Story Thieves by James Riley. Simon & Shuster (Aladdin), 2015. 383 pages
Bottom Line: This action-packed fantasy-within-a-fantasy puts characters into their favorite stories, but also raises questions about authorship, fate, magic, and science.
The only excitement Owen has in his life is breathlessly following each new volume in his favorite fantasy series, Kiel Gnomenfoot. In between, it’s only geography and fractions until the day he observes Bethany Sanderson, a schoolmate he barely knows, emerging from a book at the local library! He had the copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in his very hand, when it suddenly jumped to the floor and Bethany climbed right out. It seems (as she explains with great reluctance) that Bethany’s father is a fictional character who somehow married her mother and years later disappeared into a book, and Bethany has been looking for him ever since. To her it’s a vital quest, but to Kiel it’s the call of adventure: “I knew there was something like this out there, because if there wasn’t, then life is just dental floss and vegetables and word problems . . . Deep down, I think we all know there has to be more.” He makes her an offer she can’t refuse, on condition she takes him into his favorite Gnomenfoot book. What could go wrong?
The idea of readers entering books isn’t new, and sometimes feels a bit gimmicky. But Story Thieves moves fast and introduces some interesting philosophical questions about characters and author and who’s really calling the shots. And authenticity, as Owen learns while subbing for Kiel Gnomenfoot: “This story isn’t yours. You need to be living the story you’re meant to, not the one . . . created to make you happy.” The fictional world Owen enters personified magic and science and pits them against each other; more rich food for thought (perhaps even a simplified version of themes in That Hideous Strength.) And then there’s question of authorship: just who is the author, and how much control does he really have? All this may be a bit much in a single volume, especially after Owen and Bethany are separated and pair up with fictional pals, but this is the first of a series and possibly the author intends to develop these themes further. Or he’s just throwing them out there for fun. It’s worth sticking around to find out.
Overall rating: 4.5 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 4
- Artistic value: 5
Categories: Fantasy, Middle Grades, Discussion Points*
Story Thieves includes a lot of intriguing quotes that could stimulate discussion about the relationship of God to his creation. For example:
- “The story must go on, even if it means setting villains free.” (p. 118)
- “Don’t you see, Bethany? If your father and his world were created to follow a story, then he had no freedom! His will is not his own!” (p. 124)
- “You magicians. You act like there’s someone out there watching us . . . No one can see us, Kiel. And no one’s going to use what I say against us just because it’d be some kind of ironic situation.” (p. 233)