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27 February 2021

#Review - The Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas

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The Thief on the Winged Horse
Kate Mascarenhas
Head of Zeus, 12 November 2020
Available as: HB, 390pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley & bought HB
ISBN: 9781789543803

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Thief on the Winged House via Netgalley to consider for review. I have also bought a copy of what is a beautifully produced (as well as written) object.

I'm coming to The Thief on the Winged House a little late. I saw it being raved about in the Autumn and what with one thing and another I hadn't got to it, then picked it up just before Christmas - and LOVED it. 

The book is set in an imaginary corner of Oxford, or actually, I think, a real corner, a little island ('eyot') which in our world is undistinguished but here, hosts a little cluster of streets and a workshop that manufactures magical dolls. These can impress upon their owner whatever emotion - fear, love, determination - is bestowed on the doll by its maker. The sting in this is that the ability to instil these emotions was discovered and refined by four sisters - Lucy, Rebecca, Sally and Jemima - in the early 19th century. The four founded Kendricks Workshop, which still flourishes today, staffed by their descendants, but women are now forbidden to be the 'sorcerers' who create the magic. They are, apparently, too emotional, and not strong enough, to handle the work.

The book explores the consequences of this injustice, but it does so much more than that.

First, the central idea is pitch perfect, and is developed and explored beautifully. The idea of magic, emotionally dominating dolls is creepy enough to enchant and entice, and somehow the fact that they only seem to occur within a capitalist framework of marketing and possession only makes them more so. Mascarenhas links this notion to a sense of confinement throughout the book, symbolised by a valuable doll caged in iron railings to prevent theft (we are told) but also by the generations accepting lives on the eyot over any alternative and by the control that Conrad, the current owner of the workshop, exerts over all, especially of course the women but to a lesser extent everyone (and including his brother). Yes, some members of the families have broken away but that seems more like flight, a desperate escape during the night, than an adult and equal parting. Confinement on the eyot only seems accentuated by trips to, say, real Oxford locations such as Wetherspoons on Castle Street from which one will, eventually, have to return - these locations in turn accentuate the depth of the setting and its sense of reality. I live near Oxford and I can really imagine getting off the bus on the Aningdon Road and making my way to the eyot.

The eyot and its workshop are a little world to themselves, with their magic but also their rather archaic society, but the they are portrayed so sharply coexisting with the modern world around. Kids tend to be educated in the Eyot school but wider opportunities are available in the Oxford schools - the resulting struggles and tensions have shaped several of the central characters. Nor is the eyot free of modern world problems: we see domestic violence and alcoholism, for example.

The central characters are strong too. While events kick off with the arrival of a young man, Larkin, claiming to be the long-lost heir to one of the four sisters, at the heart of the story are two women, cousins Persephone and Hedwig. Flashbacks give us more detail about their lives - Persephone's difficult relationship with her alcoholic father, Briar, and Hedwig's upbringing by a single mother (not easy given the eyot's somewhat outdated mores). The two are well realised - Persephone wants to join the workshop as a sorcerer and is baffled and jealous when returning prodigal Larkin wins an apprenticeship while she's jeered at by the men. Hedwig works as housekeeper for Conrad. She's able, within limits, to manipulate him and wield a little power from the shadows. It is though a precarious position and Larkin's arrival makes things even less steady.

And then, a valuable heirloom doll is stolen...

This is, on the face of things, a simple story, with a central mystery - who stole the doll known as the Paid Mourner? Things are confounded somewhat by the eyot's belief in a fairy figure, the Thief of the title, who apparently bestows both good and ill on the residents, but as the story makes clear, the actual existence of this person is problematic and they are as much a tool to be used or an emblem to be appealed to as a real power. That whole aspect is delightfully murky, baffling outsiders in general and especially the police called in to investigate the theft. 

Behind that, though, we need to focus on the characters, on their hopes and dreams, their secrets and their desires. Desires are especially important, upsetting as they do both our protagonists' plans and their self-images - particularly for one couple who share a powerfully charged night in the Randolph Hotel, Oxford's best, Mascarenhas fully rising to the challenge of a sex scene that is not at all embarrassing but tender, erotic and rather moving.

In short, this book fully justifies the praise it's been getting whether you want to approach it as fantasy which it absolutely is (it has MAGIC! There may be FAIRIES!), crime (a baffling and well-plotted mystery), a story of the human heart (those well-rounded and convincing characters; I'd defy anyone not to shed a tear or two at the situations they're in and the truly modern dilemmas they face) or even, I suppose, a contribution to the idea of Oxford as a place of colliding histories, identities and a refuge of odd little worlds and communities. 

Or as all of those. This book is a gem and you should read it (but do so slowly ands reflectively, it's one that really pays you back for giving it some focus and space).

For more information about The Thief on the Winged Horse, see the publisher's website here.

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