ARC Review: PORTRAIT OF A THIEF by Grace D. Li

I received an ARC from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. It has not affected my opinions.

Title in white on blue patterned background next to graphic of man in glasses with
Genre: Thriller
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 5 stars
Series: standalone


Book cover for PORTRAIT OF A THIEF: title in white on image of guy in sunglasses on blue

History is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now.

Will Chen plans to steal them back.

A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son who has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a mysterious Chinese benefactor reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago.

His crew is every heist archetype one can imag­ine—or at least, the closest he can get. A con artist: Irene Chen, a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands just as capable of lockpicking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering major who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down.

Because if they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars—and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they’ve dreamed for themselves but yet another thwarted at­tempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


PORTRAIT OF A THIEF is a heist thriller that is also an exploration of identity and belonging. It’s a tautly written book that is much more about identity and the West’s “ownership” of stolen items than the actual heisting itself. It’s about the characters grappling with how they relate to America and China and the art itself, and they all have such different experiences and opinions.

When it started, I had an idea of where the book seemed to be hinting it would go, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. And then there were quite a few twists that subverted what I had thought the book was promising. I liked the actual ending a lot more than what I’d initially felt might happen – felt a lot more in line with the tone of the book too.

The best way I can describe the prose is elegant sparsity. It’s very light on description, focusing instead on emotions and character rather than setting. When there are descriptions of the surroundings, it usually involves art imagery or similes, which ties it in nicely with the heists.

The sparsity really works in this book, pares it back to the characters and their questions of identity and where they fit in/belonged. I don’t think the sparsity would have worked in a speculative genre, but as the world it’s happening in isn’t unfamiliar, it feels possible to fill in the visual gaps so it doesn’t feel too much like a white box. And it does really bring the focus in on the characters, who are the heart of the book.

The writing also felt a little stylised, leaning on repeated phrases to open chapters/scenes, or using similar phrases. This is a book where it works, where it brings a rhythm to the story, makes it very captivating to read because there is an almost beat to it.

I look forward to what Grace D. Li writes next.

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