The backstory considered:
Characters are like icebergs. Only the tip of what the author knows about them might ever be revealed. But that 90% is what drives the 10% we see. For example:
- In the movie Hook (1991), Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins decided their characters—Captain Hook and his first mate Smee—were a gay couple. To director Spielberg’s frustration (“It’s a kids movie.”), they proceeded to interpret their roles as a pair of bickering partners.
- In the TV series The Good Wife (NBC), Nathan Lane had a supporting role as accountant/lawyer Clarke Hayden. The show’s writers didn’t supply one, so Lane developed his own elaborate backstory, which—although never mentioned on the show—could have filled a novel itself.
- Author J.K. Rowling knew that Harry Potter’s mentor Dumbledore was gay. She never mentioned it in the books, but it informed the way she wrote the character. When a fan tweeted her disbelief, Rowling’s reply was perfect.
If you approach book series like relationships, then the first book is the cute meet, the middle book(s) are falling in love and the first big fight, and the last book is settling in for a long-haul relationship. But when the hidden 90% of the character’s backstory becomes a story in itself, a prequel is born.
Prequel: a work (as a novel or a play) whose story precedes that of an earlier work—Merriam Webster
There are a lot of reasons for producing a prequel, of course. Sometimes, an author is infatuated with a book’s characters and becomes emotionally invested in their world. Sometimes the infatuation is financial. Sometimes it’s a hot mess of both. (I can’t think of any other possible explanation for this—
And sometimes, if we get lucky, that character’s backstory becomes a story in itself, one that the author can’t help telling. Why do I bring this up? One of my favorite writers, Celine Jeanjean, has added her main character’s backstory as prequel to her wonderful series, The Viper and the Urchin. If you haven’t had a chance to appreciate her mix of steampunk/sword/fantasy/humor, you are in luck. The author suggests you start with Book 1 for the full effect of her amazing world-building, but I think you can start with the new prequel, The Pickpocket, and work your way through the next two books.
The Pickpocket: (The Viper and the Urchin, Book 0.5): A Rory Origin Story by Celine Jeanjean
There were as many ways for an urchin to die as there were ways to skin a rat.
Rory is a seven-year-old starveling, carving out a survival for herself down on the docks of Damsport. When Daria, an older girl and talented pickpocket, suggests they team up to con Damsians out of their purses, Rory accepts at once.
But Rory’s friendship with Daria turns out to be much more than a partnership of convenience, transforming her into the confident urchin we met in The Bloodless Assassin, and teaching her the dangers of letting someone get too close.
To get the most out of this novella, the author recommends that you first read The Bloodless Assassin.
After reading The Pickpocket, the prequel to Celine Jeanjean’s The Viper and The Urchin series, I was thinking again about those three sliding variants of character development—competence, proactivity, and sympathy. In my review of her first book, The Bloodless Assassin (formerly titled The Viper and the Urchin), and Book 2, The Black Orchid, I talked about how those markers moved over the course of the book.
When we meet her in Book 1, Rory’s sliders for competence and proactivity are high. She might be a scrawny, smelly urchin, but she’s a “master of the game of survival”, and she has a plan. Okay, “blackmail the highly-trained killer” might not be the best plan, but Rory is willing to put in the effort it will take to pull it off. On the face of things, you’d think her sympathy level would be high too—she’s an orphan who lives on the streets. Except…she’s just so competent at being an urchin, that it’s hard to work up a lot of sympathy for her fate.
So where did this competent, proactive, and oddly not-pitiful urchin come from? In The Pickpocket, the Rory we meet is a tiny, scared girl who lives in a world where disaster threatens at every turn. Every day is one step away from starvation or violence. “There were as many ways for an urchin to die as there were ways to skin a rat.” In terms of those three variants for character development, while the slider for sympathy is as high as a starving, abused street orphan can get, Rory’s settings for competence and proactivity are at rock bottom. She is marginally competent only in as much as she hasn’t been killed yet. Rory lives in a world where she has no power and thus can only react to what’s going on around her. But even more achingly obvious is the emotional hole inside her, the need to give and receive love, to be touched.
All of that changes one day when she meets the charismatic older urchin, Daria, who offers to take Rory under her wing and teach her to become a pickpocket. This isn’t a rags-to-riches story, but Daria’s mentoring provides two of the three things that are to change Rory’s life. The first thing is that Rory’s share of their “earnings” means she is no longer in danger of starving. Second, and far more important, Rory is no longer alone. Finally, in Daria she finds a focus for all of her love, loyalty, and admiration. But as young as she is, Rory soon realizes that something is wrong. Secretly, she follows Daria back to her home, and is confused to see that the Daria she knows as brash, fearless, and outgoing is replaced by a girl who is the complete opposite, and in fact might be in danger.
From Daria, Rory not only learns how to survive as an urchin, but she also learns what love is, and what it is not.
“See, you and me, we’re the same,” Daria continued. “We’re broken, right, we got something missing, and we need someone to live in the cracks and hold us together, Hud holds me together. I can’t leave him. Not ever.”
Determined to rescue her hero, Rory tries to save enough for the two girls to leave on one of the trading ships. And then one day, the third thing that completely changes Rory’s life occurs. Despite her short lifetime of lessons that the key to survival is not to be noticed, Rory discovers in herself a surprising and irrepressible sympathy for the underdog. What happens next sets the stage for the rest of Rory’s life—setting her up to be the supremely confident, proactive urchin we meet in Book 1, while hiding the secret need for someone who can hold together her broken past.
Five stars? As I said about the rest of this series, this little novella has everything I like—diverse, well-developed and evolving characters, a steampunk setting, and entertaining dialog. When you add in Rory’s backstory, what’s not to love?
*I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.*
- Book Title: The Pickpocket: (The Viper and the Urchin, Book 0.5): A Rory Origin Story
- Author: Celine Jeanjean
- Genre: Steampunk/Fantasy
- Publisher: Enoki Press
- Length: 73 pages
- Release Date: September 15, 2016