ARC Review: The Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas

NB—I received this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, all opinions are my own

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I think the cover could have more adequately represented the wonders that lie within this book, but I’m too scared by cheesy romance covers to actually have a problem with this. I don’t know that I’d reach for this in a store, but the title is intriguing enough that I might. I am neutral about this cover

A dazzling mixture of crime, romance, magic and myth from the acclaimed author of The Psychology of Time Travel.

The Kendrick family have been making world-famous dolls since the early 1800s. But their dolls aren’t coveted for the craftmanship alone. Each one has a specific emotion laid on it by its creator. A magic that can make you feel bucolic bliss or consuming paranoia at a single touch. Though founded by sisters, now only men may know the secrets of the workshop.

Persephone Kendrick longs to break tradition and learn the family craft, and when a handsome stranger arrives claiming doll-making talent and a blood tie to the Kendricks, she sees a chance to grasp all she desires.

But then, one night, the family’s most valuable doll is stolen. Only someone with knowledge of magic could have taken her. Only a Kendrick could have committed this crime…

This book was incredible! I’m not going to pretend to be objective because I’m not, I loved this book and I think everyone should read it. The character development and foreshadowing in this book was outstanding, the family and interpersonal dynamics were beautifully realised, the magic system and world building were incredibly done—I loved this book and fully intend to buy a paper copy of it once it is released so I can force people I know to read and appreciate it as much as I do.

The world of doll making is not one I have experience with, but the author’s knowledge on the subject shiness through and gives an amazing air of realism to a story that otherwise revolves around magical dolls and the families that make them. I was charmed by the world Kate Mascarenhas created in The Thief on the Winged Horse, and as always when I read a magnificent stand alone, I hope it becomes the start of a series, though the conclusion was magnificently done, and I can confidently say that the book stands alone fantastically.

It’s a testament to how much I enjoyed this book that I’m several paragraphs into the review, and I have yet to mention the feminist themes that are explored in this book, and the canon sexual minorities represented in this work. Bisexual representation is done right, and though some characters face homophobia from unaccepting family members, it’s not done in a confronting or violent manner. I was also glad that despite revolving around a family unit in an English-speaking country, there were characters with different racial backgrounds present in the book and among the doll makers.

Persephone was an exceptional character, and her interactions with Larkin and everyone else were thoroughly satisfying, touching and hilarious in turns. Hedwig was an amazing character, part antagonist, part untrustworthy ally. Larkin was a great touch, a far cry from the usual ‘outsider as a way to explore and explain the world’ trope. I’d love to learn more about almost every characters past, and I believe a prequel novel focussing on the first dollmakers, or during the first world war would be incredible to read.

Conrad, Alistair and Briar were all marvellous foils for Persephone, Larkin, and Hedwig in turns, and I loved the way their various choices and failings both accounted for and contrasted with the changed attitudes and behaviours of the next generation on the eyot. It’s a testament to Kate Mascarenhas’s skill that I even came to feel sympathetic towards Briar over the course of the novel.

The magic and symbolism in The Thief on the Winged Horse is amazing, easily on par with Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway or Lisa Mantchev’s Theatre Illuminata series—both exceptional examples of layered and poetic fantasy elements. The use of hexes in the latter part of the novel opens up fascinating possibilities that could easily become major plot points in future novels, and even if this does not come to pass, the incredible potential for enthralling future storylines only added to my enjoyment of the book. The Thief on the Winged Horse subverted my expectations charmingly, while still being an immensely satisfying read, and I love it for that. Even the romance subplot was another layer of enjoyment in this novel, rather than seeming expected or shoehorned in.

Another high-point of this incredible book was the developed and immersive world-building. It genuinely seemed at times as though rather than learning of the world, mythology and characters, you were simply being reminded. I don’t know how, but somehow this book evoked a sense of nostalgia upon first reading, and I feel fiercely protective of Persephone, Hedwig, and half a dozen other characters besides.

Though there is very little actual violence in this book, and I don’t feel it’s ever included in a distasteful manner, this book does include references to substance abuse, domestic violence, homophobia and sexism. If you’re sensitive to these issues, you may be better off avoiding The Thief on the Winged Horse.

While The Thief on the Winged Horse is too unique for one to one comparisons, in addition to the works already mentioned, the book has similarities to Holly Black’s Curse Workers trilogy and the Sally Lockhart series by Philip Pullman—the fantasy elements of the book are charming and unique, but the relationships between characters and the themes developed within the novel are in no way overshadowed. For this reason, I believe fans of Rob Thurman’s Trickster novels or the Shades of Magic series by VE Schwab will also find plenty to enjoy. The grounding, layered emotional connections of the book were also quite reminiscent of Mad Men, or NK Jemisin’s outstanding Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series.

This book releases on the 12th of November, 2020, and would make a fantastic present for any fantasy lover.

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