Thursday, 30 July 2015

Book Review: Thief of Glory by Signmund Brower

By Iola Goulton



Thief of Glory was a finalist for the Historical Romance section of the Christy Awards, and a finalist in the General Fiction section of the INSPY Awards, for which I was one of three blogger judges. As I read Thief of Glory, I could well understand why it had been selected as a finalist (although perhaps not as a romance …). But while the Christy Award judges honoured Thief of Glory with not just the category prize but the coveted Novel of the Year, we awarded the INSPY Award for General Fiction to Saving Amelie by Cathy Gohlke, another novel centred around a child during World War II.

Why? Were we wrong? Is Thief of Glory actually the better book?

While I can’t speak for my fellow judges, I can certainly share my views—because I have been thinking about it. A lot.

What did the Christy judges see that we missed? That I missed?


I don’t know what criteria the Christy Awards are judged on, so some of this is mere speculation. What I can tell you is that the Christy Awards are judged by the industry—writers, publishers and editors—while the INPSPY Awards are judged by bloggers who read and review Christian fiction.

And that, I think, is the reason for the difference: writers vs. readers.


Thief of Glory opens with this weird prologue. I have to admit I skimmed it, because it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the description of the book, which was set in a Japanese internment camp in the Dutch East Indies during World War II (think Tenko).

It’s written in the first person, and shows the horrors of the camp system through the eyes of an intelligent yet mischievous ten-year-old boy. This viewpoint is one of the book’s huge strengths. The women and children of the camp face many physical, emotional and spiritual trials, many of which are downplayed because the narrator obviously doesn’t understand the implications of the events he witnesses.

I was truly impressed by the voice, the characters, the plot, the voice (yes, that impressed). Halfway through the book I was convinced I’d found the INSPY winner. It was an original plot, an original setting, and while the Christian aspects were understated, I thought they were all the more powerful for that: the women in this camp didn’t talk about Christianity. They lived it, under the most dire circumstances, facing dirt, deprivation and degradation in their daily battle for survival. I felt for these women, and I admired the camp children for their ability to find childlike joy in even simple things.

But …

But. (And I’m sorry, but I can’t explain this without giving a spoiler.)


Three-quarters of the way through the book, the tone changed. All of a sudden we were no longer in 1940’s Dutch East Indies, but in present-day America, in the mind of I didn’t know who. It turned out we were in the mind of the same boy only seventy years later, and he is now in the grip of Alzheimer’s. That’s not an easy place to be—it felt like a whole new story, and it took too long for me to get into the mind of this new-old character who wasn’t quite in his right mind himself. And that’s where Thief of Glory lost me.

I suspect what lost me is what the Christy judges saw as outstanding: a novel with two entirely different points of view, both equally convincing, and both the same character—the same character, separated by the years of life. From a writing craft perspective, it’s brilliant. A brilliant concept, brilliantly conceived and brilliantly executed. I really did feel I was in the mind of a man who was losing his mind. And the author used this old man to tie up all the loose ends of the plot in a manner that was--yes--brilliant.

But that same writing I can admire from a craft perspective simply lost me as a reader. I didn’t understand the change in point of view. I didn’t understand it was the same character (at first). I didn’t understand why we had to leave this fascinating character in an original and realistic setting and watch this old man argue with some woman. From that three-quarter point, I struggled. I’d thought the first three-quarters were outstanding, worthy of winning, but this last bit?

No.


And that’s why I couldn’t support Thief of Glory to win the INSPY: because three-quarters of an outstanding book isn’t enough. Yes, while I can now look back and see the technical brilliance of it, at the time, my reader self felt cheated, and I had to force myself to keep reading. That’s not good.

If you read Thief of Glory, it’s more than likely you won’t have this reaction … because I’ve just told you the spoiler. If you know to expect it, you might appreciate the writing craft in the way the Christy judges obviously did, rather than having the negative reaction I had (and I know I’m not alone in feeling this way—I’ve seen other readers and reviewers make similar comments). I would note that it is worth reading to the end, because the last ten per cent tied up all the loose ends and did leave me with a sense of completion.

But reader me didn’t like it. And that’s why I voted for Saving Amelie. Because while the writing in Thief of Glory may have been stronger, the story didn’t keep me engaged all the way through.

Thanks to the publishers for providing free ebooks for the INSPY judges.


About Iola Goulton

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on FacebookTwitterPinterest  or Tsu.

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog. I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2500.

10 comments:

  1. Spoilers aside, what an intriguing sounding book! Thanks, Iola :)

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    1. It was an intriguing read - I'm always interested in books with a distinct author voice, and this definitely had it.

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  2. I guess something completely out of the ordinary will always garner more attention. Sounds like clever...um, as you say, a brilliant writing!

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    1. But, for me, the brilliant writing didn't make up for what I felt was a lack of coherence between the two storylines. I've read some excellent novels with split timelines, and I think Thief of Glory could have handled this better.

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  3. Iola, thanks for providing the differentiation between the judging panel for the 2 award programs. It's an important perspective when we see different books being nominated (and winning) in the various award programs. Interesting Thief of Glory didn't get a guernsey in the Carols this year and Saving Amelie did. I believe the Carols judges are a mix of authors and readers.

    I hope I judge/review first and foremost as a reader as per that excellent discussion you raised on Monday on reviewing.

    One aspect that I find fascinating these days re: award programs and the ever-increasing "Christian worldview" that many novels are now promoting is the question what defines the best of the best in Christian fiction. But maybe that's a discussion for another time.

    Thanks for the detailed review, Iola. I hope we get to see your review of Saving Amelie which has received a great reception from readers.

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    1. Ian, if you're interested in my review of Saving Amelie, it's here:
      http://christianreads.blogspot.co.nz/2014/09/review-saving-amelie-by-cathy-gohlke.html

      I wrote the review after reading Saving Amelie for the first time (before the INSPYs), so it's not as in-depth as this review (which, after all, is half review and half discussion about writing!).

      I didn't realise the Carol's were a combination of reader and author judges--it will be interesting to see what they pick.

      One thing I like about the INSPY Awards is they are looking to promote books with a definite Christian flavour. There was one book on the shortlist which we all agreed was excellent, but it was purely "inspirational"--there was no Christian aspects to the plot or subplot at all. Reading it as a Christian and knowing it was written by a Christian author meant I could see Christian themes, but I didn't think they were strong enough for this award.

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  4. Thief of Glory was already on my TBR list and now I'm intrigued enough to bump it up higher.

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    1. I hope you enjoy it, Paula. I'll look out for your review!

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  5. Iola, thanks for sharing your fascinating review. It sounds like a must-read book for writers from a writing craft perspective.

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    1. I do believe readers read for story not lessons in writing craft ... but this is certainly worth reading from a craft perspective.

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