Prosper and Bo, orphans, run away from their uncle and aunt who want to separate them. The boys are caught up in a group of Venice street kids who get money by selling stolen property brought to them by the Thief Lord. Victor Getz, a detective, tracks them down and in doing so reveals the Thief Lord’s true identity and becomes more and more involved with the children.

The book is nicely paced, each chapter quite short and usually switching points of view. At one level, this is just a story about a group of children and how they survive, helped by a mysterious friend. But just as that friend’s secrets are revealed, and everyone is trying to come to terms with the situation, a new and unexpected plot arrives which carries the story into the realms of the fantastical. The characters are sharply drawn and real, and Venice itself is real, with flaking paint and chilly winds, yet still a glamorous backdrop.

Prosper and Bo’s relatives have no real sense of family: they like Bo because he looks nice; when he misbehaves and runs away, they’re happy to leave him to an orphanage and take another boy in his place. The children make a home of the deserted cinema in which they stay. Hornet, the only girl, plays a motherly role, especially to Bo, the youngest. When Ida catches them trying to rob her house, the result is that she (and Victor) take the children under their wings rather than handing them over to the police or other authorities. Indeed, they go to some lengths to deceive the nuns who run an orphanage so that they hand over one of the children who has been placed in their care.

Without giving too much away, the children do live on the proceeds of thefts, but not in quite the way they think, and they all try to shelter Bo from playing any part in the affair.

Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.