Thief of Songs by MCA Hogarth
Thief of Songs is about music, and it feels lyrical. The writing is sumptuous and flows forth with detail that never feels strained. It’s been a while since I’ve read a story that bursts on the page, but Thief of Songs did that for me. The two main characters, Amet and Dancer, are musicians and composers. They meet when Amet, a Western patriot, goes East to confront Dancer about how she stole his music, which he ‘gave away’ as revenge against his ex-lover, who broke their betrothal to marry an Easterner. In a fit of rage and passion, Amet hits Dancer, the favorite and ex-lover yet current friend of the Divine, the ruler of both Western and Eastern kingdoms. Dance remains besotted with Amet, but Dancer’s lover/life partner, Always Falling, grounds Dancer and helps en (the pronoun of hermaphrodites) deal levelly and intelligently with the messy political and romantic situation.
The story is driven by the romance between Amet and Dancer, which provides real tension for the first half of the book. It resolves mid-way through (kind of), and I expected a more action-packed plot–or at least a less romance-centric plot–to dominate the later halves of the book. The politics between the East and the West, and to a greater extent the magical and the non-magical, do manifest, but a little too late and never nearly as convincingly as the romantic elements. Unfortunately, Theif of Songs reminded me what I disliked about romance-centric plots–they’re all about the relationships. Not a bad thing, and if you really like fantasy with solid world-building that digs into the character’s relationships, Theif of Songs is probably for you. There are precious few stories I consider too character focused (interesting characters will literally make me forgive so many plot mistakes), but this story crossed into being overly dominated by the character’s internal lives. I wanted some other element of plot, yet the romance and all the fourth and third sex difficulties are continuously brought up. The forbidden love amongst the third, fourth, and ‘normal’ sexes dominated this entire story, but I only found it interesting enough to carry the first half and wish it could’ve not been the focus during the second half. The other plot morsel is the conflict between those who live in the East and are infused with magic continuously and the magic-starved Westerns.
Maybe I just like more explosions and gore in my stories. That’s probably true.
The one world-building element I did like, which was a staple of the romantic plot line, was how the fourth and third sexes fit into relationships. It was implied that a third sex like Dancer and the Divine had more voracious sexual appetites. The fourth sex (asexuals) had no sexual appetite, and magic worked differently for both sexes. Also, Theif of Songs created a completely believable polyamorous relationship in second fantasy, which is something I’m desperate to read more of! If you find most fantasy romances boring, yet are a romance fan at heart, Theif of Songs is definitely a powerful contender for most interesting and believable romance in fantasy I’ve read in a LONG time.
In many ways, this story reminded me of why I love yet sometimes am frustrated with Charles de Lint, too, who’s one of my favorite authors. De Lint can linger too long on characters while forgetting to have an actual plot, but his writing and world-building work is subtle and expressive. The same is true of MCA Hogarth, and while part two of this series might not be for me, I’m curious to read more of her writing.
Rating: 4 stars. The writing is beautiful. The world-building exists, but it’s never expanded beyond the scope of the immediate sphere of the character’s lives. The romance is believable, and it really is the main plot of this story–for better or worse.