Thieves’ Paradise (Black Library Novella Series 2: Book 8)
I had heard good things about author Nick Horth and his Age of Sigmar titles published by Black Library, particularly his Callis and Toll stories, which featured Witch Hunter Hanniver Toll and former Freeguild soldier Armand Callis adventuring together to face down various malevolent threats. While I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to read The Silver Shard, the first Callis & Toll novel, I had by chance encountered Horth’s work for the first time in the Inferno! Volume 4 anthology, which featured his short story The Manse of Mirrors. It focused on the character of Shevanya Arclis, an aelf treasure-hunter and thief who had been encountered as a secondary character in The Silver Shard. It was a tense and atmospheric tale of a group of opportunistic thieves breaking into the house of a supposedly long-dead sorcerer, only to discover that nothing was as it seemed. It was one of the highlights of the anthology, and once I realised that Shevanya Arclis was also the main character of Thieves’ Paradise, I resolved to start reading it as soon as possible.
In the aftermath of The Manse of Mirrors, Arclis finds herself imprisoned and at the mercy of the Order of Azyr. Expecting to languish for years, if she’s lucky, she’s surprised to be visited after only a few days by a mysterious witch-hunter and his retinue. Arclis is offered a deal – her freedom on exchange for help with an urgent mission to recover an ancient treasure before it can be claimed by the undead forces of Nagash. Of course, it isn’t a simple mission or Ammos Varon wouldn’t be making a deal with an imprisoned thief. Arclis will have to assist in infiltrating the underworlds of Shyish and recover the treasure from the Latchkey Isle, the infamous afterlife for thieves, reputed to be nothing less than an endless maze of traps, pitfalls and a myriad other ways to test the skills of those who venture into its depths. All of that, and they’ll be racing against time as the God of Death also seeks the treasure they’re hunting for. Hardly an attractive prospect, but Arclis sees little choice but to accompany Varon on his near-suicidal quest. Before long, Horth has hurled characters and reader alike into a fast-paced adventure that doesn’t slow down, even for a moment, smoothly jumping from set-piece to set-piece. Whether its behemoths from under the sea attacking a rust-bucket trawler, desperate fights to escape from hordes of the undead, or dodging deadly traps within the labyrinthine depths of the Latchkey Isle, each is more vivid and engaging than the last.
Honestly there’s a lot to write home about here, because Horth is an excellent writer who seems to have this innate ‘feel’ for the Age of Sigmar setting, but by far the best part of the novella is the marvellous design and general overall atmosphere of the Latchkey Isle. It has a real bizarre, Inception-style air to it that Horth practically revels in, throwing in classically-inspired guardians, mind-bending layouts and delightfully complex puzzles that threaten death at the slightest mis-step. It’s obvious that Horth had a great deal of fun constructing the realm, and one wonders if he was ever a fan of the same fiendishly difficult Usborne Puzzle Adventures that I read in my evermore-distant youth. Plus there’s the additional element of the ever-less subtle effects of the encroachment of the Master of Death’s influence on the Latchkey Isle; an ever-present sense of sorrow and isolation, and a deadening of the senses amongst others, which make the setting even more engaging.
The first-rate worldbuilding and setting design is accompanied by a memorable band of characters. Arclis is a fascinating protagonist, aided by the first-person point of view, with a great deal of depth hinted towards as the plot progresses; it feels like there’s far more that Horth would like to do with her, and I’d happily purchase a full novel starring Arclis. Master Quentelm Boros, supposedly a renowned expert in mechano-arcane engineering and definitely little more than a mad scientist, is a delightful secondary character to follow through the novella, always bringing out another steampunk-esque gadget or weapon to fend off the undead; I was especially fond of his strange spider/hand construct that the group use to travel around prior to arriving at the Latchkey Isle. And while Varon appears to be a near-generic Witchhunter at the beginning of the novella, Horth gradually adds layers to him, and it becomes obvious that Varon has far more to his agenda than simply hoping to foil the plans of Nagash. Taken together, along with the legions of Nagash and their terrifying master, the necromancer Kauss, they are a thoroughly enjoyable cast to follow along with during their adventure.
Thieves’ Paradise is a masterful accomplishment by Nick Horth, effortlessly blending together a vibrant and colourful cast of characters with a break-neck heist plot full of deadly traps and glittering treasures, and a brilliantly-imagined setting in the Latchkey Isle which is almost a character in its own right, given the impressive amount of detail and imagination Horth has poured into it. While it can take me several days to finish off even a novella these days, with family, work and the whole on-going global pandemic, I found myself reading the whole of Thieves’ Paradise in just a single day, which should indicate just how compelling a read it is. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and from now on will be actively seeking out more titles by Nick Horth for my reading pile.