Vanja, you magnificent devil, you’re at it again.
Anyone who’s read Little Thieves (which should be everyone) will know that Vanja is incorrigible, so it’s no surprise that within the first ten pages of Painted Devils she’s started a cult. By accident! She swears! And sure, it’s very convenient to be the prophet of a local god she’s decided to call the Scarlet Maiden, but the perks aren’t really the point. Vanja is trying to cope with the events of the last book and not doing the greatest, and she needs a quiet spot to process her trauma.
Too bad more trauma is on the way.
Fortunately, Vanja has old friends and new ones to help her out of what turns out to be a very complicated situation. The Scarlet Maiden is real—or at least she better be, because creating a cult is a crime against the gods. But the Maiden’s demands are their own kind of dangerous. She has her sights on Vanja’s no-longer-junior prefect Emeric, and promises that an entire town will be destroyed if she doesn’t get a sacrifice. Vanja now has to circumvent the sacrifice, figure out what’s going on with this god run amok, and maybe also get some leads on the family she was separated from as a child.
Owen manages multiple strands of plot with confidence and ease, shifting between Vanja’s search for her family, her deepening relationship, and her quest to appease the Scarlet Maiden, which itself has multiple layers of myth and legend. I never felt like any of the sub-plots was getting short shrift, which had me nodding appreciatively while I read in public. What can I say? Owen writes the kinds of books that make you forget where you are, or not care if other people hear you chuckle aloud. They’re too good.
Maybe at times did the side quests felt a little tacked on, but I promise you, not only are they relevant to the central plot, that feeling of excessiveness is itself an important clue. Owen is just as careful and tricky as she’s always been. And not only was the payoff so, so worth it, I would read a whole book of side quests as a collection of short stories, just because Vanja is so cheeky and clever and cool.
And as Vanja chases all this down, she also has to contend with navigating her first-ever romantic relationship. Owen handles it absolutely beautifully, getting candid about anxiety, physicality, awkwardness—and the intimacy and joy that makes it all worth it. This book made me feel extremely seen.
Painted Devils is also clearly a book written in the pandemic but not about a pandemic, and I valued that so much. Among other references, it incorporates the Evergreen incident—you know, the briefly-transfixing and then promptly forgotten tale of the cargo ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal? A similar thing happens in Painted Devils, and it feels like an in-joke that everyone can share. It’s delightful.
The whole book, really, is delightful from start to finish—or, well, almost. Unfortunately, we have to talk about the ending. Not the climax, which is spectacular, but just the falling action. As much as I want to like it, or at least that I understand the narrative choices being made, it simply doesn’t work for me. Vanja’s decisions in the last five pages undermine 500 pages of emotional growth and character work. And while there is some justification based on her newfound sense of responsibility, it feels much more like a quick and easy way to create a cliffhanger for book three. But the thing is, I would have picked up book three regardless. I’m in it for the worldbuilding, the characters, the humor, and the clever plotting—not for this kind of unnecessary twist. I felt like Vanja betrayed me, the reader, by her final series of choices, a cruel succession of unilateral decisions that undid not just Owen’s careful examination of Vanja’s psychology, but also Owen’s emphasis on mutual consent. It was a really disappointing end to an otherwise spectacular novel.
What Works: the heists, the intricate plot, the romance, the psychology
What Doesn’t: the last five pages
Pairs Well With: Ocean’s Thirteen re-watch, rose tea, uninterrupted reading time
Perhaps you’ll feel differently, that the bittersweetness (with emphasis on the bitter) was proof of positive growth on Vanja’s part and a shrewd willingness to eschew the expected on Owen’s. I hope you do! I want people to like this book—I myself want to like this book! But the ending is really sticking in my craw, and if you’re reading this review, perhaps by knowing a bit more you will be better prepared to expect the unexpected.
I will be picking up the follow-up volume of Vanja’s story in spite of this ending, not because of it. I’m already not looking forward to the inevitable retread of a lot of the same emotional ground covered in Painted Devils. Or who knows, maybe Owen will surprise me! She’s certainly capable of it, and I still have faith in her ability to create a nuanced and compelling story. I still think everybody should read Painted Devils, too, even with a caveat about the ending. It’s a smart, insightful novel with beautiful themes and some first-rate heists and battles that’s definitely worth reading.
Painted Devils comes out tomorrow, May 16 2023.