Sometimes a family is a thief with a plot for revenge, a soldier, a safecracker, an acrobat, an unqualified wizard, a unicorn, a death priestess, an orphan with a grand destiny, and a talking warhammer with the soul of an ancient king inside it. And sometimes they steal stuff together.
The Palace Job is the first novel in Patrick Weekes’ Rogues of the Republic trilogy, and the very definition of “a rollicking good time”. It blends genres by planting an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist caper in a high fantasy setting, following a rag-tag group of lovable criminals (and you know I have a soft spot for those) as they band together to rob a powerful politician in a floating city. It’s a chaotic adventure in both content and sometimes in storytelling, but it absolutely hooked me with its diverse and delightful cast of characters.
The plot synopsis is fairly (yet deceptively) simple, and draws on plenty of devices we’ve seen before, if not necessarily within fantasy. The story begins with a good old fashioned jailbreak, with Isafesira “Loch” de Lochenville and her old military buddy Kail busting out of the deadly prison that hangs off the bottom of the floating city Heaven’s Spire. Once they hit the ground, Loch sets off on a mission: to assemble a crack team of skilled lawbreakers to help her enact revenge on the sleazy politician that stole her family’s land and unjustly put her behind bars in the first place. From here on there will be swashbuckling action, magical mayhem, political intrigue, and excellent group banter.
The cast is definitely the greatest draw of this book. It’s safe to say there is a lot going on in this story, which is in many ways a long string of action scenes with the occasional breather in between. The status quo shifts at breakneck pace and there is not always a lot of grounding detail to help description-lovers like me picture what’s going on and where in each scene, to the point where I had to backtrack and reread a few sections for clarity’s sake. It’s usually something that would turn me off a novel, but I was able to get into the groove and accept it after a while; mostly, I think, because it always swooped in and won me over again with the characters.
Patrick Weekes works for the BioWare writing team, scripting for all three Mass Effect games as well as Dragon Age: Inquisition, where he was responsible for some of my favourite characters including Cole and The Iron Bull. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he was behind some of the party banter you can also experience while out and about doing missions in Inquisition, because he really does have a knack for snappy dialogue. Each of the nine members of Loch’s haphazardly-stuck-together gang of thieves has a distinct personality and role to play, and reading about them all bouncing off one another was honestly a joy. There’s quips and one-liners aplenty, but just enough heartfelt depth and personal detail to balance it out. Humorous dialogue is never just there because it ought to be (as is the problem in, say, some Marvel movies) but legitimately tells the reader something about the personality and relationships of the characters. They’re cheesy when overdone, but I do love a good snappy mid-fight one-liner or back-and-forth banter session, and there are some great ones in The Palace Job.
This cast is also a fantastic example of how having a spectrum of characters is important and rewarding, especially when it comes to the ladies. There is an even number of men and women on Loch’s team (well, four men, four women, and one talking hammer that was once a man), which is unusual in and of itself, and among the women there’s a variety of archetypes and roles that avoid pigeonholing anyone into the stereotype they could have become had they been on their own. There’s clever and badass ex-soldier Loch, nerdy safecracker Tern, sweet and dainty unicorn Ululenia, and smug death priestess Desidora—though of course those short descriptions don’t do them due credit, since they all have their own degrees of depths and contradictions and subversions of the archetype they seem to first fit into.
Pure and magical Ululenia, for example, actually has quite a (pardon the pun) horny streak, and the sultry-seeming Desidora is revealed to not just be some sort of Sexy Evil Goth Lady but a religious woman with a complicated relationship with her gods and a conflicted sense of duty. Mousy science-loving Tern has a loathing of Desidora stemming from what initially seems to be her version of Not Like Other Girls syndrome, but turns out to be rooted more deeply in personal morals—she’ll steal from people, but she draws the line at raising the dead, you know! Without giving away too much, the novel keeps returning to this fractured relationship between the two, and by the end of the story they’re actually fast friends.
There’s variety among the boys too, of course—Kail is all brawn and wit and “that’s what your mother said last night” jokes, Tern’s partner-in-crime Icy is philosophical and quiet, Hessler the magic school dropout is outwardly cynical but harbours a secret soft side, and the farmboy nicknamed Dairy is clumsy and naïve with a sense of justice that grows over the course of the story. Ghyl the possessed warhammer doesn’t say much, but seems like a pretty cool dude nonetheless.
And then there’s Pyvic, essentially the fantasy version of the FBI agent tasked with tracking Loch down, a man who is allied strongly to a sense of justice and who is forced to realise that maybe it’s not always as simple as following The Law. His dynamic with Loch—which develops over the course of the story as they interact and begin to see each other as real people rather than targets—helps with this. I will say no more, but goodness me, I never expected to get so invested in a sexual-tension-fuelled, “catch me if you can” clash of morals.
The characters and their relationships are the good stuff, is what I’m saying. Loch grew on me immensely as a protagonist the more time I spent with her and the more the layers beneath her quippy, badass soldier-turned-master-thief armour revealed themselves. It’s wonderful to have such a complex and likeable female hero at the helm of a fantasy adventure—and a dark-skinned complex and likeable female hero, too! The world of The Palace Job is an intriguing one, mercifully lifted out of the Tolkien-y trappings of Medieval Europe by both technological advances and multiculturalism (with, as a bonus, actual racial tension between people from different countries, rather than, say, disdain for elves or dwarves serving as a placeholder analogy for how racism is bad).
It’s a world I’d like to spend more time exploring, with a cast I’d like to spend more time with—and happily, I can, since there are two more books in the series. That said, I think this also works fine as a standalone novel if you don’t want to commit to a whole trilogy—everything is wrapped up neatly enough by the end, with just enough loose threads hanging to be tantalising but not infuriating. Given just how much happened in The Palace Job, I can only imagine the shenanigans that will occur once the ante is upped in the sequels. But hey, we can answer that question next time. For now, if you’re looking for a rollicking adventure story with a diverse and loveable cast, I definitely recommend this.