Mark of the Thief by Jennifer Nielsen – Review by Tyler McBride
You may know Jennifer Nielsen from the Ascendance Trilogy (affectionately known by my students as The False Prince Trilogy, after the title of the first book). In that series, she proved her ability to write characters that refuse to leave your mind after you set the books aside and captivating adventure stories that refuse to conform to your expectations or predictions.
Her most recent book does not disappoint. In Mark of the Thief, the first book in her newest series, Nielsen’s writing holds up to the standard set in her earlier novels. Nic, the novel’s main character, is a slave in ancient Rome. While working in a mine, he discovers a magical amulet (which the Romans called a bulla) that was owned by Caesar himself. He soon starts to realize that not only can he not control the bulla’s magic, but he also has no idea who to trust among all of those around him who seem to know much more about the magic than he does.
His journey to understand his own power and find his lost sister is filled with magical battles deep in Rome’s sewers, gladiator fights in the Roman Colosseum, harrowing escapes from angry soldiers, and awe-inspiring encounters with magical creatures. In Mark of the Thief, Nielsen crafts a page-turner novel that hooks readers and keeps them reading until the end.
However, Nielsen also proves that an action-packed adventure novel does not have to be short on substance. We all know the classic storyline of an epic battle between good and evil – and the tendency by some writers to cast characters into stereotypes of “good guy” and “bad guy.” There is none of that in Mark of the Thief. Throughout Nic’s journey, everyone he meets refuses to fall into the categories of “good” and “evil.” Just as the world is full of people who do good things for the wrong reasons and people who do evil things but have redeeming qualities, Nielsen’s characters are no different.
Throughout the book, Nic must deal with important issues about his identity, including how to reconcile his status as a slave with his new magical powers, and what roles destiny and personal choice play in how his life will turn out. Middle grade students and teens will start reading because they are hooked by Nielsen’s descriptions of action and danger, and they will keep reading because they relate to Nic’s coming of age adventure and his journey to find himself.
I’m not just writing about the hypothetical middle grade reader here – I have already witnessed dozens of 5th through 8th grade students fall in love with this book, its storyline, and its characters. This spring the school I taught at (Greenland Middle School in Greenland, Arkansas) hosted an author visit with Jennifer Nielsen. In the days before she arrived on campus, we were fortunate enough to find funding to give away dozens of copies of her books to students. One student received a copy of Mark of the Thief, read the entire book in a period of a day or two, and then proceeded to tell everyone in the school (including the school nurse and multiple teachers he didn’t previously know) how amazing the book was. Another student, after reading The False Prince in my class, begged her parents to buy Mark of the Thief, then proceeded to read nothing else for days on end. Many others caught interest after Nielsen’s visit, and despite my having four copies of Mark of the Thief in my classroom library, I couldn’t keep any of them on the shelves for longer than a class period or two until the end of the school year.
In my opinion, Jennifer Nielsen is one of the best authors writing today for middle grade and young adult students who want action-packed adventure stories full of excitement and intrigue, without sacrificing character depth and writing quality. Mark of the Thief will hook reluctant readers and avid readers alike, and both fantasy fans and readers more comfortable with realistic fiction will find plenty to love.
Tyler McBride (@tylerdmcbride on Twitter) is a 7th grade English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Lincoln, Arkansas. He is a teacher-consultant with the Northwest Arkansas Writing Project and a board member of the Arkansas Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts. His blog, Common Sense in ELA, documents his thoughts about the teaching profession. He currently lives in Lincoln, Arkansas with his wife, Vasti, and their dog (Molly) and two cats (Butter and Popcorn).