There are genre tropes, and then there are those archetypes that are mainstays of not just science fiction and fantasy, but of popular culture in general. One of the best examples is the character of the Gentleman Thief (who doesn’t always have to be a gentleman). These rogues are witty, engaging, and will rob you blind with a rakish wink and a smile. You can’t help but be charmed by them. From Robin Hood to Danny Ocean, the character is a permanent favorite in books and on film.
The Gentleman Thief is remade in Oceans 8, opening today; Sandra Bullock stars as Danny Ocean’s younger sister, who builds out a diverse crew of fascinating and fierce women for a plan to rob the Met Gala (A great thief is often no better than her crew; how can any plan go wrong when you have Cate Blanchett and Rhianna on your side?). But fantasy writers have been playing with the form for decades. If Debbie Ocean’s latest scheme has you in the mood for more great heist stories, here are 12 of our favorites, with a fantasy twist.
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, by Fritz Leiber
The original thieving fantasy duo—think of them as the ’60s Rat Pack version, as compared to the slicker, more modern crews found below. These two are the real deal. Pulling heists since the 1940s, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have stood the test of time, and Leiber’s attention to both crackerjack plots and crafting compelling and truly memorable leads has informed every other thief on this list. The jobs they’ve pulled are legendary, and their partnership is one of the strongest in fantasy.
The Holver Alley Crew, by Marshall Ryan Maresca
Maresca’s interconnected Maradaine books (multiple series examining life in the same fantasy city) are a real treat. The latest series is about the Holver Alley crew, a ragtag group of formerly retired thieves are forced to return to a life of crime when their new, respectable shop burns down. When they learn the fire was no accident, they are forced to take desperate measures. All of the Maradaine books are a treat, but this one really stands out because of the especially strong characters. In fine Oceans tradition, Asti and Verci are both brothers and ringleaders, and must assemble a skilled crew to pull of a job to rob a gambling house that took everything from them.
The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
A list of fabulous thieves would not be complete without Locke Lamora, who, after three acclaimed novels, has become the standard for all fantasy thieves. He swashbuckled into our hearts in Scott Lynch’s irresistible debut, and we’ve never been the same since. The fantasy version of Renaissance Venice he lives in is a lush wonderland of crime families and political dynasties all vying to be in control of the city. Locke, in comparison, is a small fr—until he gets noticed by some very nasty people. He and his team must stop a crime boss from destroying the city before it’s too late. This series has it all: political intrigue, amazing characters, and enough criminal activity to make your head spin. The fabled fourth book is on its way at some point, so make sure you start reading now.
Steal the Sky, by Megan O’Keefe
O’Keefe’s debut is a story of conmen, flying boats, and political intrigue, and we’d put it on the list even if the publisher didn’t bill it as “The Lies of Locke Lamora on giant sand dunes with exploding airships.” Dentan Honding and his partner Tibs are smooth-talking crooks on the run. Desperate to make themselves scarce before the local authorities do it for them, they hatch an elaborate plan to claim their biggest price yet—an airship belonging to Thratia, a powerful military commander-in-exile. But even as Dentan sets the scheme in motion, a shapeshifting killer begins targeting important members of government, allowing Thratia to make a move to reclaim power—and making the heist that much harder.
The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn, by Tyler Whitesides
Ardor Benn is the new kid on the block. Released just last month, this doorstopper of a novel is already garnering great reviews. Ardor Benn is joined by an Oceans 11-style team of forgers, con artists, and criminals to pull off one of the biggest heists in history. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong, and now that Ardor Benn and his team rank with the kingdom’s most wanted men, they have revenge on their mind. Ardor is a rogue with a heart of gold and his team is incredibly fun to follow, but we also love this one of the originality of its heist: the crew hopes to steal the crown jewels so they can be fed to a dragon…and made into magic, er, dragon droppings.
The Legend of Eli Monpress, by Rachel Aaron
Maybe you like your thieves to be a little magical as well? In that case, Eli Monpress has you covered. Eli’s goal is to become the most wanted, most infamous thief in all the land. His strong magic, which allows him to do things like charm locks to open, helps him pull of incredible feats of thievery. Joined by a famed swordsman and a girl burdened by demons, he risks everything to be the best criminal he can be. His first heist? Stealing a king! This series is a joy, and a bargain: three books are included in this hefty omnibus edition.
Clockwork Boys, by T. Kingfisher
More espionage and less outright theft, but this excellent series from T. Kingfisher counts just the same. It’s a story of a forger building a team to find a way to stop an army of clockwork abominations from collapsing an empire. The characters are incredible and the humor is sharp. If you like the “found family” aspect of the heist novel, this one is definitely for you—you’ll be hard pressed to find a better group of misfits and criminals.
Paperback $15.99 | $17.99
Theft of Swords, by Michael J Sullivan
What do you get when you bring together a sullen, introverted thief and a cheerful, noble-minded mercenary? Magic. Sullivan’s Riyria series is total catnip for those who love smart characters, political intrigue, and deep mysteries. This duo tackles everything from royal conspiracies to fighting dragons, and they do it with a sarcastic quip and a lot of swordplay. They follow in the proud tradition of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and they do it with flair and aplomb. There are a few places to start reading (after finishing a six-book saga, the author went on to pen a number of prequels), but you can’t go wrong with the first one written, in which the titular duo are hired to steal a legendary sword and find themselves on the hook for a king’s murder.
Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer
This novel is traditionally grouped with books for middle grade readers, but we’d argue it’s also a straight-up urban fantasy. It’s set in the modern day, more or less, and concerns the collision between the mundane world and the magical one. There are fairies. And those fairies are total badasses. The standout character is, of course, Artemis, a young criminal mastermind hellbent on saving his family from tragedy and bankruptcy. His solution? Kidnap a fairy and demand a pot of gold as ransom. As you can imagine, it doesn’t go exactly according to plan. This series is an incredibly fun romp that gets deeper as it goes along, building a surprisingly complex mythology. The film version was stuck in development hell for well over a decade, but is finally coming out next year. In the meantime, the books are all out now, and will delight even the most jaded fantasy reader.
Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
What do you do when the world saving hero of myth and legend fails? You call in the B team. Corruption and despair are thick in this world and only a team of criminals and a wet-behind-the-ear mage can save everything. Maybe. Possibly. Okay, maybe not, but they’re going to try! Thus starts one of the best series by Sanderson, who crafts intense heist novel with huge consequences, and one of the most creative and engaging magic systems ever—those who are skilled in “allomancy” can ingest different types of metal and “burn” them in order to gain X-Men-like abilities. What’s truly satisfying is the effort Sanderson puts into making sure the magic follows a sort of logic, fantastic as it is. (It’s not flying, its being magnetic…with style!) An absolute classic of the genre.
Paperback $14.99 | $16.99
A Darker Shade of Magic, by VE Schwab
This sharp-witted and well-plotted novel begins with a smuggler caught up in a job gone wrong, and suddenly in way over his head. When that smuggler meets a thief and brings her home, all bets are off. So far, so standard, except said smuggler is the last magician in London able to pass through the barriers that separate parallel worlds, and that thief is a girl from a version of London where magic exists only in stories. This inventive, genre-breaking novel cemented V.E. Schwab as one of fantasy’s brightest new stars. It’s a thrill ride with a cast of anti-heroes you can’t help but root for, and a pair of villains you’ll love to hate. Why settle for a heist in one world when you can have one across four?
Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart
This one isn’t a traditional heist novel, but it definitely scratches the same itch. After a magical plague puts all the children of his village into a coma-like slumber, strongman Number Ten Ox is tasked with finding a cure. On his journey, he meets washed-up scholar and full-time drunk Master Li Kao, who believes he knows what has caused the plague. Unfortunately, securing the cure means going up against some of the shadiest characters from Master Li’s past, not to mention some majorly dangerous criminals. The book is structured as a series of interconnected cons that play like mini-heists, as Master Li and Number Ten Ox attempt to find the Great Root of Power that will solve all their problems. Hughart based the novel on a traditional Chinese legend, and it is set in a fantasy version of China (it’s subtitled “A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was); as a result, it does fall prey to Orientalism and stereotyping at times, even as the author strives to be respectful of the cultural traditions he’s depicting. Moreover, to say that women aren’t well-treated is a bit of an understatement; in keeping with the broad, satirical tone and quasi-historical culture depicted, women tend to be either damsels in distress or grotesque villains. It’s a charming story, but not without its issues. Consider this a recommendation, with an asterisk.
What are your favorite thief novels?