Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Among Thieves - A Tale of the Kin by Douglas Hulick
Among Thieves is Douglas Hulick’s debut novel, and the first of what looks like turning out to be a consistently entertaining series. The best way I can describe this quickly is to say that it is a cracking good read. Among Thieves treads some familiar ground, but does so with style and class.
Drothe is a Nose (a sort of underworld spy in the ‘thieves cant’ of Ildrecca), he plays a dangerous game, working for two Upright Men (criminal overlords) as well as for himself. One of Drothe’s most lucrative sidelines is the acquisition of powerful relics, which he usually auctions off to the highest bidder. Almost at the opening of Among Thieves the book’s first person protagonist comes in possession of information leading to a particularly hard to find relic. The search for and acquisition of this relic, which seems to be wanted by everyone in Ildrecca for a host of reasons, will lead Drothe into a deadly game of cross and double cross where he can trust almost no one. His family and friends will be put in danger and threatened. To get out of this one intact Drothe is going to have to empty his large bag of tricks, call in every favour he’s ever earned and test his friendships to the very limits.
Very little of this is probably new to a fantasy veteran, particularly of the 'gritty' kind, but Hulick has created something very enjoyable with Among Thieves. There’s top notch world building and characterisation, it’s tightly plotted, the description creates atmosphere without boring the reader by delving into inconsequential details, and the magic system is interesting and makes sense, it doesn’t over saturate the story or give the heroes an easy out, either.
The teeming Byzantine city of Ildrecca with it’s exotic mix of cultures and thriving communities of thieves (the Kin of the book’s sub title), merchants and nobles is Drothe’s world, and he is the readers guide to it. The ‘thieves cant’ (a curious mixture of Elizabethan and modern 20th century criminal slang) is something that sets Among Thieves apart from many similar works. It allows Hulick to be descriptive and give the world some depth, but also means he doesn’t rely too heavily on profanity to get his message across. Some readers have found the ‘cant’ a little hard to come to grips with, but Drothe is an engaging and informative narrator, and he gives readers enough explanation to understand. I personally didn’t need it, but I think a glossary of the ‘cant’ at the back of the book may have been helpful for some, and a nice touch.
The magic makes sense, it’s employed sparingly, but not so little that it is non existent, but again not so much that the reader thinks no matter how dire the situation Drothe and his allies find themselves in, some hitherto unknown magical trick will get them out of it. It exists, it can be useful, but don’t rely too heavily on it.
The characterisation is strong. I particularly liked the banter between Drothe and his best friend; the blademaster Bronze Degan. For that matter Degan was a favourite character, he doesn’t say much, but what he does say is often both amusing and pertinent, he’s loyal and deadly, he lives his life by a code of honour that he will not allow to be compromised by anyone or anything. Drothe and Degan are the main characters, there are others who play smaller parts, but are just as well written. The many members of the Kin are worth it just for their colourful nicknames. I particularly liked two of the female characters; Christiana, Drothe's younger sister who has married into the nobility. There was genuine affection between the siblings, despite the fact that Ana, as Drothe calls her, has tried to have her brother murdered a couple of times. The other was Drothe's bodyguard Jess the Fowler. I hope readers get to see more of both in future books, as Jess could even turn out to be Drothe's love interest. Romance was one element that was rather conspicuously absent from Among Thieves.
The tight plotting allows Among Thieves to roll along merrily without overdoing the action, however when steel is drawn and blades are crossed the choregraphy is another of the book's strengths. Not everyone can write realistic and convincing fight scenes. One of Hulick's hobbies is fencing, and he's used his knowledge to enhance his beautifully written sword fights.
I've read a few debuts this year and Among Thieves is head and shoulders the most assured and my favourite (Ready Player One is a sci-fi, so takes out that title for me), the book is even at this stage likely to end up in my top 5 reads of 2011.
Although the book can be easily read as a standalone, no messy cliffhangers, Douglas Hulick has been contracted to write at least 3 Tales of the Kin books and the second; Sworn in Steel , is due out in April of 2012. I'm there!