Spoilers for Mary E. Pearson’s Dance of Thieves follow. Read at your own risk!
Dance of Thieves tells the story of Kazi and Jase–one a former thief now working as the queen’s soldier and the other part of a family who recognizes no laws but their own. They begin badly, with Kazi threatening to cut Jase’s throat, but soon move past that moment as being kidnapped by labor hunters forces them to work together. Their romance is quick and sure–being chained together creates intimacy that otherwise might have needed time to grow. However, Kazi is searching for a criminal that she believes Jase’s family is harboring. And her secrets, combined with Jase’s commitment to his family, threaten to tear the two apart at various moments of the story.
Both Kazi and Jase are meant, I assume, to be morally dubious characters. Kazi may have given up her life of crime on the streets, but she still, as Jase points out, is willing to enter his home under false pretenses and betray his family. Jase, meanwhile, has to make the hard choices to keep his family’s dynasty running. He, along with the rest of his kin, accept the necessity–and profitability–of housing blackmarket dealers, physically threatening the opposition, taking half the king’s taxes to care for the city, and chopping off body parts when they need to punish someone or get information. The title of the book is Dance of Thieves, after all. We are meant to understand that both the protagonists take things that do not belong to them.
Dance of Thieves, however, never really wants to take a hard look at the choices its characters make. Kazi explains away the majority of her decisions with the excuse that she made a vow to her queen. She will lie, cheat, steal, and betray anyone she needs to with full assurance that such a vow puts her in the right–the ends justify the means. Any of her actions that fall outside the necessity of performing her job are easily explained away by her sense that the other person “deserves” it. If someone overcharges for goods, she steals from them. If someone committed cruelties, she commits cruelties against them. In effect, she becomes disturbingly like the people she claims to judge. But the story refuses to acknowledge or engage with this.
Jase’s actions are similarly explained away by duty and “justice.” He can punch as many people as he wants as long as it is in service to the family or in retaliation for violence they committed. He will even harbor wanted criminals if it will make his family a profit. The story tries desperately to balance his cruelties with his kindnesses–the times he thinks of Kazi’s happiness, the way he suddenly reverses his feelings on refugees and begins sending them supplies instead of trying to remove them from his land. His morals are incredibly murky, seemingly motivated largely by his personal feelings (especially for Kazi). But, again, the book never really engages with Jase’s grey areas. Instead, at the end, he is rewarded with everything he wants simply because he showed basic humanity one time in helping the refugees. He is held up as a hero.
That Kazi and Jase are morally ambiguous is not surprising–they are the titular thieves. However, their lack of moral questioning is incredibly disturbing. For the bulk of the book, both characters are obsessed with determining the moral culpability of others and judging and then punishing them for it. But neither one of them really looks at themselves. When their actions create obstacles or breaks in their relationship, neither Kazi nor Jase ever wonders if it is because they did something wrong. Instead, both justify their actions to themselves and accept the breaks as inevitable since changing themselves is not an option. They never repair the breaks in their relationship because personal moral responsibility is not something either wants to admit. Instead, they repeatedly paper over the breaks by making out. Lust is what makes their relationship work despite all the lies.
The end of the book is perhaps the clearest indication of how morally bankrupt all the protagonists, not just Kazi and Jase, are. The queen’s soldiers have successfully captured a handful of former war criminals. Kazi’s fellow soldier Synové delights in finding ways to mentally torture them as them as they journey towards the queen who will judge them. The captors as a group purposely lead their captives through an old battlefield so they can watch the former deserters among them fear for their lives, as they believe the dead rise from the ground to take deserters back to the underworld. Finally, Synové taunts a captive into fleeing, then covers him in antelope blood so a wild animal will hunt and eat him. No judgement is given, though it is indicated the queen might “talk” with Synové about the antelope blood, as if her actions deserve a slight reprimand rather than immediate dismissal from the guard. But the book suggests all of this is supremely justifiable because the victims are war criminals–and thus not human. It is a fantastic twisting of the criminals’ own actions, which they no doubt justified with the same reason. Their victims were not human. They did not deserve mercy.
Finishing Dance of Thieves was nearly not an option for me because I felt like I was travelling through a moral wasteland. Reading about protagonists who have morally shady areas but also redeeming ones is one thing. Reading about protagonists who take on the attributes of deceit and cruelty, the same attributes of the villains they fight, is another. This could, of course, have been an interesting theme to explore–what actions are justifiable? does violence always corrupt?–but the book does not want to engage with such themes.
Instead, the book focuses on the romance, having the characters passionately kiss and melt into each other every couple scenes, as if the fact that two people are in love puts all morality on hold. The story also simultaneously suggests that all the lies, the violence and the backstabbing really do not actually warrant any attention because, after all, the villains had it coming. As a result, Dance of Thieves makes dishonesty and retaliatory violence heroic and sets up its protagonists to be as terrifying as the villains they face.