Goodreads: Story Thieves
Series: Story Thieves #1
Published: Jan. 2015
Owen finds life incredibly boring and escapes every chance he can get into one of his favorite books. Learning that his classmate Bethany can actually jump into stories and experience them, then, is just about the greatest revelation ever. Bethany warns him they cannot interfere with any plots, but Owen longs to change the course of his favorite series and become a literary hero. But Owen’s actions have unintended consequences and soon he finds himself starring in what could be his first and only adventure.
Story Thieves seems to promise a winning middle-grade fantasy from the start. After all, its premise, that of characters jumping through various books, allows this book to have it all–magicians, dragons, cyborgs, lasers, zombies, and more. It’s a bunch of genres flamboyantly gallivanting across the page and rejoicing in their own sometimes silly combinations. However, though the plot is fast and James Riley keeps the surprises coming, I found in the end that Story Thieves lacks a little bit of heart.
I admit I formed a slight personal bias against the book from the start, as I found both the protagonists annoying. Owen is Norton Juster’s Milo–but far worse. He does nothing but spend all day contemplating how boring life is. Apparently no joy mars his days, no friendships or family make it worthwhile, no hobbies can distract him from his boredom. He simply can’t be bothered to try to take an interest in anything. Plus he reveals later that he’s willing to deceive others to get his own way and he has an unhealthy obsession with getting others to hero worship him.
Bethany, meanwhile, is angry. Just angry. She seems to harbor guilt from an accident she caused at the tender age of four and that leads her to lash out at anyone who crosses her path. Or tries to talk to her. Or offers her friendship. She would really just like to be alone and angry. Of course she and Owen both grow as individuals during the course of the story, but neither of them is a joy to be around for the first fourth of the book or so. In fact, they seem to spend most of it yelling, which is hilarious as they think they’re being secretive.
I could overlook the characters since, by the end, Bethany loosens up and Owen learns that being a hero requires one to do more than wave a wand around and look cool. However, the ending disappointed me. The story talks about sacrifice and having a selfless heart, but the ultimate message is muddled in various ways. [Spoiler Warning] Owen, for instance, shows reluctance about sacrificing himself and thus receives an “out” from a friend–a friend who would have let him sacrifice himself as long as he seemed happy about it. What are readers to make of this? Sacrifices should only be made by people who want to do them? Are they, then, sacrifices? [End Warning]
Bethany, meanwhile, seems not to understand the significance of sacrifice–she wants to rewrite stories so that the characters do not have to suffer. But isn’t that the point of the story? That readers can look up to someone willing to suffer, maybe even give up life itself, so that others might live? By arguing that the sacrifice is not fair and would make her sad, Bethany is saying she wants to rewrite the story so it possesses less power and loses its guiding principles. No one wants to see their favorite characters suffer, but there are things that are bigger than one’s self. That idea gets lost in Bethany’s insistence that pain be avoided (not that one should allow one’s friends to suffer if it can be avoided, of course!)
Whether or not pain should be avoided in stories, however, proves a tricky issue since, in this case, the characters seem to be real. That is, once they escape the book they are in, they have the ability to make choices not determined by the author who wrote them. Bethany and her friends never really resolve the issue of how much agency book characters have or should have, Bethany in the end just saying that the tribulations the characters suffer are not unknown and that readers are rooting for characters when they read their stories. It’s a nice sentiment, but it sidesteps the ethical questions raised about authors having characters experience pain and seems to contradict Bethany’s own desire not to see any character suffer too much (a limitation apparently decided by her own personal feelings toward various characters).
The plot of Story Thieves held me largely spellbound–it’s fast, crammed with action, and manages a plot twist or two. However, I would have enjoyed it more had I found the characters less annoying and I would have found it more powerful and more moving if it had reflected that, even in fantasy worlds, good sometimes comes with a price.