As you may have noticed from the past few days, I love a good heist/caper. They have the excitement of a mystery but flipped around from a whole new perspective. Let’s face it, solving crimes is slow, painstaking work with long hours, low pay, and lots of paperwork. Committing crimes — now that sounds like a lot more fun. Capers and heist stories show up in just about every genre, bringing adventure and excitement with them. Fantasy and Science Fiction both have a long history of thief heroes. Hell, Bilbo Baggins is a thief! From some long-term series with criminal anti-heroes to books where characters unexpectedly cross the line to the dark side, to mercenaries who aren’t too picky about the jobs they take – there’s a lot to choose from when you look at capers and heists in speculative fiction.
The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
Miles Vorkosigan comes from a culture with a stultifying emphasis on personal honor. So when he decides to cut loose, he usually does so in a big way. In fact he creates a whole alter ego to help give him the freedom to indulge his manic tendencies. There’s actually quite a few capers in the Vorkosigan series. Mirror Dance, Borders of Infinity, Cryoburn, and even Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (proving that some of Miles’ bad habits rubbed off on cousin Ivan) all have elements of a caper. But one of his most audacious thefts was his first: stealing a whole mercenary fleet. In the first book of Bujold’s books to features Miles, he flunks out of the Barrayan milliary academy after breaking both legs, goes to visit his grandmother on Beta Colony to wallow in his failure, buys an old freighter on a whim and winds up stealing a mercenary fleet. It’s so ridiculously fun that I want to re-read it right now.
Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison
Another fun series with endless capers and heists is the Stainless Steel Rat series. When I tell you that the lead characters James Bolivar diGriz is known by many under the alias “Slippery Jim” you probably get a sense of his general character. He’s a rogue, a con man, a thief and a liar. But things are never dull around him. In the first adventure of the series, DiGriz has a bank heist go wrong and ends up working for the Corps, a law-enforcement agency that is populated mostly with criminals like himself. While working a desk job as probation, DiGriz uncovers a military conspiracy on another planet and the Corps sends him to investigate. He encounters a serial-killing femme fatale by the name of Angelina and the two play the cat and mouse game. It’s all paper thin, and the series doesn’t really gain a lot of depth but for light adventure, the Stainless Steel Rat does deliver.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
One of the most memorable criminal-as-hero stories I ever read is Gibson’s cyberpunk masterpiece. In his world, there is very little good or bad, but tons of shades of gray. The anti-hero here is Case, a hacker who gets caught stealing from his employer. As punishment, they mess with Case’s brain so he can no longer access cyberspace – a fate worse than death for the hacker. Suicidal, Case is offered a cure if he will run a hack for a mysterious new criminal employer. What follows is a real-world heist and a cyberspace hack and it set down a pattern for a whole new genre. Really? You haven’t read Neuromancer? You really have to do something about that.
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
This is a dense one. While a lot of caper stories are light and funny and are the perfect books to pick up when you don’t want to think too hard, this one was a lot of work. Obviously an homage to the traditional heist story (the lead characters name is Jean le Flambeur. Remember from a couple of days ago? Bob le Flambeur = Bob the high roller), it starts with a prison break. Jean is forced to take a job with the mysterious corporation that arranged his escape, and his first job is on the planet Oubliette, where time is currency and the residents are obsessed with privacy. This is a stunning work of hard SF, but reading it I constantly felt stunned with a brick. When I managed to grasp the theoretical physics at play here there were some super cool ideas, but the Finnish author makes you work for it. I was majorly impressed by this book, but I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it. Fans of diamond hard SF might like it more.
Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding
I’ve written about my love for the crew of the Ketty Jay before, but I almost forgot to include them here. Maybe it’s the fact that steampunk sometimes gets lost in my brain when I am dividing the world into SF and Fantasy. Bad brain. For fans of a good caper, the Ketty Jay novels are a must-read. Everyone on that damn ship has a secret, most of them are running from the law, and they are always ready to break the rules if the score is good enough. The lure of the huge score is, in fact, what gets Darien Frey in so much trouble in the very first book. The Ketty Jay gets hired to boost an airship carrying a fortune in jewels, and the crew think they have it all planned out. But it doesn’t go as planned, Frey is on the run from a murder charge, and they have to stay ahead of the Coalition Navy, bounty hunters, pirates and (perhaps most dangerous) Frey’s old flame. I adore this series.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
You can’t talk about capers in fantasy without someone bringing up Lynch’s amazing debut. The novel follows a young orphan who is sold to a gang of thieves. Sound Dickensian? Well there is certainly a tip of the hat to Oliver Twist, but this thief, the eponymous Locke Lamora, is a vastly different sort of orphan. He takes to thieving like a natural, but soon finds that his true gift is for spinning fantastic con games and, well, lying. Apprenticed to a rather select band of thieves who call themselves the Gentlemen Bastards, Locke and his friends spin their schemes to relieve the rich nobles of their accumulated wealth. When they get tangled up in a power struggle between rival criminal leaders, Locke (a rather soft-hearted criminal mastermind) finds himself just trying to keep himself and his friends alive. Fast and funny, Lynch has an ear for dialogue and a gift for writing action.
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
Kelsier is a thief who spent years in the jails of the Lord Ruler’s prisons. He did pick up a useful skill while there — the ability to use allomancy to internal burn 10 different metals. Kelsier vows to use these powers of the Mistborn to overthrow the Lord Rulers, but he will need to assemble a crew of thieves to help get him into the palace. The key will be a young fellow half-Skaa (a kind of lowly serf) they find named Vin, who is also Mistborn. Vin’s coming-og-age story is yet another layer in the story, but for me the biggest appeal is the juxtaposition of a heist straight out of Ocean’s Eleven in this epic fantasy world where instead of (or in addition to) unique criminal skills, Kalsier assembles his crew of unique magic wielders. There are more books in the series, but honestly I stopped here, as I found it perfectly satisfying.
The Book of Jhereg by Steven Brust
I had been hearing about the Vlad Taltos books for years, but never got around to them until farily recently. But when I finally read Jhereg, I get what all the fuss is about. These books are FUN. Vlad is an Easterner (human) living among a very codified society of non-human Dragaerans. Their society is divided into houses one of which is Jhereg, the house of criminals and assassins. This is the house the Vlad Taltos has joined, and he’s pretty good at the whole assassination gig. In this first novel, he is hired to kill someone but is stymied by the fact that the mark is a guest at the home of one of Vlad’s friends. The Dragaerans take guesting privileges very seriously, and so much of the book revolves around Vlad trying to find an ingenious way to kill the man without violating the rules of hospitality. Unfortunately the Jhereg organization gets impatient and end up trying to kill Vlad as well, so there’s a lot going on. But as crazy as the stories get in this and the other volumes in the series, Brust is a very careful plotter and the caper always plays out in a way that makes sense, no matter how implausible it seems at the outset.
Rogues edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
Everyone loves a scoundrel. As themes go, this outstanding collection has chosen one with a generous flexibility and a surefire appeal. Beyond the general setup of characters that are a little dangerous, a little nefarious, and a LOT unpredictable the stories unfold in a delightful number of directions. Several play in the caper heist sandbox. There are stories from well-known mystery and thrillers writers, and well as offerings from those more known for SF and fantasy. Some contributors wrote stories featuring characters from their novels, while others strike out in new territory. Among the best are Neil Gaiman’s new story in his Neverwhere world, a brilliant new story from Patrick Rothfuss featuring Bast from the Kingkiller Chronicles, and the opening story from Joe Abercrombie that is an entertaining roller coaster of non-stop thievery.
The Spirit Thief by Rachel Aaron
Although I love the SF/Romance books this author wrote under the pen name of Rachel Bach like hell and yeah (see review), I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t gotten around to this one yet. Here’s the publisher blurb: Thief and wizard Eli Monpress solicits the aid of a swordsman and a demonseed to help him with his plan to steal a king so that he can achieve his goal, becoming the man with the highest bounty on his head. Reviews mention the over-the-top plot but stress that Aaron has created a thoroughly charming cad of a hero. It’s on my list.
Skin Game by Jim Butcher
There are a lot of murky motivations in the heroes and anti-heroes in the urban fantasy genre, but Harry Dresden can usually be counted among the good guys. So why is he working with a demonic thug like Nicodemus Archleone to break into the secure vault of Hades himself? Well, he doesn’t really have a choice. Mab, the Queen of the Unseelie Courts of Fairie and Harry’s boss (he’s the Winter Knight these days) has pretty much blackmailed him into doing the job. The setup has all the good heist ingredients: gathering a motley crew of specialists, plan the break-in, etc. But this is also a very rewarding book for fans of the series, as we see Harry really struggling with his role, the darkness that permeates his life, and the risks he takes to do what he thinks is right. Nicodemus and the Denarians make excellent bad guys. It’s really amazing to have a book this far into a series (it’s number 15!) still manage to do something different while still scratching the itch for the character we all know and love, but Skin Game does it. And the audiobook, narrated as usual by Jim Marsters, is fantastic.
Premonitions by Jamie Schultz
A paperback original that didn’t get much of a publisher push, I thought this debut was really impressive, giving it a star in my column in Library Journal. Karen Ames runs a small crew of crooks who work the fringes of the magical underworld. The score of a lifetime comes along when they are offered a million dollar payday to steal an occult artifact from a religious cult. They all have reasons for needing the money, but Karen’s is especially pressing as she has run through her supply of the drug that keeps her precognitive gifts under control. Perhaps it was inevitable that the job couldn’t be as straightforward as it seems, and in the aftermath Karen’s crew find themselves up against powerful and determined forces — human and demonic. As in most heist stories, so much of the appeal is about the characters and wanting them to succeed even while you know they are crooks. I loved this crew, the way they worked together and the dark turns their story takes.
California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout
This was one of the most impressively imaginative urban fantasies I’ve read in a while. I raved about it on the blog early on, but I don’t mind pushing this one over and over. It’s set in a version of our world where magic is the path to power, and the way to get that magic is to ingest the bones of magical creatures. California has been divided into two rival kingdoms, and in the Southern Kingdom of California, Daniel Blackland is a thief and an osteomancer, able to use bone magic. After the mysterious ruler known as the Hierarch kills his father in front of him when he was a child, Daniel went underground. The local crime lord wants to hire him for a job, but Daniel isn’t interested until he hears that it might finally be a chance for him to steal back a weapon made by his father that contains Daniel’s own bones. He puts together a crew to break into the Hierarch’s compound, but even the best thieves in Los Angeles are going to have a hard time stealing from the most powerful man in California. Daniel and his friends banter even when up to their necks in danger, and the magic system revolving around eating bones is fascinating (if icky). I thought it wrapped up a little quickly, but it was still one of my favorite books of 2014.