Dance of Thieves by Mary E. Pearson
★★★☆☆ // 3 out of 5 stars
Goodreads Review: here
Video Review: here
I didn’t deserve this. The Remnant Chronicles didn’t deserve this.
So, if you are fan of the Remnant Chronicles, you were likely ecstatic to see Mary E. Pearson announce a continuation to her series. Unfortunately, Dance of Thieves fell short of the standard set by its predecessors. There’s a reason why Lia and Rafe just walk out of the room in this one and that is one Big Mood.
Beware: Unmarked spoilers for the ending down below.
So, let me preface this by saying I love the Remnant Chronicles (TRC), but even I had a hard time following this without reading other reviews for help getting this straight. It’s better to go into this being familiar with TRC, but even that’s not a guarantee you’ll enjoy Dance of Thieves.
Oh boy, where to begin? Our main characters are Kazi of Brightmist (ugh), an elite Vendan soldier (Rahtan) with a troubled past and favorite of Queen Lia, and Jase Ballenger, the newly instated patriarch (Patrei) of an outlaw family empire. Jase has a duty to lead his family and their empire while their domain, Tor’s Watch, is being sought after by various groups interested in usurping power from the Ballengers after th previous Patrei, Jase’s father, dies. Kazi is on a quest with her squad under instructions from Lia, the queen of Venda, to search for a war criminal responsible for the deaths of the queen’s family members and conspiring against the general interest of the kingdoms of the continent. The Rahtan believe the Ballengers are harboring said war criminal, so they gotta investigate and bring that sucker back to the queen for JUSTICE. The first 100 pages of this book more or less follow our main characters shackled to each other against their will and wandering in the wilderness.
I honestly hate lost-in-the-wilderness arcs. I didn’t deserve this. As an ardent fan of TRC, even I had a hard time being thrust into the setting of this book, which takes place ~6 years after the end of the 3rd book of TRC. And after slogging through this entire volume, it became clear that…
1) The world-building was going to remain vague.
I had a hard time understanding what the magic was all about in TRC. When Dance of Thieves (DOT) came around the corner, I hoped Mary E. Pearson (MEP) would rectify that sense of vagueness. But, uh. Nope. I’m still in the same place I was when I read TRC all those years ago. The magic in this universe feels more like a *gut feeling* than anything. While Kazi and Jase are having fun being “lost” in the woods, Jase gives us a recount of his family empire’s history and how it relates to the first kingdoms/countries of TRC continent. The Ballenger family history is more concrete than the magic in this world, and probably the strongest element in the world building by far. However, the mentions of the Ancients and the Remnants sounds overly vague in a mystical-biblical sense. I’m not sure what kind of entities they are, but everyone in the book sure knows without ever explaining it properly.
2) The romance between the two leads could not carry the book but tries to do so for 500 freaking pages.
The romance between Jase and Kazi was so fast-burn, I half expected MEP to pull a fast one and let it fizzle out so I could be put out of my misery. But no, when these two are all over each other, they’re all over each other. That’s not the kind of bang I wanted to start with. The development of their relationship was truly circular, hence the title Dance of Thieves, is rather fitting. The initialy set up felt unnatural – like all the drama between the Ballengers and the Rahtan was constructed JUST to bring these slices of hetero wonder bread together. You heard me. Hetero wonder bread slices.
In terms of story elements and structure, it seems that Mary E. Pearson has taken a page out of Bardugo’s book, much to the detriment of DOT. I say this because of the similarities between the tragic backstories of the main female leads in DoT and SOC (human trafficking angle, both are severely glossed over); how similar Kazi’s name is to Kaz’s; convoluted plots about creating weapons of mass destruction included flippantly without any discernable commentary; the justification of violence and torture against the baddies without due process because they “deserve it” while vindicating the goodies because they are young and identifiable and are thus in the right; and the emphasis on riff-raff status becoming a source of pride when expendables with grand destinies is Not a New Trope At All.
Why can’t Bardugo’s influence leave me the fuck alone? This isn’t even her book.
I didn’t deserve this.
Kazi – I despise this girl. She is a massive hypocrite and incompetent for most of the story. She has a tragic backstory™ because her mother was kidnapped by Prezivi drivers (illegal traders). So, her family was stolen from her. So what does she do? She kidnaps Jase from his family, of course. And before that, she invades his home, threatens his family and almost poisons them, when we could have hacked 300 pages off this book if she and Jase just put on their adult pants and talked to each other. This is the most infuriating form of miscommuniation trope. What a literal home-wrecker. If you’re into that miscommuniation trope, though, this might be a plus for you.
tbh Kazi is no more than street trash to me, as much as the rest of Jase, the Rahtan, and Queen Lia want to tell us how she’s *more* than that. You know, an expendable main character who comes across a larger destiny isn’t exactly a revolutionary trope. Noble street rat is a subversion of real life beliefs that expendables are… well, expendable.
When the premise of Kazi’s own presence in Tor’s Watch is based on deception, Kazi sure has a lot of nerve being offended when Jase doesn’t open up about everything that’s on his plate. The characters in this book put Kazi on a pedestal and glorify her intelligence, when I’m wondering if everyone is smoking crack because Kazi’s riddles aren’t mysterious or intriguing. They’re just bad. I don’t know how anyone could be entranced by them enough to give her a free golden ring for her poetry.
This entire book can be summed up in: Everything will be alright for Kazi and everyone should love Kazi because she has trauma regardless of her actions. MEP does not delve deeply into Kazi’s trauma. There is an effort to make it present on the page, yes. I have no problem with characters and their rotten behavior as long as we come to realize why they are the way they are. With Kazi, there is no such effort to flesh her out beyond poor, damaged street rat turned elite thief because someone with power took a shine to her. Sounds familiar. Aside from that, this girl has no direction or arc besides opening up and trusting people (Jase) – she has no goal of her own. Is that supposed to be the point?! That she came from nothing and therefore has nothing to herself? Boring. And so was that thing with her and the tiger. What even.
Also, somehow the magical power of hetero-love made everything turn out ok for her and Jase, even though their relationship was stagnant past its establishment.
Jase was much more tolerable than Kazi. His weakness is, of course, is his bad taste in women i.e. Kazi. He has his faults, and it admits to them – even for being stupid and deceived big time. He is an active player in his own damn life, and that’s more than I can say for Kazi. There are plenty of people who directly count on him and he shoulders the responsibility of running the Ballenger empire while figuring out how to be the Patrei in his own way. His inner monologue is much more reflective and self-aware than Kazi’s, which is why I preferred Jase chapters. My first impression of him was not all that great either, but Jase quickly impressed me with his dedication and ability to play Kazi like a fiddle when they were out in the woods. This boy has layers and different personas and there’s a fluidity between them that adds complexity to his character that I felt Kazi just didn’t have.
I also wish Jase’s desire to find a fever cure due to the loss of his siblings were more consistently referenced. The final time it was mentioned and properly detailed was the very last time it was brought up BECAUSE it was the most important time to do so. That drips of convenience. I wanted to see that more integrated into his thoughts. I believe it is totally there in the subtext, but even I’ll admit I wouldn’t have picked up on it if I didn’t read some reviews of DoT prior to writing this.
The dual perspective in Dance of Thieves is a detriment not only to the two main characters but also to the narrative as a whole. If we followed only Jase’s or Kazi’s perspective, the story would have been much stronger, as we would have seen the layers of the love interest peel pack and be exposed to their true self/selves. Instead, the audience is well aware (for the most part) of what’s happening between the two leads all while said main characters circle around each other in … you guessed it, a DANCE OF THIEVES. The dramatic irony employed here did not leave me feeling any sense of suspense because the power of hetero-love is too strong in this book, so I knew things would work out between Jase and Kazi.
Team Venda (the Rahtan) – bland and/or morally reprehensible. MEP commits the Big Sin in writing by not bothering to characterize these minor characters via tell not show. She glosses over the majority of dialogue that should have happened in this story in favor of having the only dialogue from Wren and Synove being them gasing up Kazi and talking about how she has curves and how curves are so womanly and feminine. Bleh.
Synove – The one character I hate more than Kazi. She is disgusting. No tragic backstory is gonna save you from my judgement, girl. Her parents were killed by a man named Bahr. He was probably responsible for a whole bunch of deaths in addition to those. So what does she do? When the Rahtan have detained a bunch of war criminals, she lets this man go to be eaten by some big-ass bird instead of having him face justice and let countless other people get closure because SHE’S TOO DAMN SELFISH and only cares about her own version of justice. I hope Lia gave her a good smack talk after finding out about this. This girl is also like when you let your Sims have sex autonomy and you check on them and then you see them randomly woohooing. That’s Synove and Mason (Jase’s adoptive brother).
The Ballengers – Jase’s family is the more intriguing side of the contrived Ballenger-Rahtan conflict. The downside is, since there are so many Ballengers, it’s hard to distinguish Jase’s brothers in a sea of male names. The girls are easier to tell apart because they were fewer in number. The Ballengers aren’t used to their full potential. I feel as though the Rahtan plot was forced in to create a tie-in to the previous series and that took away from the draw of the Ballengers.
Queen Lia – For those unfamilair with TRC world, Lia was the protagonist of TRC series. My girl Lia at least shows up in this book and they are the best pages of it. The only problem is that she trusts Kazi and sings her praises and… after 500 pages of following Kazi, that hurts Lia’s credibility in my eyes. At least she and Rafe have enough sense to walk out of the room when the Book 1 Romantic Ending happens between Kazi and Jase. Me too, Lia. Me too.
It felt like nothing happened in this book until the very end. The first 100 pages follow Jase and Kazi out in the wilderness after they are shackled together by labor hunters. This is where they fall in love, supposedly. Kazi’s stupid riddles aren’t as sexy to me as they are to Jase. It felt like the entire plot to this book dragged on so we would see the back and forth between Jase and Kazi, which inevitably didn’t go anywhere until it HAD to because the book was ending. This book is very romance-centric, despite being pushed as a political intrigue fantasy.
This book is actually the type of story where characters travel some place and have a lot of conversations until the antagonists decide to materialize 80% of the way through and don’t even do anything besides talk smack at the heroes and die at their hands instead of being handed over to the authorities. If you’re into that sort of thing and call it justice, this might be the book for you.
I found myself skimming over the parts about Kazi’s baggage with the Previzi drivers because it was repetitive and you can only milk off so much from her suffering and angst before you realize she doesn’t have much of a personality outside of it. She is awfully reactionary, and in actuality, many of the endings for Jase’s chapters are passing the baton for her reactions to what previously happened. A good chunk of DOT could be shaved off and it would still retain the main elements of Kazi’s baggage without being repetitive. Since these bits were SO repetitive, I just ignored them until it turned out it was actually important to the development of the story’s climax. If you can call it that.
The ending where Lia and Rafe show up is perhaps the best part of the book. Paradoxically, I complained that the new Ballenger content introduced in DOT was far more superior than any of the Rahtan plot related to TRC for the majority of the book. Except for the scene where Lia and Rafe are so done with Kazi and Jase’s drama they walk out of the room. After Kazi spills the beans to Lia about Jase and his family, the Ballenger’s have a way to become officially recgonized as a territory of the continent, and Kazi becomes the Vendan ambassador to Tor’s Watch. I felt the journey to this ending wasn’t earned, and Kazi’s revelation about how she *really* felt about Jace came across as wishy-washy after everything that happened in the past 500 pages.
Overall, this was a disappointing start to a new series within the Remnant Chronicles world. Dance of Thieves is not on par with the Heart of Betrayal or the Beauty of Darkness (books 2-3 of TRC). If this new series is anything like TRC, then I hope DOT is merely a slow start for it, since I was ambivalent about the Kiss of Deception before MEP proved me wrong with her sequels. Dance of Thieves felt bloated without an adequate amount of substance. Many odd creative choices such as the haphazardly-developed romance, the dual perspective and a 100-page long lost-in-the-forest arc detracted from the potentially engaging read MEP envisioned.
So yeah, in the end this was an annoying read. It’s not outlandishly bad, it’s just disappointing given that I know MEP has some real writing chops. I know she can do better than this.