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Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li combines literary fiction with the beloved heist genre in a story of five college students who plan to steal back Chinese art from western museums. I found the book’s premise and anti-colonial messaging engaging, but I had some issues with the one-dimensional characters and the lack of excitement to the heist itself. The execution may not have lived up to my expectations, but this is still a clever read that tackles some important topics.Title: Portrait of a Thief
Author: Grace D. Li
Publisher: Tiny Reparations Books
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery, Young Adult Fiction
Publication Date: April 5, 2022
History is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now.
Will Chen plans to steal them back.
A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son who has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a mysterious Chinese benefactor reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago.
His crew is every heist archetype one can imagine—or at least, the closest he can get. A con artist: Irene Chen, a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands just as capable of lockpicking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering major who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down.
Because if they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars—and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they’ve dreamed for themselves but yet another thwarted attempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.
❃ I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. ❃
Review: Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li
Inspired by a true story, this book follows a group of five college students who are tasked with stealing back five Chinese sculptures that have been stolen by western museums centuries ago. Each member of the crew is exceptionally bright, only none of them have any experience as thieves. With fifty million dollars and history on the line, failure is not an option, but will a team of amateur thieves be able to return the sculptures to where they belong?
❀ Characters Lack Depth
Throughout the book all five characters in the crew have a voice, although I found them all lacking in depth. As the synopsis states, each fits perfectly into the heist archetypes–the leader, the con artist, the thief, the hacker, and the getaway driver–and as a result, each character becomes a one-dimensional cliche than can be summed up in a single sentence. While I appreciated the way the author gives each a unique voice and a complex relationship with China and Chinese American identity, their motivations for participating in such a risky heist are never really explained. With characters like these, I feel like there is an opportunity for humour, but as they are taken seriously, I was taken out of the story at certain points.
❀ Incoherent Plot
While I adored the concept of a heist story with a critique of colonialism, I found that the execution could have been stronger. The root of this problem is the blend of genres–of literary fiction with a heist story–that doesn’t quite work out. The literary fiction aspects overshadow the excitement of the heist, and rather than exciting action scenes, the prose is mostly long descriptions and introspection which makes the plot drag. I understand that the heist is intended to be secondary to the anti-colonial messages, but I would have liked to see more of the thriller elements that a heist story suggests. I also had issues with the characters’s shaky heist planning, as they turn to Google Docs to organize their poorly thought-out schemes. Again, this feels like satire but is fully taken seriously, which makes for a confusing reading experience. I do appreciate the anti-colonial themes, as this is an important topic that I have not seen often in YA, but I wish that the story as a whole was stronger so that this messaging wasn’t lost in the incoherent plot.
❀ Genre-Blending HeisT Story
Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li is a genre-blending heist story with a critique of colonialism at its core. While I enjoyed the premise and appreciated the book’s message, I had issues with the one-dimensional characters and the lack of excitement. While this one wasn’t entirely to my taste, I am sure that many will enjoy its themes and the author’s poetic writing style.