Cornelia Funke's "Thief Lord" is one of those few books that deserves at least some of the hype that they're given. While it's not the best I've read, it is a solid adventure story, quite well-written, with likable characters and a good, suspenseful storyline.
Prosper and Bo have run away to Venice, escaping a vicious aunt who wants to adopt only Bo. Now, they have joined up with Scipio the Thief Lord, a wily kid of their own age with a mystery identity and a band of loyal street kids, including Hornet, Riccio and Mosca. Though Prosper doesn't like stealing, he has no choice; he has to look out for his little brother, and somehow keep out of sight.
Their aunt, however, has hired a private detective (who is preoccupied with turtles) who is trailing the boys through Venice. A nasty merchant named Barbarossa has offered the Thief Lord a massive job on behalf of a mystery client. And the detective starts to home in on the two boys, as the true identity of the Thief Lord comes to light...
"Thief Lord" isn't particularly groundbreaking, but it has a slightly classic feel to it. The settings in Venice, the names of the characters (Prospero, Scipio) and the dramatic details like Scipio's costume. But Funke balances it out with funnier things like Barbarossa's ride on the carousel and Victor's preoccupation with his pets. The magical element of the carousel (shades of Ray Bradbury?) seems a bit out of place, however, as there hadn't been any magic up until then.
The writing is quite detailed and descriptive, and Funke doesn't skimp on the descriptions of how gorgeous Venice is. What's more, the translation is, as far as I can tell (which isn't far since I don't speak German), pretty flawless. If I didn't know better I would think that it was originally written in English. It doesn't have quite the sparkle of other authors like Tolkien or Diana Wynne-Jones, but it moves steadily.
Funke managed something pretty impressive in her little band of outlaws: teens and preteens fending for themselves are almost never portrayed well, but she manages it. Prosper is a likable lead character, with a lot of doubts and worries but overcoming them for his little brother; Scipio seems a little too mature, but that's okay. Victor and the street kids are strong supporting characters as well.
Cornelia Funke's book (along with the movie "Heaven") is one of the best things to come out of Germany in recent years. Very nice and a pleasant read.