The boys of St. Anthony's orphanage are the cast-offs of the world; left behind in the night by parents they'll never know, they spend their days making wine with the monks and hoping for adoption. If they aren't adopted, they get drafted into military service, which means madness at best, death at worst. This leaves 12-year-old Ren in a bad spot. More than anything else, he wants a family to take him home, but since he's missing his left hand, his chances are poor. Then a man named Benjamin Nab comes to St. Anthony's, claims Ren as his long-lost brother, and tells the head of the orphanage a long, exciting story of Indian attacks and dead parents. But Ren soon learns that Benjamin's stories have little to do with the truth, and everything to do with getting him what he wants.
A lot of the word on Hannah Tinti's debut novel The Good Thief consists of comparisons to Dickens, and it's a difficult connection to miss. Tinti's maimed hero has the decency and cleverness of Oliver Twist, and Benjamin Nab initially seems like just another cut-rate Fagin. Even the setting, the New England of the 1800s, could stand in for a more rural version of Dickens' soot-streaked London. As the novel develops, though, it steps out from the shadow of its most obvious influences to become a fast-paced adventure story with a deep undercurrent of regret. Ren is no squeaky-clean ragamuffin, and the people he meets flirt with caricature without becoming any less tragic.
Thief is strongest in its middle section, when Ren, Benjamin, and their fellow con-man Thomas descend on the town of North Umbrage to attempt a living as resurrection men. There, Tinti unveils wonder after dark wonder, from the mousetrap factory staffed entirely by ugly young women to a gigantic killer who becomes Ren's closest friend. Thief loses a little in its climax, attempting to tie too much plot together too neatly, and pushing for an emotional catharsis that comes across as forced and underdeveloped. But for all that, it's still a terrific read. Magical without ever becoming maudlin, it delivers a world of wandering outcasts whose chances for reconciliation seem just as uncertain as Ren's one-handed grip.