“Little Thieves” is a fresh retelling of “The Goose Girl,” a classic but often underappreciated folktale. The basic premise, for those unaware, is as follows: There are two girls — a princess and her maid. The maid, fed up with her lot in life, does away with the princess and takes her place. Eventually, the king realizes her deceit, and the princess is allowed to return to her life while the maid is punished.
Some retellings (such as Shannon Hale’s popular “Books of Bayern” series) stay very true to the folktale and serve as direct — though embellished — retellings. “Little Thieves” takes a different approach. Rather than rehashing the same plot points, Margaret Owen decides instead to use “The Goose Girl” only as a loose framework upon which she crafts an entirely new story — one filled with the gods, magic and politics of medieval Germany.
The most glaring deviance in this retelling is that we hear not from the poor, helpless princess’s perspective, but from the heartless, rebellious maid’s. The maid, Vanja, is not exactly portrayed as a good character — in fact, she’ll be the first one to tell you how awful she is. Yet neither is she deserving of being dragged naked through the streets in a barrel full of nails (the punishment handed out by the king in the original story). Instead, she is understood to be a morally gray character, her constant manipulativeness and occasional cruelty underscored by being abandoned by her mother, raised by the goddesses of Death and Fortune and forced to repay a lifelong debt or flee her home. If she relishes in stealing from the greedy, brown-nosing gentry, and if she has no qualms about ejecting the real princess from her life of comfort — well, who could really blame her?
Despite her history, the other characters do blame her, at least at first (especially the Low God, who curses her to die if she cannot make amends for her greed and sets his shapeshifting daughter on her trail). But Vanja is not a static character, and neither are the people who slowly but surely become her friends and collaborators in her schemes. At the beginning of the story, Vanja cannot even fathom being worth someone’s effort and does not trust — or even like — a soul in the world. She is used to being abandoned, used and betrayed, and she’s accepted it as just how life goes (after all, she was raised by Death and Luck incarnate). It’s an uphill battle, but she’s a very different girl by the end, thanks to those friends who help her see a different side of humanity. Although some might say the “found family” trope is cliché, it’s so slowly and skillfully introduced that you truly feel the characters grow together. Moreover, Owen’s witty, lyrical writing perfectly suits this wry, sarcastic narrator, and the emotional interplay between deep trauma and colorful banter allows clichés to still have depth.
Altogether, “Little Thieves” is an entertaining read. It’s a few dozen pages longer than it needs to be, but there’s enough curse-breaking, heist-planning, evil fiancé-escaping adventure to ensure it never gets dull. With an interesting intertwining of folklore and mythology, a wonderfully atmospheric setting in medieval Germany, several queer characters and a well-executed found family trope, this book hits a lot of nails on the head.
Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at email@example.com.