Review by Kaitlyn Chan
Puffin Canada, March 2022
344 pages, ebook, $11.99 CAD, 9780735269446
Ages 9-12, Grades 4-7
“If you succeed in bringing me the deepstone that controls the Woegan, boy-thief, I shall release your brother and send you home with a worthy reward.”
A worthy reward. The queen’s words whirled in Spade’s head. A royal reward could mean a new life for Spade, for his family. Nervous jolts shot through him.
The queen paused, her jaw hardening. “But know this: if you do not succeed, you will have seen your brother for the last time.”
Her guards bowed as she swept through the balcony, across the room and out the great doors. Spade stared as they swung shut behind her, and his stomach turned to lead. He couldn’t fail. Not if he wanted to save Benji.
We often reach for fantasy novels to escape our reality, happy to pretend that life’s most frightening obstacles are mythical beasts or villains who wind up falling to their death. Dee Hahn’s debut novel The Grave Thief subtly subverts the expectation that overcoming our hardships is as simple as slaying an enemy. While including the classic tropes that readers associate with the fantasy genre, this book also opens the door to conversations about discrimination, physical disabilities, and other social issues that we face in our day-to-day lives.
The protagonist Spade and his raven, Ash—because every good fantasy hero has a non-human companion—first appear in the town’s graveyard, robbing the final resting place of a deceased tax collector. Spade is a Joolie, which most characters use as an almost derogatory term throughout the novel. Joolies trade (pocketed) jewels, charms, and stones, and Spade’s family specialize in “deceased goods,” meaning that they trade items stolen from graves. Although Spade’s craft requires that he be agile and inconspicuous, he has one trait preventing him from doing so: his leg. Spade sees his physical disability as his greatest weakness, often blaming it for his downfall or imagining a life where both his legs are fully functional.
The following day, their father, Garnet, ropes Spade and his brother Benji into an absurd plan to rob the royal cemetery to find deepstones, magic stones that bring good fortune. As the two brothers are about to loot a baron’s grave, the queen discovers them. She has them both put in the dungeon and, after careful consideration, provides Spade with an offer: she will reward him and release his brother if he locates the deepstone that controls the Woegan, a vicious beast that has been terrorizing the kingdom. Spade accepts this challenge. As it turns out, doing so will lead him to discover his strengths despite his perceived limitations.
This novel uses a third-person perspective bound to Spade’s thoughts and actions. Nevertheless, the reader meets multiple complex and unique supporting characters that contribute to the overarching theme of wholly embracing oneself. For example, Ember, the queen’s niece, joins Spade in his journey and finally has the opportunity to prove herself to those who underestimated her abilities because of her age and gender. Each character must overcome their own obstacles, many of which exist outside of the physical monster they have to defeat. This novel successfully addresses the issues young people face in the “real” world, which they eventually have to reconcile with when they step out of the fantasy realm.
The Grave Thief will resonate with those who feel unseen or alone. Hahn ensures that readers know they have love and support from others to make them stronger than any obstacles they may face. When readers put down this fantasy novel, they will walk away with the knowledge that the power to overcome life’s monsters exists within them.
Kaitlyn Chan is a current student at UBC, studying English Literature and Creative Writing. Fulfilling the typical stereotypes of English majors, Kaitlyn enjoys reading, writing, and tea. She spends her free time training for triathlons, singing songs in her bedroom, and trying not to buy more books.