Book: “Julia Vanishes” by Catherine Egan
Publishing Info: Doubleday Canada, June 2016
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: Julia has the unusual ability to be . . . unseen. Not invisible, exactly. Just beyond most people’s senses.
It’s a dangerous trait in a city that has banned all forms of magic and drowns witches in public Cleansings. But it’s a useful trait for a thief and a spy. And Julia has learned–crime pays.
Her latest job is paying very well indeed. Julia is posing as a housemaid in the grand house of Mrs. Och, where an odd assortment of characters live and work: A disgraced professor who sends her to fetch parcels containing bullets, spiders, and poison. An aristocratic houseguest who is locked in the basement each night. And a mysterious young woman who is clearly in hiding–though from what or whom?
Worse, Julia suspects that there’s a connection between these people and the killer leaving a trail of bodies across the frozen city.
The more she learns, the more she wants to be done with this unnatural job. To go back to the safety of her friends and fellow thieves. But Julia is entangled in a struggle between forces more powerful than she’d ever imagined. Escape will come at a terrible price.
Review: This book is a strange combination of a million and one elements that shouldn’t work together, but somehow, do! We’ve got an “Ocean’s Eleven” style thieves guild, essentially, operating in a world that is similar to our own, but at an undefined period of time (there are carriages, but also “electric” carriages, people use swords, but there are also muskets, at one point they use an elevator in a building, but they also sail their boats…), There is an inquisition-style hunt going on for witches, but there are also other magical beings that are thought only to exist in folklore. And in the middle of the story we’re presented with an entire new level of world-building with the introduction of a new set of beings with a god-like relation to history and current events.
Throughout this all, what holds things together is Julia, her narrative style and individual character arc. Julia, and her brother Dek (the spelling of character names/places is always confusing when you listen to an audiobook and never see the name spelled out! Ah, the challenges of book reviews!), are the orphaned children of a father who drank and then abandoned what remained of his family when their mother is convicted and executed as a witch. They are taken in by Esme, a woman who runs a successful thieves underground system, and grow up working jobs for this new family. Which all leads to the current circumstance that places Julia, requested by the client for her unique ability to go “unseen” by others when she chooses, as a spy in the household of Mrs. Och and thus caught up in complicated mystery that surrounds the young woman and her toddler son who are taking refuge there.
Julia’s growth through the story was one of its strongest appeals. Not only does she not understand her own abilities, especially when she discovers there is more to them then simply becoming invisible for a bit, but her own world views, and her understanding of her place in it, are consistently challenged. I particularly enjoyed the parallel that is drawn between Julia and another character, Pia, and the example they each set for the consequences that come from making the choices we do in life. Julia, at first, has a very pragmatic approach to her life and her work. She does the job, she gets paid. And this is a comfortable arrangement, allowing her to morally set herself back from her own actions. But when this approach comes to a head in the middle of the book, Julia must question her own definition of “living.”
While Julia’s is obviously the main arc of the story, I also appreciated the other views into poverty and the choices that are available to those struggling to get by that are presented by the other characters. Her brother, Dek, is a talented inventor, but due to their status as orphans and thieves, and his own deformities from a childhood illness, he worries about every being financially compensated if he came forward in an attempt to sell his goods. Another character, Wyn, hopes to be an artist, but struggles to get his foot in the door with an apprenticeship or a place in an art program. Again and again, we see these characters have doors shut in their faces and can understand the comfort that comes from the stability found in their role in this thieves guild, even if the work itself is morally questionable.
As for the story itself and the world-building, I was very surprised when about halfway through the book the plot suddenly expanded massively to include world-changing characters and events. Before it had been a rather simple murder mystery with a strange monster and a mysterious woman with a past. Suddenly these were all small pieces in a much larger moving plot machine. While I liked these expanded elements, they did seem to come out of the blue, forcing the entire story to shift completely, resolving some of the initial elements suddenly in the middle of the story while introducing new ones at the same time. It almost felt like two completely different books. I think this was simply a matter of pacing and of a few info-dumpy passages that were overwhelming. Ultimately, things did become clear, but there was a bit in the middle where I was honestly confused about who was after who and why.
The story does resolve itself for the most part in this book, however the door is clearly left open for sequels. Now that the cards are shown, per se, about the grander conflict going on in the series, I have hopes that any future books would be more settled in their own skin with what story they are wanting to tell. I was also given just enough of Julia’s abilities and origins to keep me coming back for the second book to find more answers alongside her. “Julia Defiant” will be up shortly, I suspect!
Rating 7: A great main character and interesting new world. But it felt like two books mashed together at times, with one focused on a simple monster story and the other setting up larger-than-life characters and plots.
“Julia Vanishes” isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy Books about Thieves.”
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