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Upon their arrival in Venice--alone, cold, and hungry--they're taken in by a band of child-thieves, led by a slightly older child who calls himself The Thief Lord. For some time, everything goes well for the group who are supplied by their daily wallet-snatching, as well as by larger robberies that the Thief Lord takes on by himself in the dark of night. But then the Lord and his crew are offered a break-in job they can't refuse, just as a bumbling detective appears hot on the trail of aunt Esther's runaway nephews.
And just as you think all will be lost -- the Thief Lord has been revealed as being a thief only of his own home, the detective has caught up to them and escaped the childrens' grasp, and they've now been caught breaking into a private home -- that is when the magic comes in. It's not an easily-explained magic which could be why the book feels somewhat lopsided.
On the one hand, you have the children who are perfectly content to remain as they are and grow up in due time, and on the other you have Scipio and the Conte and Barbarossa, whose desires to be what they are not amount to enough to refresh this old magic of either turning the clock backward or forward. For Scipio, it comes across as a kind of Peter Pan in reverse.
I liked the book, and I enjoyed Funke's attention to detail, which made Venice seem magical on its own. However, the late introduction of "real" magic and the general weakness of all of the antagonists made the novel itself kind of weak. I loved the merry band of thieving children à la Robin Hood or Peter Pan, but without a solid Sheriff of Nottingham or Captain Hook to pit them against, there just isn't much of a good story.