The Pearl Thief – Elizabeth Wein

This is going to be a weird review because a comprehensive review of the book would involve cultural/subject matter expertise which I don’t have. Specifically, many characters in this book, though not the protagonist Julie, are Scottish Travellers, and the prejudices they face form a large aspect of the plot. So I’m putting it upfront that I’m not going to review the representation of that culture in this book, because I don’t have sufficient knowledge. I will say that Scottish Traveller author Jess Smith is thanked in the acknowledgements for reviewing the manuscript for Traveller cultural elements.

I’d also like to thank Hyperion for sending me an ARC.

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Unlike Code Name Verity, The Pearl Thief is not presented as a found manuscript, so it is very much franker about sexuality, for example, than Code Name Verity. Julie has two crushes over the course of the book, one on the contractor who is turning her grandfather’s estate into a school, Frank Dunbar, and a more serious one on Ellen McEwen, a proud and prickly Traveller girl with an interest in archaeology and geology. Ellen and Julie never “get together” in the sense of explicitly forming a relationship, but they do clandestinely kiss once under the guise of showing how a man kisses a woman. Julie is clear that her “passion for Ellen” is equivalent to and even deeper than her passion for Frank.

I enjoyed this book actually even more than Code Name Verity, though I missed the character of Maddie (we see in this book how Julie got the nickname “Queenie”). I thought it was more plausible than Code Name Verity and I liked getting inside Julie’s head a bit more and seeing more of her brother Jamie. However, as is usual with Wein’s books, the very ending is fluffed a bit and spells out the epiphanies too much. And while I enjoyed the exploration of class in the book (Julie is an aristocrat, and coming to terms with the privileges that entails), it struck me as a gap in that theme that the only working-class characters were either Travellers or two prejudiced and unsympathetic servants.

As to the mystery element, I figured out who the villain was immediately upon his introduction, but I didn’t predict some of the twists. I also loved a scene which I will put under a cut for mild spoilers.

Julie saves Ellen from rape at the hands of an abusive law enforcement official by threatening to claim he raped Julie herself. The official had said that at court it would be Ellen’s word against his and who would be believed? Julie turns the game around using her class privilege and says who would be believed if it was his word against her own. Ellen is gutsy and defiant and terrified during the attack and a bit prickly that Julie had to save her. It’s probably the emotional climax of the book, even though the action climax is yet to come.

I did think it a pity that though some of the good guys are prejudiced, all the bad guys are prejudiced and all the good guys are eventually able to overcome their initial prejudices. Though I suspect that’s part of what makes them the good guys.

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