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Literature / The Thief Lord

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The Thief Lord is a children's fantasy novel by German author Cornelia Funke, who also authored The Inkworld Trilogy. The Thief Lord follows a ragtag bunch of runaways and orphans living in the unseen parts of Venice, led by the titular "Thief Lord". Unfortunately two of them, Bo and Prosper, are pursued by the Private Detective Victor hired by their oppressive aunt. Victor's presence is just the catalyst for other forces that test the band's loyalty to each other.

The novel's big themes include growing up and family. In 2006 a film adaptation was made.

The Thief Lord contains examples of:

  • Anti-Villain: Victor isn't actually villainous; he's looking for the boys because he's been hired to and because he rightfully believes that five is a bit too young to be getting along without parents, but he is also extremely sympathetic to their plight. Later, he's even willing to lie to the Hartilebs to try and put them off Prosper and Bo's trail.
    • The Conte and Esther also get more sympathetic closer to the end.
  • The Artful Dodger: Riccio is something of this. Unlike most of the other kids, he quite enjoys stealing for a living and is disgusted by the thought of living under an adult's care. However, it is mentioned that, when he lived with Mosca and Hornet, and before Scipio began helping them out, his life was anything but happy and carefree.
  • Badass Longcoat: The Thief Lord wears one.
  • Beneath the Mask: Scipio is a completely different person when he is with the other kids and when he is around his father. This is obvious even to Victor, who had met him only briefly. Interestingly, these are both masks for his true personality, which is somewhere in between.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Everyone who uses the merry-go-round has shades of this, but Barbarossa gets it the worst.
    • Barbarossa's fate could also be called Cursed With Awesome. In a couple of years, he'll have exactly what he wanted anyway.
    • Esther always wanted a child that looked like an adorable angel but could behave like a charming adult...
  • Big Brother Instinct: Prosper to Bo, and it drives the entire plot.
  • Bound and Gagged: The children do this to Victor when he comes snooping around their hideout (an abandoned cinema), then lock him in the men's bathroom.
  • Broken Pedestal: The kids to Scipio when they find out the truth about his origins, particularly Riccio.
  • Butt-Monkey: Victor (overlaps a bit with The Chew Toy).
  • Call-Back: At one point, when the children pick up a letter from the Conte at Barbarossa's shop, Barbarossa presses them for details about what the Conte asked them to steal, and Bo taunts him with stories about its appearance, mentioning diamonds and pearls. Barbarossa later sneaks to the Isola Segreta and threatens Morosina with harm, demanding that she show him the treasure with "huge diamonds and pearls."
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  • Cinderella Circumstances: In the Conte's backstory.
  • *Click* Hello: Ida does this (except without the click because her rifle doesn't actually work) to the kids when they break into her house in the middle of the night and start arguing amongst themselves.
  • Cool Big Sis: Ida isn't actually anyone's sister, but she fits the character description.
  • Cool Mask: Scipio wears a black, bird-beaked plague doctor mask that effectively creeps the other kids out.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Victor likely wouldn't have found Prosper and Bo, and by extension wouldn't have been involved in nearly as much of the plot, if he hadn't happened to run into Prosper while he was out getting pizza.
  • Cursed With Awesome: Barbarossa's karmic punishment is being de-aged, which is exactly what he wanted all along.
  • Cuteness Overload: Happens to Esther when she meets Ernesto, resulting in I'm Taking Her Home with Me!.
  • Cuteness Proximity: In-story we're told that Bo inspires this reaction in adults.
  • Disappeared Dad: Prosper and Bo's late mother is mentioned several times, but never their father.
  • Don't Split Us Up: This is the premise for the entire book. After their mother dies, Propser and Bo's aunt decides that she only wants one of the boys, the cute and cuddly Bo, and plans on sending Prosper to a boarding school. This leads to Prosper kidnapping his brother, running to Venice, and finding the rest of the gang while avoiding the private detective his aunt sends after him.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Crossing over with Never My Fault, Prosper and Bo's aunt Esther seems offended that the two think of her as some kind of witch, despite the fact that she wants to split them up and arbitrarily send Prosper off to a boarding school because he's not cute enough for her, while the brothers don't want to be split up.
  • Dye or Die: Bo is too easily recognizable with his blond baby-angel curls, so when Prosper realizes Victor is after them, Hornet cuts Prop's hair very short and dyes Bo's black with ink. Unfortunately, Victor still recognizes them immediately.
  • The End of the Beginning: This is implied rather than stated in the last chapter. While everyone more or less gets "And they lived happily ever after", this trope certainly applies, especially for young Ernesto.
  • The Fagin: The titular Thief Lord.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Scipio/the Thief Lord.
  • Five-Man Band: The Thief Lord's gang is something of this:
  • Gentleman Thief: Scipio tries to be one. As best as a 13-year-old boy can be one, anyway.
  • Growing Up Sucks: Played with. According to Scipio, it's actually not that bad.
    • But played straight with the Conte, whose deepest wish is to be a child again as he never had a real childhood to begin with.
  • Happily Adopted: Hornet, Prosper, and Bo are all adopted by Ida Spavento in the end.
  • Hero Antagonist: Victor early on in the book.
  • Heroic BSoD: Prosper when Bo is taken away. Hornet has a somewhat milder one while she is in the orphanage.
  • Identical Son: Scipio and his father, so much that when Scipio is magically aged, Barbarossa mistakes him for his father.
  • Instant Messenger Pigeon: From the Conte.
  • Kick the Dog: We already knew that Barbarossa was a crooked, greedy bastard (and not even a magnificent one at that), but his actions on the Conte's island (intending to rob an old man, dragging a little girl around by her hair, and poisoning the Conte's dogs) show his true colors.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: Everyone's treatment of toddler Barbarossa near the end of the book.
  • Known Only by Their Nickname: Hornet, to the point that Mosca and Riccio, who lived with her for months before the story began, don't even know what her real name is. Prosper only knows her real name because he happened to see it written in some of her books; luckily he is able to pass the information on to Victor and Ida, and they use it to track her down after she gets picked up by the police.
    • Also, the Thief Lord to Barbarossa. They have never met. Barbarossa has only ever dealt with the other children, whom he thinks work for the ''adult'' master thief.
  • Language Barrier: Prosper and Bo spoke very little Italian when they first came to Venice and thus had some trouble communicating with the gang initially.
  • Legacy Character: Young Barbarossa becomes the second Thief Lord, but without the nobler intentions of his predecessor.
  • Let's Split Up, Gang!: And it actually works.
  • Lima Syndrome: How the children befriend Victor. However, they don't actually let him go; he manages to escape on his own, and some of the kids still mistrust him even after he gives his word of honor that he won't turn them in to the police.
  • Living a Double Life: Scipio.
  • Loving a Shadow: A non-romantic example. Esther doesn't want Bo himself so much as she wants an adorable child with the well-behaved mannerisms of an adult and none of the poor behavior of an actual child. Or, as Victor puts it, a "teddy bear". She tries to shove Bo into this mold, but loses interest when he continues to act out regardless. She seemingly gets her wish when she adopts the child Barbarossa at the end, but he turns out to have behavioral problems of his own...
  • Magical Realism: The story is realistic up until the children start hearing stories about a magical carousel, which turns out to be real.
  • The Masquerade: Scipio was never a street-smart prodigy thief; he was a rich kid who simply stole from his father's mansion.
  • Meddling Aunt: To Prosper, Esther is the annoying variety.
  • Missing Mom: The death of Prosper and Bo's mother is what inspires their running away to Venice in the first place. Scipio's mom isn't dead, but she travels a lot.
  • Mock Millionaire: The Conte, who is actually not a Conte.
  • Non-Residential Residence: Prosper, Bo, Hornet, Riccio, and Mosca all live inside an old cinema.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Victor. As a "snoop", it's part of the job description. He even has certain disguises meant specifically to make him look like a dimwitted tourist so he can be as unobtrusive as possible.
  • Orphan's Plot Trinket: Ida was given the wing for the merry-go-round by the nuns in the orphanage where she grew up.
  • Parental Abandonment: All the kids suffer this. Prosper and Bo's mother died shortly before the story began and their father is never mentioned; Mosca's family apparently doesn't want anything to do with him; Riccio has nowhere to go but an orphanage; Hornet refuses to talk about her past because it makes her too sad, but it's pretty clear that she too has nowhere to go. Even Scipio, whose parents aren't dead but cold and uncaring towards him.
    • Also Ida, who grew up in an orphanage. And even the Conte and his sister.
    • Heck, even Victor is implied to have been subjected to this. He mentions that he has run away from home before, wistfully wishes he'd had an older brother to look after him, and has a lot of sympathy for the stray children's plight.
  • Phantom Thief: The Thief Lord has a reputation with his gang for being one.
  • Plague Doctor: Scipio dresses like this once.
  • Plot Coupon: The wooden wing Scipio is hired to steal.
  • Private Detective: Victor, and later Scipio.
  • Promotion to Parent: Prosper to Bo, though he doesn't acknowledge he's doing it.
  • The Queen's Latin: In the movie. Even though they're in Venice, everyone appears to speak perfect British English.
    • Averted in the book, where it's established that they are speaking Italian, and Victor's first meeting with the Hartilebs is established to be in English. In fact, Prosper and Bo did not know much Italian when they first came to Venice and thus had a bit of difficulty integrating into the gang.
  • Reality Ensues:
    • When Prosper and Bo get to Venice, their first major hurdle besides finding food and shelter is the fact that neither of them speak Italian, other than a few scattered words they picked up from their mother. While this issue isn't really explored, it is mentioned that the brothers had trouble communicating with the other gang members at first.
    • A bunch of children periodically selling piles of valuable items, with no plausible explanation as to how they got those valuable items, while there are newspaper articles of recent major thefts in current circulation, is all really suspicious. The only person they can do business with is an unscrupulous crook who doesn't really care what the kids are up to as long as they keep bringing him things he can turn a profit on.
    • As good a thief as Scipio is, he isn't perfect. The true victims of his thievery, his parents, do eventually notice that stuff is going missing from their house. The only reason Scipio isn't caught is because they mistakenly believe that his nanny is the thief.
  • Revolvers Are Just Better: Victor seems to think so.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: The Conte in the confessional.
  • Ship Tease: Prosper and Hornet.
    • It's almost a 'blink and you'll miss it' thing in the book. The movie plays it up a lot more; the last scene of the movie ends with them cuddling on a boat with Victor, Ida, and Bo.
  • Title Drop: As "the Thief Lord" is Scipio's nickname, it appears multiple times. But, in an interesting twist, those are also the last three words of the book.
  • Token Black Friend: Averted with Mosca. Mosca's race is mentioned only once ("Mosca's skin was beautifully black.") and he shows no racial stereotypes.
  • True Companions: A key element of the story is the Thief Lord's true companions.
  • The Un-Favourite: Esther doesn't want Prosper, only cute, angel-haired Bo. In his notes on the case, Victor sums it up as "Not interested in the older one, probably because he doesn't look like a teddy bear anymore."
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Played straight with a chapter ending on Hornet's line, "I have a plan." But averted later on when Scipio tells everyone his "crazy idea" to get Esther to adopt toddler Barbarossa. Prosper tells him that there's no way it will work, but then it does.
  • What Measure Is A Noncute: Applied to humans, strangely. Esther dotes over Bo only because he's a cute, innocent-looking little boy and refuses to take Prosper into her home because he, in Victor's words, "doesn't look like a teddy bear anymore". Once Bo starts acting out, Esther doesn't want anything to do with him.
  • Wicked Aunt: Esther, from Prosper's POV. She tried to separate the brothers by sending Prosper to a boarding school, which is why the boys run away. Esther herself comments to Ida that her nephews seem to see her as "some sort of witch".
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Hornet uses this to great effect in order to get Victor distracted and off the kids' trail. She grabs hold of him and yells like she's being kidnapped. Poor Victor has no idea what's going on, but, mistaken for a "child snatcher", he gets attacked by several outraged onlookers and arrested by the police, allowing the children to sneak away.


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