reclaiming the spoils of conquest | portrait of a thief by grace d. li

by - 12:45 PM

"I don't need to change the world. I just - I want to live, and know that it's enough."

 isbn: 978-0593184738 | pages: 384
      publication date: April 5, 2022 | source: netgalley
     genre: young adult, mystery thriller, lgbtqia+
     rating: 6.7/10 
Writing: 6 | Atmosphere: 8 | World-Building: 7 | Plot: 5 |  Characters: 8 | Impact: 7

     A M A Z O N    |    G O O D R E A D S    |    B O O K S H O P * 
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art thieves with midterms
The Portrait of a Thief was everywhere on my Twitter feed when it first dropped on Netgalley and the mysterious cover alongside its fascinating premise bumped this onto my anticipated releases for the year. This is a story told through the eyes of children of immigrants and their quest to reclaim their identity through a series of art heists. As someone who grew up watching all the heist and spy movies with her parents, I went into this with a lot excitement and questions.

"I want you to take back what the West stole."

"Who could determine what counted as theft when museums and countries and civilizations saw the spoils of conquest as rightfully earned?"

While the synopsis places a lot of weight on the thrill of the art heists, the story shone through its introspective commentary on what it means to be Asian American. As the reader, you might have to suspend your disbelief when reading about the group's approach towards their heists - if thieves could learn everything from spy movies and Fast & Furious, the world would possibly descend into chaos already. Where the first heist was thrilling to read, the consecutives ones felt more like luck than skill. 

connecting the past to the future 
With that said, I went into this debut curious but not entirely sold on the heist plotline and that mindset allowed the story to still be enjoyable despite the main plot point being somewhat underdeveloped. While the characters are quite standard perfect-on-paper Asian Americans, their stories still echoed the same pressures and insecurities that I was surrounded with despite our paths being radically different. 

"After all these years, his parents still called it going back, as if anywhere else could not be home."

There's an understanding that feels so comforting about the struggle to identify with one's ethnicity and the feeling of not quite belonging to either place. Each character's exploration of their identity and acceptance of their futures felt like powerful declarations against Western colonization and conquest. They breathed their own identities into the histories of the countries they call home. The crew is one that gradually grew on me as their story progressed - it wasn't the excitement of their task or the sense of pride in their calling that pulled me in, but their individual journeys with their identity and their conversations that followed.

"Her future - it was worth more than the past."

For a debut, Grace D. Li tackles the Asian American experience in a way that feels personal but universal at the same time. It manages to address a topic with a lot of gravity while injecting a fun heist plot into the mix.

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  1. Great review! This book has been literally everywhere and I can't wait to read it myself.

    1. thank you! I can't wait to hear your thoughts on it! it's definitely a strong debut even if some plot points weren't the most developed :)

  2. I agree that this is a strong debut. I'm eager to read more of Li's work.