Juliet E McKenna's The Thief's Gamble is her debut novel and the first in a series of five novels collectively called "The Tales of Einarinn". Livak is a full-time gambler and part-time thief who makes a living travelling the length and breadth of her native Ensaimin and getting into games of runes with strangers and fleecing them. She usually works with her partner in crime Halice, a trained swordswoman who was a mercenary for many years. The tale opens with Livak waiting in some frustration for Halice at a pre-arranged meeting point so that they can travel together to Col for the Autumn Fair. Running short on funds, Livak is delighted to learn of an opportunity to raise some ready cash and get personal revenge on a local lord. Unfortunately the "merchants" to whom she takes her stolen goods include a water mage and an agent of the Archmage of Hadrumal, and they had already tried to buy the tankard Livak has stolen, so they know it's not hers to sell. They enlist her in their "quest" to find more antiquities like the one she stole as payment for not turning her over to the local Watch. Livak is reluctant, believing mages to be ruthless to mundane folk like herself, but she realises she has no other choice. To make matters worse, Livak and her party get caught up with a group of blond-haired foreigners who are also seeking antiquities, and the blond men will do anything to get what they want, including murder and torture. It's not long before Livak and the others find themselves in a life and death situation battling the magic of the foreigners.
McKenna's project in creating the "Tales of Einarinn" was to create fantasy characters
who had lives of their own, whose personal concerns were going to be at least as important to them as whatever epoch-shattering events they might be caught up in.And
a fantasy world where politics and religion and sex are part of everyday life, rather than cosmos-shaping forces ? What about a fantasy world with change and progression, where there are developments in science and technology, philosophy and literature, quite independently of whatever it is that has wizards and princes running round in circles ?In this she has succeeded - Livak and the people with whom she is involved are fully rounded, well realised characters, with whom I can imagine sitting down for a meal and a conversation somewhere. If "High Fantasy" doesn't appeal to you, try the more realistic fnatasy of "The Tales of Einarinn" instead.