Fourteen-year-old orphan Sin lives a hard life in a street gang, fighting and stealing to get by. A brazen theft sees him recruited by a secret institution known as COG, to train for covert missions designed to avert world wars. In the COG academy, he is immediately befriended by fellow trainee Zonda, and they unite against resident bully and co-trainee Velvet. As instruction progresses, Sin learns more about his past and his connection to COG, but also discovers nobody – even Zonda – is what they seem. After an assassination attempt on COG’s leader, Sin is partnered with Velvet and sent on a mission to uncover the identity of the traitor in the organisation. As secrets pile on secrets, Sin is unsure who to trust. He begins to wonder if he’s been sent to his death, and whether anyone – including himself – has the skills to save him.
The Traitor And The Thief is a novel for young adult (YA) readers, age twelve and up. Debut author Gareth Ward has written an excellent adventure-mystery hybrid, well-paced for its target audience. A real feature of this book is the world-building. The story is set in an alternate Victorian London, and the steampunk elements are woven beautifully into the narrative, without being overwhelmingly technological. There is just enough description of steam-powered cog machines, chemical inventions, and alt-historical events to bring the world to life, while allowing the reader’s imagination to fill the gaps. Language is used skillfully to give characters richer detail; the vernacular used by Sin marks his origin immediately, putting him in stark contrast to the aristocratic and snobby Velvet and the intelligent but verbose Zonda. The ending, while somewhat predictable, cries out for a sequel and there is certainly scope for one.
Ward attempts to address relevant issues for his target audience, and a number of themes emerge throughout the book. The politics of gender are front and centre as the groups of trainees are introduced. While there is an even mix of male and female trainees, the author challenges stereotypes through their presentations. Zonda is an attempt to reframe the hero archetype; while highly intelligent, she lacks the physical prowess often attributed to such characters. A refreshing addition is that Sin offers to help with her physical training, and that this happens over a period of time – Zonda has to work at it. Sin must do the same – physically fit, he has little formal schooling and his frustration at his lack of competence in this area is tangible. Training tasks aren’t differentiated between male and female trainees, with all completing identical tasks, which raises questions among the trainees when a man is asked to hit a woman. Ward doesn’t shy away from the difficulty and complexity of the issue, and the related sequences provide a springboard for further discussion with young readers.
The issue of gender ties closely to identity, and the connection or disconnection between one’s past and the person one can become. The main characters in the novel each come from vastly different backgrounds, and this presents challenges for each of them when they are required to work together. Trust emerges as a significant stumbling block; both trusting others, and also trusting in oneself and one’s abilities. Over all this is an umbrella theme of right and wrong, and how the line between the two can blur.
The Traitor And The Thief is an enjoyable read, with strong appeal for YA readers seeking an action-packed adventure story in a fresh setting.
Amanda McLeod is a Canberra-based author and artist, with several short fiction works published in print and online. Find her on Twitter @AmandaMWrites