My thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this one.
A few years ago, I chanced upon the Dutch film version of The Letter for the King by children’s author, Tonke Dragt (with subtitles) and soon after found the English translation of the book on NetGalley, both of which I ended up enjoying very much. So of course when I spotted this, another Dragt title in translation on NetGalley I had to jump at the chance.
The Goldsmith and the Master Thief is Dragt’s first novel published originally in 1961. The translation is by Laura Watkinson, who also translated The Letter for the King.
This is the story of twins Lorenzo and Jiacomo, born to a cobbler and his wife in the city of Bainu, the capital of the country of Babina. The boys are identical as two drops of water but their personalities are completely different. In interesting circumstances surrounding their birth, they each grow up with a pigeon, a cat, and a dog—though it is mostly the dogs that accompany them on their adventures. Laurenzo and Jiacomo have a happy childhood playing about and when the time comes to start school, have a bit of fun tricking the monks there. But then tragedy strikes as they lose their parents, and they must make their own way in the world. Their ties with each other being strong, they do not wish to part but are soon made to realise that they will have to in order to find work that suits each. They separate promising to meet again in a year. Lorenzo goes on to meet and train with Master Philippo, a famous goldsmith, for he always wished to make something. But, Jiacomo can’t really make up his mind what he wants to be. He runs into Jannos who turns out to be a thief and trains Jiacomo in his trade. Jiacomo goes on to be very good indeed but he certainly does not want to be a thief. But agreeing to take up one task for his master, he sets off. He accomplishes his task using his intelligence and skill but still ends up in a fair bit of trouble, from which only Laurenzo can rescue him. Thus begin a series of adventures, which take the brothers to different places and involve them in little mysteries and troubles, some putting them in danger and others simply requiring them to pit their wits against others.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one (in fact I was wishing I had read this as I child because I know I would have found it a great deal of fun back then as well). Set in a fantasy kingdom (though with no magic or magical elements as such), the twins have a range of adventures from school-pranks to theft, solving riddles to the mystery of a haunted inn, involving themselves in politics to falling in love. And their adventures don’t just keep them in Bainu/Babina, they travel for work (Laurenzo receives various commissions) and for fun, by land and by sea. While each story is complete in itself, the collection ties together well as a book too.
What I enjoyed most about the stories was how the fact that Laurenzo and Jaicomo are twins plays a role in each of them—whether it is to rescue each other from a tight corner, or teach two warring factions a lesson or catch a ‘ghost’—it is their identical appearance that helps them and ends up baffling more than one opponent.
I loved the brothers (both very likeable—even Jiacomo who seems to spend much of his time doing nothing in contrast to the hard-working Lorenzo) and their relationship; as twins, they are expectedly tied deeply to each other and are always there to support and help the other. Sometimes, by circumstance, at others more actively looking for the other when they are apart, they are always there for the other. There is a brief falling out however, but not an unexpected one, and it is resolved fairly soon.
This was a fun and entertaining read, which I enjoyed very very much.