I love heist movies. It’s a weird addiction that I can’t shake. It doesn’t matter what type of heist movie: Ocean’s Eleven, Foolproof, The Perfect Score, that one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where they rob the holosuite casino to help their holographic friend (don’t ask). I love that moment in the middle where we get walked through the plan, usually as a montage set to a voiceover. It feels like a privileged sneak peek, because then we get to see the real thing.
Anyway, this has nothing to do with Giant Thief. I just wanted to rhapsodize about my love for heist movies for a paragraph. Plus, it leaves me well-disposed towards thief characters in general. I enjoy watching a protagonist take on someone who really deserves their comeuppance and construct an intricate plan to deliver it, usually by taking something away the antagonist values—or taking back something that isn’t theirs in the first place.
We don’t get a lot of that in Giant Thief. David Tallerman instead presents Easie Damasco, a thief whose mouth is faster than his brain and whose penchant for stealing is matched only by his ability to get into trouble. The story begins with him hanging—yes, he gets as far as the noose—only to be saved at the last moment by Moaradrid, the leader of an army that is invading this land. (I’m a little unclear on the exact geography, but I believe the entire land is called Castovalia.) Easie becomes a conscript in this army in a unit essentially used as cannon fodder. So he escapes, with a giant in tow.
It’s all very contrived and not a little wonky for the first few chapters. And the next few. And the few after that. See, Giant Thief feels like a single, drawn-out inhalation of breath. Easie gets captured, escapes, and runs. He find some allies, and runs. He almost gets captured, and runs. Each chapter finds Easie getting into another scrape, followed by another. He doesn’t get a chance to catch his breath, and neither does the reader.
Another book might do this and earn the label “intense,” but that’s only if the stakes keep increasing as the protagonist continues to get into scrapes. This is where Giant Thief falters in the application of that magic formula. Easie is hauling around an important ruby (I won’t spoil it by revealing what the ruby does, but it’s a perfectly serviceable MacGuffin). Tallerman attempts to draw out the revelations related to this ruby, and this is almost enough to increase those stakes. However, it seldom seems like Easie is any better or worse off in one position than he is in the next. If I were going to draw a Freitag pyramid for this book (which I won’t, because they are dull), it would be pretty damn flat.
And Easie is a thief, for heaven’s sake. He should do thief things. I could probably tally the number of times we see him actually steal something on one hand (I won’t, because I can’t type very well one-handed). He does plenty of stealing, but it all happens off-page, or it gets mentioned but not actually described. Similarly, I expect thieves to be clever, to scheme. If Easie is so clever, why does he keep ending up in so many scrapes? To be fair, Tallerman attempts (there’s that word again) to have Easie make plans—they just all go awry. But you have to toss a win in there once in a while to keep the reader’s attention.
Instead, Tallerman hopes Easie’s wit will do that job. Giant Thief is relentlessly humorous. That is to say, every line of dialogue seems crafted with the intention of being droll. This has the effect of making me feel strapped into a seat at a local comedy theatre. I don’t particularly enjoy stand-up comics, and it’s not just because most of them to tend to rely on stereotypes and weak humour; there’s something innately unfunny about sitting around just to listen to jokes. I my jokes to be contextual. Much like I expect thieves to be clever, I also expect them to be sardonic and funny, and Easie Damasco posesses these qualities in spades. However, Tallerman overuses them to the point that they become white noise. When every line is keyed for maximum punch-line-osity (this is a technical term, I assure you), you risk joke-oversaturation.
Moreover, it seems like a lot of the humour in this book comes at the expense of depth or additional stakes. It’s as if Tallerman is choosing between humour or depth and choosing humour nearly every time. That’s a false dilemma: it’s possible to be funny and raise the stakes at the same time—check out The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or jPod. This is a shame, because there are definitely threads here that could make for a very compelling and fascinating story. But as it is, I just don’t see it.
Finally, a word about setting. The world of Giant Thief never quite coalesces into a well-defined structure for me. Easie and friends bandy about some names, and we meet a prince or two, who seems to be the ruler of a city. Along the way we meet a mayor, and some elders of a village … and it all just feels like cookiecutter fantasy tropes without much in the way of distinct culture. The village, the city, and all the various characters who populate such venues have all been conjured from the fantasy stock pot without so much as a little extra seasoning thrown in.
It’s a really neat idea, pairing a giant with a thief. But they have to let loose. There has to be drama from the beginning, not just a very long chase sequence. There has to be real stakes. And if you want those to include the fate of a country, you need to give me some sense of that country’s history and culture and what makes them worth saving. Giant Thief tries hard to be intense, witty, and enjoyable. And, to throw in some faint praise at the end here, it wasn’t all that boring; there was never a point where I felt like I needed to stop reading. It’s just steeped in missed opportunities.
Certainly, it’s no heist movie.