Portrait of a Thief – Grace D. Li

Portrait of a Thief is a brilliant book combining tropes of dark academia with the classic heist and interrogating the effects of colonialism both on society and on the individuals as all of the main characters are Chinese-American with a variety of backgrounds and relationships to their culture. One that I’d highly recommend, and I’m very much looking forward to having a finished copy in my hands soon.

Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for sending me an eARC of Portait of a Thief via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

RELEASE DATE: 14/04/2022

STAR RATING: 4.5/5 ✶

SUMMARY: This was how things began: Boston on the cusp of fall, the Sackler Museum robbed of 23 pieces of priceless Chinese art. Even in this back room, dust catching the slant of golden, late-afternoon light, Will could hear the sirens. They sounded like a promise.

Will Chen, a Chinese American art history student at Harvard, has spent most of his life learning about the West – its art, its culture, all that it has taken and called its own. He believes art belongs with its creators, so when a Chinese corporation offers him a (highly illegal) chance to reclaim five priceless sculptures, it’s surprisingly easy to say yes.

Will’s crew, fellow students chosen out of his boundless optimism for their skills and loyalty, aren’t exactly experienced criminals. Irene is a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything; Daniel is pre-med with steady hands and dreams of being a surgeon. Lily is an engineering student who races cars in her spare time; and Will is relying on Alex, an MIT dropout turned software engineer, to hack her way in and out of each museum they must rob.

Each student has their own complicated relationship with China and the identities they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but one thing soon becomes certain: they won’t say no.

Because if they succeed? They earn an unfathomable ten million each, and a chance to make history. If they fail, they lose everything . . . and the West wins again. (from Coronet)

OPINIONS: I think this is my favourite non-SFF book I’ve read this year. It combines so many things I tend to love about books – dark academia vibes, a good heist, strong characters with complex backgrounds, and most of all, being a commercial and accessible story with immense depth. Through looking at both colonial theft of art by major museums and the complicated relationships to identity all of the main characters have in regards to being Chinese-American, Portrait of a Thief gives the reader much opportunity to think further than the surface level heist story, but by packaging it in an accessible way, it makes readers more open to receive the message. And that is one of my absolute favourite things about books right now. Thinking about museums and how their collections are largely based on objects looted through colonialism never fails to make me grumpy, so this really felt like a book written specifically for me. (If you’re in London and feel similarly, the V&A has an exciting exhibit of reproductions of major landmarks and sculptures! Instead of looting them they made their own to give us an impression, all the way back in the 19th century)

The story is compelling – as behooves a heist – but it is also a lot of fun. The characters are all charming in their own ways, from Will, who is passionate about art, to Irene who can persuade anyone to do anything (that girl just rolls nat20 after nat20 on persuasion!) or Lily who is a student but also races cars passionately. They come to life in a way that makes the reader almost feel like part of their gang by the end, and while, of course, the idea that a random group of college students can pull of these heists requires a level of suspension of disbelief, as a whole, their shenanigans make sense, and I cheered every time something went off without them being caught.

All in all, just a brilliant book, and I highly recommend it to anyone, even if it’s not necessarily the genre you usually read. It has something for everyone, romance, action, charm, discussion of complex issues, the whole shebang, so really, there are no excuses not to at least give this a shot. I can’t speak to the nuances of cultural representation, but for me, it was an interesting perspective to read, and it felt organic, adding to the book and its story rather than overpowering it.

Add Portrait of a Thief to your Goodreads here, and order a copy via Bookshop here (affiliate link).

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