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The Magic Game in The Thief Lord
A common rule of magic (and of games) is that once something is done, it can't be undone. That's the magical rule that applies in The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke.
This is a fine rule. I feel cheated when things can be undone. Once your hand leaves that chessman, that's it, your turn is over. And once certain decisions are made in The Thief Lord, the characters have to live with them. No mulligans!
Often books with magic don't follow through with this rule. In many stories, breaking the spell is the point. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White need a kiss to wake up. Ella Enchanted is a quest about fixing a major magical inconvenience. Most of the magic in Harry Potter can be undone. The magic in The Thief Lord is irrevocable.
It's kind of a shame that there's magic at all in The Thief Lord. Except for a certain turning point, the magic in The Thief Lord is almost incidental. This isn't a book about magic. This story has a gritty realism to it -- it's about homeless children after all. The solution should be real too. True, the realism is shot through with the golden atmosphere of Venice. The city seems magical with its palaces and islands and winged lions. It is truly a wonderful and beloved character -- Who wouldn't want to run away to Venice? The reality for the group of children at the heart of the story is somewhat less than magical. They are unloved and unwanted.
Mystery enters in the form of the thief lord, a boy with seeming superhuman qualities of audaciousness, cleverness and bravery. He is adored by the group. Idolized. He is magical -- until events catch up to him too.
So the truth be told, I was disappointed that magic was used in The Thief Lord. The setting, the characters and the feeling of this book are so compelling, it didn't need magic to make it more interesting. That said, magic is used fairly, it follows the rule, and the characters have to live with the consequences of their decisions, just as in real life.
The highest recommendation that I can give to this book is this: I picked up a copy of Funke's Inkheart because of it.