Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li is a contemporary novel which follows five Chinese Americans who are hired by a Chinese corporation to steal back valuable artefacts that were stolen hundreds of years before and that are being kept in various Western museums.
This was the Illumicrate book for April, but I’ve not used a picture of their cover here… because it was almost the damn same. I was so disappointed with that cover. Anyways…
The concept of this book is absolutely fantastic, the amount of art that is in Western museums that doesn’t belong there is ridiculous. So in terms of all the discussions on this? Loved it. But unfortunately everything else was a little lackluster.
Before I get into my personal views on the book, I’d like to link you to own voices reviews, like this one from BookishBrews, The Lily Cafe and some from Goodreads, including Read with Cindy, Cin the Writer, Justin Chen, and Tammie. These are a mix of reviews, from 1 to 5 stars, so you can get a variety of own voices opinions.
Now for my opinions? The characters could’ve been fleshed out so much better. Instead all of them were really two dimensional. In fact, the character who is based off of the author’s sister (and who everyone seems to hate – me included until the very end) is the best example of this. Li clearly knew a lot about this character, but she didn’t add that information into the book. She assumed that the readers would know as much about her sister as she does and unfortunately that lead to a much disliked character.
Plot-wise there are also issues here, primarily that there are so many holes. Not only are their plans for stealing the items flawed, but we aren’t shown truly how they escape the countries as a whole and they could be caught incredibly easily with the footprints that they left behind themselves. There also just isn’t enough information given about them setting up the heist, which leaves the reader to guess how they did it and is quite… boring. When a twist was brought in around half-way through the book, the set up for it was incredibly obvious. I knew exactly what was happening and that really dampened the impact it could’ve had. There was one good twist, very close to the end, but I thought the execution of this was flawed and disappointing.
On CAWPILE I rated this: Characters: 5, Atmosphere: 6, Writing: 6, Plot: 6, Intrigue: 7, Logic: 6, Enjoyment: 7, which gives an overall score of 6.14 and a 3.5* rating. Which I think I’ll put as 3 on Goodreads.
Highlight here for trigger warnings: death (mentioned), grief, violence.
Overall, this book truly felt like a debut novel and I think another round of deep edits could have really done a lot of work towards making this a great read. Li definitely has a lot of potential, it’s just not shown fully here. Additionally, this book did have great discussions on diaspora, art, culture, and more, and I think that those were really handled beautifully by Li. It just wasn’t enough to save the book overall.
Have you read this? What did you think of it? I would love to hear more opinions!