayers do the same for their fine historical novels set in Ancient Rome – albeit without the magic. I can’t wait to read a new series book by each one of these authors. But the prospect of yet another gritty Vampire novel by female authors where room temperature corpses are presumed sexy – which is in no universe containing any women I know – or Urban fantasies where a select few of the elite have vast powers unknown to us dumb muggles, or clanking Steampunk adventures that violate natural law but weirdly praise science, all leave me as cold as a vampires toes.

Dylan Thomas wrote “After the first death there is no other.” My motto is, “After the first dozen genre series novels, I read no other.”

It was thus with great surprise and delight that I took up D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker, which he calls a “Historical Urban Fantasy”, and found a great prize.  It is a hybrid of urban and historical fantasy, and a combination thriller and detective novel in Colonial Boston at the time of the Stamp Act Crisis in 1765. His hero is Ethen Kaille, a “thieftaker” in an alternative world of Boston of 1765. It is a well-researched historical novel depicting a period not often covered even by history book, much less novels. To this he added a sort of alternative universe fantasy where magic is rare but present (at a low level), and even Puritan Boston has a disgruntled edgy tolerance for it, something like our tolerance of drugs, with their own kind of “Don’t ask don’t tell” policy.

The characters are three-dimensional, though placing the leading female character of Sephia Pryce as the villainous head of the Colonial Boston mafia is a bit of a stretch in Puritan Boston.  But she grows on you. The action is well set up for the start of any such series: the hero is not too powerful a “spell caster”, and thus has room to grow into powers and experience in future books in the series. He has to solve cases by smarts, determination, and friendship. His world building is solid enough, though you hope for more background information on how conjuring works in his universe.  Old men and women are important. Dogs are important.  The hero limps.  The elite who can handle magic are outcasts, rather like gays in the 1950s, in a society that does not persecute but does not encourage the practice of conjuring.

His main character is complex, with an interesting back history that influences his actions. He has an actual moral value system, and not just the all too common egocentric  “because I’m the hero I’m more virtuous than everyone else because I’m expressing my own values because I’m the hero” – uttered just before he or she slaughters some sentient creature (the She is allowed to feel briefly bad about killing, the He goes on to the next killing with a shrug). No doubt future books will thicken his leading character. His villains are realistic, with real motives. His heroes are not perfect. A number of minor characters are memorable, and not simply backdrop sketches. His action is character driven.

But what most impressed me is the historical accuracy of Thieftaker.  Instead of placing it more obviously in London, a place large enough to conceal all sorts of environments, he puts it in Boston, a town of about 15,000 people, that was then in its decline.  New York had taken over as the second largest Colonial City, and Philadelphia was much larger than either, and a thriving port in the British Empire – some claim it was the second or third largest after London and perhaps Bristol. Both port cities were by the 1760s culturally far advanced to backward Boston, a place of Puritan city Fathers who banned books of Church of England theology though the British Governor resided in the center of the town, and whose pulpit pounding Puritan preachers denounced all other denominations as a threat to their own liberty – and control. Harvard had started teaching modern science in the late 1730s, but only began to teach “modern” moral philosophy only sometime after 1764. The best people, including Roger Williams, John Checkley, James Franklin, and dozens of others, left for exile in Rhode Island or elsewhere. His selection of Boston also leaves needed room for character growth in future books: his hero can visit larger cities, or return to his home city. It is also possible he can backfill: I would like to see what he would do with the fire that burned down Harvard hall in 1764 – there is a whole novel in that.

Though I like historical fiction, I personally dislike reading fantasies involving important or well-known people. Fantasies with Benjamin Franklin, or Newton, or Burton or Swinburne as the hero are, for me, unreadable. It is lazy writing to pick them, as they are well known and too well researched. The originals are more powerful in biography than their echoes in fantasy.  In Thieftaker, Jackson wisely picks largely minor characters to involve in his action. Samuel Adams, perhaps the only character known to most readers – and probably only for his supposed beer brewing which thankfully is not in the book – is only involved because he is needed, and in a correct historical setting. One hopes he treats John Adams even more gingerly.

But I’d like to take just one (rather minor) character that I know a bit about and was surprised to find treated with dramatic complexity, though not total approval. This is the Anglican Minister of King’s Chapel, Boston, the Rev. Henry Caner. Caner briefly appears in my own history book on the influence of the American Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson, Pursuing Happiness: The Organizational Culture of the Continental Congress.

Rev. Caner (1700 – 1792) was the son of an English immigrant Architect Henry Caner Sr., who designed the original Yale College Hall.  Young Caner went to Yale in New Haven, then an all-Puritan college. As an Anglican in the established Congregationalist-Puritan state, the only place he could worship his religion in 1723 was with Rev. Samuel Johnson, two towns away in Stratford, Connecticut.

The American Rev. Johnson was an extraordinary man. I’ve made the case in my books that he is the founder not only of the Anglican church in Connecticut, but the philosophy behind the American Mind. He was the first man to introduce the Enlightenment into American colleges in 1716, teaching Copernicus, Locke, Bacon, and Newton to youths how only knew Latin and fifteenth century theology and logic.  He was a disciple of the great Bishop George Berkeley while the great philosopher was in Rhode Island. He was the pillar tutor at Yale, and helped reform its curriculum.  He published the first works on moral philosophy in America, the first English grammar, and the first Hebrew Grammar in America.  He led the Anglican side of the spirited 55 yearlong pamphlet debate between Puritans and Anglicans in New England. It was this American Dr. Johnson that created a domestic American philosophy of Practical Idealism (also known as “the pursuit of Happiness” philosophy) that found its way into not only the college graduates of six colonial colleges, where were about half of all Colonial graduates, but into the hearts and minds of Americans.

Henry Caner was Johnson’s first disciple – the first of eighty-five. By some people’s reckoning, Caner was the finest preacher and minister of all the New England Anglicans, which is why he was pulled out of his very successful Fairfield, Connecticut parish to lead what was then one of the most prestigious Anglican churches in America, King’s Chapel in Boston.

I was pleased to see that Jackson didn’t just make Caner a fanatic or knee-jerk disapproving priest.  In real life, when the war overtook him, he was a Loyalist; he was one of those dozen or so New England Anglican converts who could not get around their oath to the King.  He courageously went into exile at age 75 to England rather than violate his oath. However, in England he would get a pension, marry a woman much younger than himself, and spend his remaining decades in “pursuit of Happiness” in Cardiff, Wales. There with his young wife he lives “happy in obscurity and Episcopal neglects”, dying at age 92. I hope Jackson’s sequel treats his fictitious Caner well as life treated him in his coming books.

But I’d like to return to the American Dr. Samuel Johnson. Johnson introduced the Enlightenment into America: Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton were cornerstones of his self-taught radical new curriculum he introduced in 1716 at Yale, and which Harvard, for example, didn’t start teaching until the 1740s for science, and perhaps 1760s for moral philosophy. In 1740, he also invented the most modern library indexing system until the Dewey Decimal system.  Johnson taught a fusion version of moral philosophy, Enlightenment idealism, natural religion, and heritage religion that became the basis for the founding documents of America.

But Johnson also had a mystical streak. He mentioned not only the Christian and Jewish religion in his works on morality, but Greek, Romans, Egyptian, and even Persian gods and religion. As the Founder of King’s College (now Columbia University), he decided to design the college seal. He first read two mystical works, seeking hieroglyphic images to display. He read Dr. Spenser’s work on the Jewish oracular stones, Dissertatio de Urim & Thummim, and Hermes Trismegistus, the book that described the union of Greek and Egyptian gods of writing and magic: it was one source for the mystical aspects of Freemasonry – yet another fusion of natural philosophy and spiritualism yet to be mined by science fiction.

Both the classical and pagan world informed and broadened the heritage religious conceptions of morality of the day. Johnson, late in life, even started to adopt the rather unorthodox and much ridiculed theories of John Hutchinson (1674-. 1737), who claimed that embedded in the Hebrew Old Testament’s grammar were the actual laws of nature, and that Newton got it wrong. Actually Newton himself also wrote many works that would now be classified as “occult studies”. Thus Jackson’s placing of witchery and conjuring in Colonial America is not so far-fetched. I am also glad he avoided the Salem trails cliché’s.  In fact, the period from 1780 to 1780 is perhaps the perfect period for fusion works such as Jackson’s, where science could co-exist with imaginative theories.

Jackson certainly has enough material to build a unique world, and a consistent one. If he avoids the major players save as supporting characters, and does not fiddle with the historical truth too far, “jump the shark”, or rush too quickly to the period of the American Revolution, he may become another Steven Saylor or Lindsey Davis historical novelist, and author successful fantasies like those of Jim Butcher, or Susanna Clarke, or – if we are very lucky – he may be another Naomi Novik with her Temeraire series.

I think we may happily expect many more novels the series. I for one care about his hero Ethen Kaille, and want to know more of him. Fortunately, the second book in the series, Thieves’ Quarry, has just been released.

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