Painted Devils: An Adventurous Sequel With a Surprisingly Emotional Heart

Books Reviews Margaret Owen
Painted Devils: An Adventurous Sequel With a Surprisingly Emotional Heart

For those who don’t know, Margaret Owen’s Little Thieves is essentially a perfect fantasy adventure romp, featuring a feisty heroine, a unique twist on a familiar fairytale framework, rich worldbuilding, and a unique hierarchical system of gods and other immortal beings. But, thankfully, it’s also the sort of book that, while it ends in such a way that makes the story it’s telling feel complete, it also leaves the door open for further adventures with its characters. And while the sequel Painted Devils is a natural continuation of its predecessor’s story—it literally picks up just months later—it also serves as a clever and careful emotional expansion of the original’s world. 

Much of Painted Devils will feel familiar—it includes everything from fake gods and real poltergeists to haunted dolls, cults, shady nobles, and untrustworthy clerics. There are heists and sidequests and several intricate ancillary legends whose lessons deftly tie back into the novel’s larger story. And Vanja Schmidt remains as entertaining a heroine as ever: Sarcastic, selfish, hard-edged, self-destructive, and frequently rude, she’s no one’s idea of a damsel in distress. Yet, in this sequel, it’s more clear than ever that her rough exterior is both a survival instinct and the product of trauma, and Owen digs deep into her heroine’s mental and emotional healing. 

Because despite her success in Minjka, her burgeoning relationship with Junior Prefect Emeric Conrad, and her reclamation of her own identity and name, Vanja is still adrift emotionally, convinced that she’s not good enough for any of the people in her life and certain that she ruins everything she touches. Rather than keep her word to Emeric, she abandons their plans to meet in Hellingbrucke, telling herself that she doesn’t deserve his affection until she can prove she’s something more—something better—than a thief and a liar. This decision has consequences both miraculous and disastrous, and will ultimately force Vanja to face her own inner demons in unexpected ways. How do you learn to trust others after a life of abandonment? To trust yourself after years of being told nothing you do will ever be good enough? To love when you think you don’t deserve it in return? That’s the real emotional linchpin at the heart of this series, and no matter how many potential goddesses or tragic princesses her story may involve, Owen is careful to ground everything in Vanja’s emotional journey. (Which, it should be said, definitely doesn’t always happen in a straight line.)

The story picks up as Vanja, drunk and adrift, stumbles into the small town of Hagendorn and accidentally starts a cult by conning the locals into believing she’s a priestess of a goddess called the Scarlet Maiden so that they help her find some lost gemstones before they’re washed downriver. This is all basically Peak Vanja, particularly when it seems she has summoned a real version of the goddess she had assumed she made up, who now wants a blood sacrifice in her name. Then Junior Prefect Emeric Conrad is sent to determine whether the Scarlet Maiden is a hoax, and Vanja must deal with the fallout from her decision to run away from him, where their relationship goes next, and the complex scars she still carries as a result of her mother’s decision to leave her for Fortune and Death to find as a baby. 

Though Vanya and Emeric’s physical journey—to both unravel the mystery of the Scarlet Maiden and to track down the seven siblings who may be able to thwart her curse—Painted Devils is at its best as it explores Vanja’s struggles with identity, self-worth, and vulnerability. As she and Emeric explore the next stage of their relationship, both physically and emotionally speaking, Owen gives the pair the space to communicate freely, about who they are, what they want, and what they’re comfortable asking of the other. They put in the work with one another, leading to several deeply vulnerable and heartrending moments. Too often, central relationships in fantasy aren’t given the space to really explore how our best relationships are those that help us grow into the best versions of ourselves, but Painted Devils takes the time to flesh out how being with one another helps both Vanja and Emeric grow. 

That said, although Owen’s handling of Vanja’s emotional insecurities is deft and honest, there are several frustrating moments (particularly in the novel’s midsection) where it does feel as though the story is treading water. Given all the traumas and abandonments our heroine has endured, it makes sense that she is not particularly eager to trust others or make herself vulnerable, even to the people she most cares about. But her repeated insistence on believing the worst of Emeric’s motivations, even in moments when the pair had just discussed his intentions mere pages before can feel a little tiresome. That the novel’s cliffhanger ending circles back around to this same sort of behavior again after several hundred pages of ostensible emotional growth is also frustrating, if only because it hints that much of Emeric and Vanja’s emotional journey will repeat some of the beats we’ve seen here in the forthcoming sequel. (I’m hoping that—much as Painted Devils does with the pair’s physical relationship—whatever the final book in this trilogy is will tackle their lack of real emotional trust.) 

Painted Devils is many things—a rollicking fantasy quest, a search for family and a place to belong, a love story—but it is nothing so much as a story of healing, of learning to love oneself and allowing someone else to love you for the person you are, rather than the person you think you should be for them. Like its central characters, it’s not perfect, but perhaps it is in those imperfections that its heart can be most clearly seen. And that’s got to be worth something. 

Painted Devils is available now.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.`

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin