Margaret Owen’s Little Thieves is a sharply written, magical delight

Little Thieves by Margaret Owen. Image courtesy Macmillan Children's Publishing Group
Little Thieves by Margaret Owen. Image courtesy Macmillan Children's Publishing Group /

Margaret Owen’s The Merciful Crow duology was the kind of buzzy fantasy debut that puts authors on readers’ radars. So folks that have been paying attention should already have been expecting her follow-up novel, a new fantasy folktale retelling called Little Thievesto be one of the best titles of Fall 2021. And, happily, it turns out that assumption is entirely correct.

(Truly, I will read anything this woman writes at this point.)

Little Thieves is a captivating, fresh spin on “The Goose Girl”, a Grimm’s fairytale that involves a kind-hearted princess who is seized by her maid, impersonated and forced to live as a common goose girl. In this version of events, we follow the story of Vanja Schmidt, an incorrigible thief who learned to steal to avoid having to ask her adopted mothers – the Goddesses of Fortune and Death – for any favors.

Desperate to avoid being trapped in a life of servitude to either of her mothers, the working class Vanja uses an enchanted necklace to impersonate and steal the life of her mistress, Kör-prinzessin Gisele, soon-to-be Markgräfinvon Reigenbach. Wearing the face of the noble Gisele – and sometimes using her own to masquerade as a lowly servant she calls Greta, Vanja is easily granted access to the most elite houses in Bóern, where she commits elaborate jewel heists as the Pfennigeist (Penny Phantom). Her goal is to use her ill-gotten gains to fund her escape from the Blessed Empire of Almandy, after which she won’t have to spend her life looking over her shoulder for ways her adopted mothers are interfering in her life.

Her plan is less complicated than it sounds, though the fact that she’s been able to pull it off for all this time is still fairly remarkable. At least… until she isn’t. With the sudden return of Gisele’s warmongering fiancee who’s uncomfortably eager to marry into the royal line, Vanja feels she must speed up her timetable, and the clock starts ticking to the moment she’ll either escape or get caught. And thanks to an overzealous junior prefect and an angry Low God who curses Vanja to fix her past mistakes or literally become crushed under the weight of her own greed, she’s got to face more than her fair share of obstacles along her road to freedom.

Owen’s character work shines here as usual, from the unapologetic and irreverent way Vanja approaches her life of crime to the quartet of interesting sidekicks she accumulates along her mad dash for freedom. She’s not necessarily a great person – and isn’t particularly sorry she stole – but Little Thieves goes out of its way to let us see the fear `and pain that drive so many of her choices. (After all, you can’t ever be mad at anyone for leaving you if you leave them first.) It doesn’t absolve her of her responsibility for her choices, but the story is ultimately richer because they are understandable ones.

As the story progresses, Vanja’s forced to relinquish some of her toxic independence and watching her shed some of her cynicism as she realizes that she can trust and care about others is deeply satisfying. There’s a great found family vibe that develops between Vanja and her compatriots, a group of people who have little in common and less reason to trust each other, but who become something better together than they are separately.

Little Thieves works perfectly as a standalone fantasy, but the ending leaves everyone in such a place that you can’t help but wonder what’s next. I hope it’s an adventure, and I wouldn’t be upset at all if we one day saw another adventure set somewhere in this universe. It’s a big world out there, after all.

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Little Thieves is available now. Let us know if you’re planning to give it a look.