We hear heist tales from the time we’re children, don’t we? World mythology and folklore are filled with clever, tricky humans who steal items of value from demons and gods. Even Disneyesque fairy tales have them. Once Jack goes up that beanstalk, what is the rest of the story but a heist?
The fantasy genre embraces heists in all flavors and textures. Here are five of my favorites.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Bilbo, a hobbit living a comfortable life in the land of Shire, is manipulated into joining a group of dwarves who plan to steal a treasure from a dragon. Along the way, the gang of heisters encounter both external and internal obstacles. Bilbo, separated from the others deep in some goblin tunnels, conducts a “mini-heist” when he finds a magical ring and outwits the weird, sinister creature who has challenged him to a riddle contest. Bilbo is forced to call upon his own wit and skill, as well as the power of the ring, to survive, let alone prevail, first with the riddles and then with the dragon. Call it a prequel if you want, call it a quest, call it a there-and-back-again journey. It’s a heist, baby.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
In the first of the Gentlemen Bastards series, we meet Locke Lamora, an orphan who rises to become the leader of his elite group of con artists, thieves and pickpockets, called, of course, the Gentlemen Bastards. In the midst of a caper against a pair of aristocratic marks, the Bastards meet another player, the Gray King. They partner with the King, only to face betrayal, ruin and probable death. The banter, the action, and the characterization of Locke and his second-in-command Jean make this a wonderful read. The descriptions of the strange and beautiful world they inhabit are extra sprinkles on the cupcake.
California Bones by Greg van Eekhout
Before we met Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon and Harrow, we found osteomancy in the Kingdom of California, ruled by the tyrannical, magical Hierophant. The Hierophant murdered bone magician Sebastian Blackland in front of Blackland’s son Daniel. Now Daniel is a petty thief working for his crime lord uncle. Daniel has no plans to confront the Hierophant, because he likes being alive, but his uncle wants Daniel and his crew to steal the ruler’s magical sword—a sword Daniel’s father made. The crew is pursued by the cold and relentless Gabriel Argent, the Hierophant’s nephew. Daniel is a complicated character and an engaging one, the relationships are powerful and tangled, and the concept of bone as a repository of magical power brings a wonderful creepy strangeness to a book that throws in California’s La Brea Tar Pits for good measure.
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
I think Bennett’s The Divine Cities trilogy is a masterpiece, but The Founders Trilogy may give it a run for its money. The series kicks off with Foundryside, introducing us to Sancia, who escaped enslavement and now steals for a living. Sancia has a metal plate in her head that allows her to listen to magically inscribed or “scrived” objects. When she steals an oddly-shaped gold key, she sets in motion a chain reaction that will literally change the reality of her world, but not before she participates in more than one heist. The magic and politics of Foundryside, with its oligarchical “campo” families controlling scriving, are complex, multi-layered and dazzling. The characters are heartbreakingly deep and complicated, and one of the truly original notes in the heist aspect is that the “gang” that forms are all adversaries of each other first. Trust is hard to come by, and even harder to maintain when things start going wrong. Come for the magic and the heist, stay for the philosophical and political observations.
Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Glamorists series started with homage to Jane Austen, but by the fourth book, Jane and Vincent have lost nearly all their material possessions and must out-swindle a swindler to keep from losing their secret magical glamourist process. The book is packed with beautiful settings—Murano and the Venetian lagoon—and wonderful elements like pirates, puppets and Lord Byron swimming naked in a canal, but the heart of the story is the relationship between our two main characters. Jane and Vincent finally reveal fears and issues to each other, and the relationship teeters under the stress of their situation. Is that why I include this book on the list? It is not. This is the only book on the list with heister nuns. Yes, Valour and Vanity includes a convent of feisty nuns who help with the heist. Need I say more?
Heist books give us puzzles and tricks, and protagonists who turn the tables on the arrogant and powerful. To my mind, there’s little better than settling in with a bowl of popcorn and a heist book, and watching the lawless ones do their bit to put the world right.
Originally published April 2022.
Marion Deeds was born in Santa Barbara, California and moved to northern California when she was five. She loves the redwoods, the ocean, dogs and crows. She’s fascinated by the unexplained, and curious about power: who has it, who gets it, what is the best way to wield it. These questions inform her stories. Deeds has published Aluminum Leaves and Copper Road from Falstaff Books, with short works in Podcastle and several anthologies. She reviews fiction and writes a column for the review site Fantasy Literature.