Among Thieves, A Tale of the Kin is the fantasy debut novel of author Douglas Hulick. It's been getting good press since its release, at least from reviewing bloggers and caught my attention with an attractive synopsis. And to say it frankly, can we really get enough of these thieves/assassins mystery/fantasy novels?
Drothe is a Nose. His job is to sniff information for this boss Nicco on what's happening in the underworld of the imperial city of Ildrecca. On the side, he's dealing with the dangerous smuggling of relics. His side job will eventually bring him information and a possession that will mix up his personal profit life with his position in the Kin and his existence as an inhabitant of the empire. From his boss to his most trusted friends to the mighty 'Sashes', guards of the empire, he will have to trust the right people at the right time to make it alive and pull off a con like no other.
Hulick's novel, set in a criminal context is indeed a tale of conspiracy, betrayal and plotting lawless organizations where trying to be honorable can only get you killed. On the other hand, it's the tale of one Kin member, Drothe. But let's get back to the basics. I can't really talk about Among Thieves without speaking of the 'cant'. The author even wrote a note to forewarn about the use of a specific vocabulary, from 'Upright Men' to 'dusting' people. Here's an extract of what he mentions :
The various forms of ''cant,'' or thieves' argot, in this book are inspired by records of actual use from various places and times throughout history, from Elizabethan England to twentieth-century American-underworld slang and many places in between.
After reading that notice and being a couple of chapters in, I thought that indeed it could be a bit distracting or more complex to follow. However, the slang becomes intuitive really fast and I found this particular vocabulary to be a great way to add some personality to the book. Taking into account that the prose is concise but not minimalist (you'll find no extensive descriptions here), Hulick's writing makes it an accessible read where I was never distracted from the action. Here are some examples :
"Someone's trying to look tough by seeing how far he can push you in the cordon. We're not exactly big in Ten Ways, so we're a prime target. Send in a couple of Cutters, have them hand out some bruises, maybe make a corpse or two, and the Kin down there will get the message."
The Cutters I could almost see. They were decent enforcers, but you could find freelance toughs who were just as good if you looked. Arms, though, were another matter. They were the best the Kin had to offer, the select muscle in an organization. For a boss like Nicco to lose two Arms and twice as many Cutters in a pissant cordon like Ten Ways wasn't just a bad sign - it was downright embarrassing.
Among Thieves' story is a blast; it's a furious ride from an ordinary day job for a thief of Drothe's experience to becoming a key player in schemes endangering the whole Kin and the empire itself. The whole book plays out in only a couple of days for the hero or I should say the heroic anti-hero. The only interludes or slowing in pace are when he gets knocked out, which is still kind of often.
Drothe's a funny realist and cunning swindler and the chosen perspective by the author, the first person, is what the character deserves. He may not be as cynical as Croaker or making as much witty remarks as Eddie LaCrosse but he is his own star and makes the tale more than entertaining. He has made friend with dubious people, a Degan 'special kind of mercenary', a Djanese 'Mouth' (magic user) named Jelem and Master Scribe\Forger and the relationship he develops with them is genuine but precarious. There's no love interest and the cause is probably the length of time during which the action of the book occurs.
The greatest characteristic of Drothe, which can also turns out as a liability at times, lies in his lacks. It may seem odd to say but it's allowing him to devise brilliant schemes on the spot and fight uncleanly but efficiently. He's not superhuman and his prowess in fighting are limited. Since he's challenged on unfair grounds, he has to use all his wits, magical helps and stratagems. More so considering that in these few days of non stop commotion, he hardly gets a few hours of sleep. That's when the ahrami seeds come in handy. That little habit is another simple example of details making a character feel more natural and compelling.
At least, he has night vision that comes handy and friends who can get him out of trouble. That little bit of magic is not the only element of occult devise in the book but I can't really get into an extensive explication of the details behind the different from of magic. The background slowly unveiling as the story goes, both magic-wise and world-wise, is giving ample details to maintain mystery behind the motives of the different groups involved.
The city of Ildrecca seems like a rough place since Drothe's time is spent in 'cordons' were gangs are at war. He has some moments in more noble quarters and we get to see sufficient locations to get a good feeling of the place. The hazardous and gloomy atmosphere created by the author is testament enough.
Comparisons with the likes of Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard Sequence is kind of inevitable. However, Among Thieves is written in the first person and centered on only one protagonist. Moreover, Lamora is a master deceiver and Drothe is more in the spying branch of the thieving profession. So the two books may be in the same larger style/category but they don't feel the same. Still, if you loved Lynch work (can't believe now that I gave it only an 8.5...), you'll certainly love Among Thieves too.
Looking at the list of fantasy debut I've read so far this year, I think that Among Thieves is probably the best so far. As with every debut, we'll have to see if Hulick can pull it off again. At least, I sincerely hope he does.
Technically, the ROC cover (second one in the post) is not amazing but you get an idea of what's under the cover when looking at it. As for the Tor cover art (the first one) I think it would be better looking in my library... although the guy illustrated kind of looks like a puppet! Sadly, no map of Ildrecca was included. The mass-market paperback edition of the book stands at 414 pages.
Among Thieves review score :
Characterization............. 9.5 /10
World building............... 9 / 10
Magic system................. 8.5 / 10
Story.............................. 9 / 10
Writing........................... 8.5 / 10
Overall (not an average) 9 / 10
Douglas Hulick page