Jennifer A. Nielsen’s debut in the Ascendance trilogy was nothing short of brilliant. Now with The Mark of the Thief Nielsen has launched a new series that promises to be just as amazing, if not more. If you haven’t read The Mark of the Thief, you are missing out!
Nicolas Calva is a headstrong slave in the mines of ancient Rome. He is forced to descend into a cursed cave to retrieve a medallion (known as a bulla) that once belonged to Julius Caesar. He emerges with the bulla, a griffin, and a mark investing him with ancient and terrible magic. Nic and the griffin, Caela, are taken to the games in Rome for public entertainment, and Nic is immediately plunged into a web of conspiracy between powerful men who would use his power for their own purposes. And Nic wants nothing to do with them: he only wants freedom for himself and his sister and to get out of Rome, but of course that is easier said than done.
The stakes are higher for Nic in this story than they were for Sage/Jaron in the Ascendance series: not even the people he wants to trust are on his side. And Nic, as I mentioned, has a sister and he has to work around his attachments as he’s fighting for his own survival. The big bad in this story is General Randulf. Only a few pages in, and Nic has already overheard his plot to take over the Roman Empire, and he spends the entire book trying to keep one step ahead of the sinister general. Of course the Roman emperor Tacitus is mentioned frequently but (spoiler alert) he never makes an appearance. And then there’s a fascinating maze of secondary characters with different agendas, political or otherwise.
For the record, Caela is the most amazing griffin I have ever read about. She and Nic don’t have a pet-owner relationship just yet: Caela is still very wild. But Nic cares about her and Caela can sense that in him. And then there’s the plebeian girl Aurelia. Unlike the heroines in the Ascendance trilogy, Aurelia is a straight-up action hero. She’s got a bow and arrow and a knife and she knows how to use them and she’s freaking awesome. In addition to being sincerely afraid of Nic’s emerging powers she’s 100% done with him. There are hints that she could end up as the love interest in future installments of the series but, the way the book ends, she and Nic have a long way to go.
The setting and magic system of this story is unique. Nielsen did her homework bringing the brutal world of ancient Rome to life. Nic’s magic is not completely explained in this first volume. Most of the people he works with agree that his power came from the gods, but there’s no real proof that the gods exist in this world. Aside from Caela and a reference to another mythological creature there doesn’t seem to be much else fantastic going on in this world. And the Romans in this setting don’t seem to think that the appearance of a griffin at one of the gladiator games is at all unusual. However, by the end of the story the reader’s appetite is whetted for finding out more about the mysterious magic that Nic must learn to control and that will either win him allies or foes. The second book in this series, The Rise of the Wolf, is already out and let me tell you I cannot wait to read it.