Crookhaven – The School For Thieves by J. J. Arcanjo

The Blurb On The Back:

”Here, we will teach you to do wrong, but only so that one day you will put the world right.”

When talented pickpocket Gabriel is recruited to Crookhaven, he is welcomes into a whole new world.  This secret school trains its students in classes like Forgery, Deception and Crimnastics – all so that one day they will go out into the world and do good.

On the first day, the mysterious headmaster Caspian announced the infamous Crooked Cup competition.  Determined to win, Gabriel soon realises his best chance will be to assemble a crew of multi-talented misfits.  Except that’s not exactly encouraged.

But when has breaking a few rules ever stopped a crook?

CROOKHAVEN – THE SCHOOL FOR THIEVES was released in the United Kingdom on 2nd March 2023.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order CROOKHAVEN – THE SCHOOL FOR THIEVES by J. J. Arcanjo from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s the summer.

13-year-old Gabriel Avery is an excellent pickpocket.  Abandoned as a baby by his parents, he lives with his adopted grandmother in the small Devon town of Torbridge where his grandma works as a housekeeper and cleaner for the wealthy but mean Mercier family.  They live in a summer house on the grounds where the roof leaks and it’s cold in winter.  Because the Merciers are so stingy on their pay, food can be scarce and Gabriel often takes to pickpocketing tourists in order to buy his grandma a sausage sandwich from the local cafe.

While looking for a target at the local train station, he picks the pocket of a silver haired man, only to find that he himself was the mark as the man steals Gabriel’s scarred coin (the only thing his parents left him) and leaves him with a card inviting him to travel to nearby Moorheart station where there is a place for his talents.  That place is Crookhaven, a boarding school for thieves, burglars, hackers, forgers and all other types of criminal activity.  The difference is that at Crookhaven, students are taught criminality so they can use it for good – righting wrongs and putting things right.  Run by co-Headmasters Caspian Crook and Whisper (a celebrated hacker), its pupils are drawn from the children of master criminals and former students (known as Legacies) and those with no criminal background but who are identified as having criminal talents (known as Merits).

Seeing a chance to make a better life for himself and his grandma, Gabriel accepts a place and is soon learning subjects like Criminastics, Forgery, Deception and Infiltration.  In addition, students compete to win the Crooked Cup by earning points from activities like doing particularly well in classes, picking each others pockets and – the biggest event of all – the Break-in where a pupil has to infiltrate a room selected by Caspian and Whisper and steal something from it without the principals realising that something has been stolen and all by the end of the second term.  The first person to successfully make the Break-in gets 50 points but, more importantly, can ask a question of Caspian Crook.  

Gabriel is determined to win the Break-in because he believes that Caspian can help him to find his parents, but the longer he studies at Crookhaven, the more he realises that he can’t do it alone.  Fortunately he has friends in Ade and Ede Okoro (twin hackers who call themselves the Brothers Crim), Penelope Crook (the Headmaster’s daughter who has been training in criminal activities virtually since birth and has a gift for Forgery) and Amira Dhawan (a hijab wearing Legacy who’s fabulous at Crimnastics).  All he has to do, is convince them to work together …

J. J. Arcanjo’s criminal adventure novel for readers aged 9+ (the first in a trilogy) is basically all backstory and world building to set up the next two books.  The story is just Gabriel learning about the school and doing lessons – particularly disappointing the heist itself comes very late in the book and mainly occurs off page.  It’s all readable, but it also feels like one long prologue to book 2, which I’m not sure I’d rush to read.

The first thing I’m going to say is that this is one of those books where the description on the back is incredibly misleading, which makes me really cross.  The jacket description makes it sound like the main plot line in the book is Gabriel having to assemble a crew to win the Crooked Cup.  That is absolutely not what happens in this book.  For starters, the Crooked Cup can only be won by an individual and as a chaser, the crew has to be assembled for the Break-in, a specific event that can help you win the Crooked Cup but is not the Cup itself.  This plot line only starts on page 262 and it isn’t particularly hard for Gabriel to achieve his aim given that by this point he’s already friends with everyone he needs in his crew.  Then, to add insult to injury, you don’t see how the crew achieves the Break-in.  All you get is a summary of how they did it after the event.  I found that massively disappointing – I’d picked this book up because I am an absolute sucker for a heist story and the best part of a heist story is putting the crew together.  As a result, I really did feel cheated and I don’t think the team who put that blurb together for the story description has done the book any favours because having been misled once, I would be very dubious about picking up book 2.

What this book is basically about is providing back story for Gabriel and setting up Crookhaven and its students as a school and gateway into the special world of crookery.  That’s okay so far as it goes, but without having a main plot line to hang this off, I did feel like I was reading one massive prologue rather than a self-contained storyline with the suggestion that the real action will start in book 2.  That’s a big ask to make of readers.

In terms of plot, there are basically 3 strands here.  The first is Gabriel’s desire to learn more about his parents.  Secondly there are a group of ‘bad’ crooks called the Nameless, who kidnapped Penelope’s mum 3 years earlier and who Amira’s brother is rumoured to have joined, whose activities run counter to Crookhaven’s ethos.  Thirdly a number of Crookhaven’s final year students (known as Robins) have been disappearing, including Leon Marquez (a top 2 student in his year who is Gabriel’s mentor or Criminal Confidante), and no one knows what’s happened to them.  

The problem is that each of these plot strands takes a back seat to the set up of the school or the classes so they have little time to breathe.  Take Leon’s disappearance, for example, he only gets a few scenes with Gabriel so when he disappears there is no immediate emotional resonance there and while Gabriel is worried, he doesn’t do anything about it.  It’s literally only mentioned so that it can be developed further in book 2.  Similarly, while the Nameless get name-checked (no pun intended) throughout the book, it’s never 100% clear what it is that they do (other than that they use their criminal talents for self-motivated evil) and there is no real conversation about them.  As such there is little sense of threat or looming dread from them and I found myself struggling to care.

That brings me to what is probably the main storyline, which is Gabriel’s desire to learn more about his parents.  The problem here is that Arcanjo doesn’t really establish that as a desire until Gabriel gets to Crookhaven.  Indeed, there is no real information on Gabriel’s background until this point and because of the way Arcanjo weaves in information, I missed the fact that his grandma is not his blood relative and had to go back to check out whether it was mentioned (it is but very fleeting and completely in passing).  This plot line and the Nameless plot line connect during the final quarter of the book, but by that point there is again zero emotional impact and because it is not clear what the Nameless want, it all feels very low stakes.  Indeed a key scene that should see Gabriel in serious danger left me very underwhelmed.

In Arcanjo’s defence, it is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the worldbuilding here.  The information on how the school operates, the classes it teaches and the rivalry between Legacies and Merits is all carefully drawn and established.  I should also say that it’s very readable, Arcanjo has an easy writing style that does take you through it.  However, I will say that this is also one of those books where I wasn’t sure what the line is between good crooks and bad crooks.  For example, a big deal is made of how Gabriel only stole to help his grandma, but he still took pies that had taken time to make from people in his village and while the tourists he stole from could perhaps afford it, there’s no contemplation of what happens if they could not.  Similarly, the fact that Legacies look down on Merits and that they have a natural advantage in Crookhaven’s classes is an interesting commentary on privilege and how it benefits you, but there’s a really silly line in there from Leon later on about how once students leave Crookhaven that line no longer matters.  Given the set up of criminal gangs after graduation (and given the role of criminal families), it seems like Arcanjo is peddling a falsehood there and one that is misleading.

Character wise, I think Gabriel would have been more interesting had he been slightly more amoral.  Again, Arcanjo wants his cake and eat it – Gabriel is emphasised as being fundamentally good who is forced into doing bad things – I kinda wished that he’d leant into the thrill of getting one over on people more because it would at least establish why some people are susceptible to joining the Nameless.  Penelope is okay in terms of how she’s drawn – driven, quite snobbish – the one thing I didn’t believe in was her friendship with Gabriel and there is nothing there about her having a relationship with other Legacies, which you’d imagine to be more likely given who her father is.  

My favourite characters are Ade and Ede who provide a lot of life to the text and have a distinct Weasley vibe with their business selling jollof rice to hungry students.  I particularly liked the fact that they are Black characters who are better at tech than they are at physical activity and the way they constantly bicker with each other plays well in the text.  The one thing I was torn about is that they’re the only characters shown as having a ‘lower class’, ‘street’ accent, which does work well on the page but again is noticeable because they are the only Black characters.

I appreciate that all of the above reads like a dunk on the book so I want to stress again that it is very readable.  Arcanjo knows how to weave in information and move things forward so I did keep turning the pages.  However, because the stakes here are so low and the plot lines so thin, it does read like a long prologue and I can’t honestly say that I would rush to pay to read book 2.  

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