Dance of Thieves’ Disturbing Lack of Moral Questioning

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.

27 thoughts on “Dance of Thieves’ Disturbing Lack of Moral Questioning

  1. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    It kind of seems like a lot of YA storylines don’t bother to look at the morals of what the characters are doing. The important thing is the romance. Granted, I haven’t read a lot of YA lately, but the ones I have read have pushed the romance to the forefront and forget about the morality of their characters’ actions, as though we’re supposed to think, “Yeah! She/he’s an awesome assassin!”, but the fact that the character kills people for a living doesn’t factor into the story. I hope this is a trend that dies quickly. I’ve always felt that books are meant to teach us something, even as they entertain us.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I’ve felt for a long time that YA as a whole doesn’t try to really delve into half the topics raised. It feels like we’re going darker and grittier all the time and…why? Half the books aren’t examining this stuff. They’re just using it for shock value or something.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. jenchaos76 says:

    I don’t know, books that go against the normal moral judgment always bother me. That’s why I don’t read books about war.

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  3. Jheelam says:

    It seems lots of YA fantasy books these days rely upon only violence and romance. The protagonists “supposedly” don’t give a big F what happens to others, during whatever-goal-they-are-pursuing-for themselves.

    This reminds me why “The Hunger Games” is my most favorite YA fantasy till this date. In my view, it showed the horrors of war, poverty and thrusting reluctant teenagers into battle-arena, without glamorizing any of it.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think The Hunger Games works in part because Collins tries very hard to have Katniss have the moral high ground. Or…higher ground? I haven’t read it in years, but, if my memory serves, Katniss doesn’t really kill anyone outright in the first book. She does a lot of hiding and…maybe indirect hits? She’s not like the tributes who go in all ready to hack her way to victory, anyway, and it makes her more sympathetic to readers.

      Pearson’s characters are soldiers, but…strange ones. They spend most of the time mooning over boys and giggling over gowns and balls, but they sometimes get super violent. Kazi first meets Jase by putting a knife to his throat in an incident that does not warrant that type of reaction. But readers are apparently supposed to see this as evidence of her strength and skill, not as slightly deranged.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    Since I’ve written a bunch on the blog about how I don’t need books to have messages or morals, I was trying to figure out why a book like this would bother me, and I think it’s at least partially because at this point the problem may not even be “The book doesn’t say murder is bad” or whatever; it’s that there appears to be little character development or complexity in the themes. I think very few people could kill someone, even a criminal who “deserves” it, and not have some complicated thoughts about that. At the very least, in many of the situations you describe, the characters should know that *most* people don’t condone lying, stealing, killing, etc. and they would need to work through the process of justifying to themselves something most people think is bad and probably KEEP working through that process.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah… I don’t necessarily need the characters to shout, “Murder is bad!” But it would be nice if they had interior thoughts that were not about how hot guys are! After all, the protagonist is wondering why her relationship is imploding–it’s all the lies–but then she just…doesn’t deal with it. How is that interesting for a character or for a book?

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      • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

        Right. People don’t just blithely commit crimes without having some sort of feelings about it. If they do, they’re probably sociopaths, like for some reason literally unable to empathize with others or to understand the concept of morality. But since the author clearly wants you to like the characters to some degree, she’s clearly not going for depicting sociopaths.

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        • Krysta says:

          That’s exactly what’s so confusing about this book. It feels very much like it’s waving romance in front of our faces so we don’t realize that the protagonists are kind of messed up, but the story doesn’t bother to examine it. We’ll just sigh and swoon and forget it. It’s a little insulting, to be honest.

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  5. Milliebot says:

    Ugh. Just the type of book I would hate. So flat, to have these supposedly deviant characters not push any boundaries or really ask any moral questions. I loved the look of this cover but as soon as I found out it was YA and it mentioned romance, I knew I’d pass.

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    • Krysta says:

      It seems to me that “not delving into the issues implicitly raised by the storyline” is sort of a hallmark of YA. And I find that disappointing. Teens can handle it. If you ask them to think, they will!

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  6. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says:

    You always make me think, Krysta, which I love about you. I liked this book, but I guess I saw a bit more of the moral gray than you did. Kazi’s devotion to the queen is built off the fact that the queen saw good in her when she could have just seen a thief. In many ways, she felt indebted. And there is a lot of justifying of her actions, but sometimes I felt like that was OVERjustification as a defense mechanism (I felt like later in the book, Kazi starts to realize that too). But I definitely agree that revenge vs. justice is a theme to the book and that it could have been explored more deeply—this really just scratched the surface.

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  7. La La in the Library says:

    YA authors seemed to have had more of a goal of writing stories with some benefit to them before the YA publishing craze. I read a YA Contemporary a couple of months ago where the high school seniors snuck out at night, drank, went to school with hangovers (if they went at all) never studied, had unprotected sex with people they barely knew; yet they all graduated and got into good colleges with ǹot one STD or unwanted pregnancy. I even saw someone tweet that their favorite quote from the book was, “The best way to make friends in high school is to give them booze.” What a great message to be sending teen readers. Ugh. I kept thinking these things were going to be change/growth arc platforms, but no.

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    • Krysta says:

      It does feel like the YA market is one fad after another. Even when I read an “original” story with glowing reviews, I often think, “But…isn’t this three other books pieced together?” It’s…boring. And sometimes I feel like the goal is just to be more shocking than everyone else. Like, okay, we already had kids after each other in The Hunger Games. Let’s…have Three Dark Crowns…and now…it’s sisters who must end each other’s lives! The more disturbing the better! And there’s no point to all the violence. It’s just supposed to be entertaining!

      And, uh, yeah that book sounds unrealistic. Not to be that not-fun person. But if you don’t study and spend all your time partying, it is extremely unlikely you are going to get good grades. It’s just not true. And I think that an untrue book can never really be a good book.

      I’m also so sick of the glamorization of alcohol. All I have to do is read the newspaper to see how many cases of assault are linked to alcohol in colleges. And how many students end up hospitalized or worse because of it. Everyone needs to stop pretending binge-drinking is fun and a way to get friends because people’s lives are literally at stake here.

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  8. Michael J. Miller says:

    This is so disappointing. It sounds like this novel could’ve been incredibly complex and powerful had it cared to enter into a real discussion about our personal moralities and what shapes our morals. And if it ultimately makes the movement to “justify” atrocities by showing how the characters see their victims as not human, it only serves to validate and promote the sort of other-izing we do all the time in our world to justify our horrible actions to one another. I prefer the art I consume to try and call me to rise above some of our darker habits (or at least shine a contemplative light on them) as opposed to justifying/ignoring them.

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    • Krysta says:

      I have a real problem with this as it mirrors real-life trends I’ve seen where bullies justify their behavior by saying their victims are bad people and thus deserve it. We absolutely cannot condone or perpetuate this behavior. Of course every bully thinks they’re justified! If we say that it’s okay to bully some people, where does it end?

      I really think I need a break from YA at this point. I moved away from it in recent years, but wanted to try to catch up with the market for awhile. But the darkness of the books seems unrelenting. And there are a lot of narratives where wronged characters fight back by tasting the blood of their enemies and making them see how it feels, etc. I’m not into that. I don’t believe real change is effected by killing people you don’t like.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        This is something I talk about all the time in class (and I know we’ve discussed it before too) – the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It can feel rewarding to see the “bad guy” get “what they deserve” but it just perpetuates a narrative that a) killing can solve problems or b) retributive death can be what someone deserves. We, as a species, have to shoot for higher than that. We forget, in context, “an eye for an eye” was meant to scale back human violence in the name of justice, not perpetuate /inflame it.

        I empathize with you desire to take a step back from some of these novels, especially when the darkness feels overwhelming. It’s something I’ve found myself struggling with more and more in the art I consume – from the movies and TV shows I watch to the books and comics I read. When I was younger, I loved a good “action” story but I’ve become increasingly aware of how violence is used (or marketed) and my discomfort with many of its depictions (and the implications of those depictions) grows.

        I think it can be argued that it’s an even larger problem in regard to YA, a genre, at least in theory, that is marketed primarily to younger readers. As human beings we haven’t had the greatest track record with violence since…uh, the Agrarian Revolution. And reinforcing these ideas with our youth again and again certainly doesn’t help.

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        • Krysta says:

          I haven’t thought too hard about this, so these are random thoughts I have that may or may not be going somewhere useful. But… I think maybe violence works in some stories because it can be read as symbolic as something else? I was just reading Squirrel Girl Vol. 2 (thanks for that recommendation!) and there was a joke about how superheroes punch villains until they stop doing crime. And, yeah, I guess so. But I also think it can be read differently.

          Both the villains and the superheroes have special powers, but some are using their powers for good and some for bad. So, in a way, the punching could be read as a metaphor for how to use talents? Maybe I’m stretching here, though.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael J. Miller says:

            No, I think you’re right. I’d say it comes down to the author. For example, the Hulk. As a character, Bruce Banner was abused by his father as a boy. In that context, the Hulk has always symbolized the monsters that grow within us, especially as a byproduct of abuse. So the question of whether or not the Hulk can be a superhero or just a monster is the question of whether or not we can use our pain, our anger, and our trauma to grow and do good or if they only ever destroy us and those around us. Not every author looks at the Hulk with this sort of depth. but it’s a part of the character’s design.

            I also think there’s something to be said for how deep a reader is willing to go, something obviously the author has little to no control over. I think some (many?) superheroes do default to the punching-to-solve-problems setup. But not all of them, certainly not the best ones. Yet we, as a culture, often interpret it that way, shaped as we are by either a habit of reading superficially or how we’ve been “taught” to see through systemic evil shaping our lenses of the world.

            This idea of the potential symbolic side to violence in superhero stories would be a fascinating area to explore with more intentionality! Also, I’m SO happy you’re enjoying Squirrel Girl :).

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            • Krysta says:

              Your comment is interesting because I’ve been reading Tom Shippey’s J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and he sort of addresses the same topic (though I can’t remember where it was now). But I remember he writes that one of the things that separates Tolkien from his imitators is that his heroes are also fighting themselves. It’s not just a question of fighting off the Dark Lord with swords, which is what most epic fantasies seem to turn into.

              The same thing seems maybe to be happening with superheroes. The really interesting ones are also fighting some internal battle. But it’s a subtle thing, one maybe not picked up on authors who take over the comics. So then the story can devolve into people punching each other to resolve their problems. And that type of story just doesn’t seem as true as one in which characters have a moral dimension, so it ends up being not quite as powerful.

              Liked by 1 person

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