THE THIEF LORD By Cornelia Funke, Scholastic, $ 16.95
By now, readers have had more than enough exposure to Harry Potter and his creator, J.K. Rowling, both through the books and the films. And enthralling as these stories and adventures are, a tale with a difference, which, strictly speaking, is for pre-teens, is a welcome change. Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord meets precisely that demand. Indian readers may be surprised to know that in Germany, Funke is a bestselling children’s writer, and in terms of popularity, almost at par with the creator of Harry Potter. Interestingly, Funke was originally an illustrator for children’s books who ultimately decided to write her own books so that she could illustrate the way her fancy went. In The Thief Lord (Herr der Diebe in German), we have wonderful examples of her illustration skills.
Although comparisons with Harry Potter will inevitably creep in, these are unfair, since Funke’s plots are more mundane and much less magical than Rowling’s. The plot of The Thief Lord, for instance, is poles apart from those of the Potter stories. One could even detect shades of Dickens in Funke — there are touches of Oliver and Fagin in Prosper and Scipio of The Thief Lord. The best way to read the novel would be as an adventure story with a touch of fantasy.
Prosper and Bo (Boniface) are children who run away from their grandfather’s home in Hamburg all the way to picturesque Venice so that Bo is not adopted by their uncle and aunt, or Prosper dumped in a home. And despite Venice being a long way off, they manage to reach the city “squatting in rattling trains, hiding from conductors and nosy old ladies. They had locked themselves into stinking toilets, slept in dark corners, squeezed tightly together, hungry, tired and frozen.”
In Venice, chance throws them together with Scipio and his gang who steal for a living. The members of the gang are not much older than Prosper and live in an abandoned theatre. Scipio, the leader, is older and always wears a mask. It is Scipio, the Thief Lord and a Robin Hood figure, who sees to it that the two siblings are warm and well-fed.
Scipio prefers to steal jewels. In course of time, it is found that Prosper is a hard bargainer who can get the best deal from the pawnbroker, Barbarossa. Life probably would have gone on like this had not a rich client asked Scipio to steal a broken wooden wing, which is part of a magical carousel. The carousel has the power to change adults into children and vice versa. This is where the story takes off, and one adventure follows another. A lot of secrets are revealed, and so are the true selves of the characters. The reader is deftly lead into a world cloaked in fantasy.
The conventionally romantic city of Venice is transformed into a faintly magical city which has a mysterious side to it too. In short, a place which will interest children and adults and fire their imagination. To say more would be to give the plot away. Suffice to say that everything turns out well, but not before the reader realizes that everything may not be the way it seems. It must be said that The Thief Lord has been competently translated, for it reads as easily as any other book written in English. Indian readers stand to gain from more such well-executed translations of popular European authors.