Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick is the first Great Summer Read of 2011. The book demands a beach, SPF3 30 sunscreen and a long-necked amber bottle fogged with condensation.
I didn’t love the book as much as my fellow reviewers (above), for some reasons I’ll explain below, but I’m still going to give it four stars. Normally, for me to give a book four stars it has to have exceptional prose, intense or intriguing characters, and/or something that makes me think about the world differently. Among Thieves doesn’t have all of those, but its mission is only to be darned entertaining. It fulfills its mission and that should be rewarded.
In the city of Ildrecca’s criminal underworld, certain occupations have the names of body parts. Swords-for-hire are called Arms. Magicians, who chant spells, are called Mouths. People who know the word on the street are called Ears, and spies are Noses. Drothe is a Nose.
Drothe’s employer is a street-level crime boss or Upright Man named Niccos. In the network of semi-organized crime that fills the streets of Ildrecca (there is no legitimate industry in the book except for street markets and the occasional pub) there are Upright Men and, above them, the even more powerful Gray Princes. Drothe reminisces about the stories he’s heard about the old days, when all the criminal gangs were united under a Dark King, the “flip side” of the reincarnated emperor, until the emperor had the Dark King executed.
Among Thieves has a strong plot, a clever, convoluted mystery and characters that are just as developed as they need to be. The concept of the reincarnated emperor that exists in three aspects — each one of which rules in rotation — is fascinating. There are enough ancient relics and mysterious writings, including a book of magic, to satisfy even me. Some secondary characters are only developed so they can be put in jeopardy as a warning to Drothe, but Hulick manages to convince us that this is street life, and not just a plot mechanism.
Drothe has very little magic himself, although it seems to run down the very drains of the city around him. He is smart, tough and very, very competent at what he does. His stubbornness, his grumpy loyalty and his attempts to mask the affection he feels for people, even from himself, make him a protagonist to root for and an engaging first-person narrator. As he hunts down the magic book, tries to derail a gang war, and schemes to stay alive, we want him to win.
There are many sword fights and chase scenes. Drothe is not a super-fighter like his friend Degan, so his battles are ones of strategy. Drothe is well-armed and has a few tricks up his sleeve, and down his boot, and in his belt… you get the picture. While Hulick does not flesh out the city of Ildrecca geographically, he does give us concrete details that tickle all the senses, even when it’s just Drothe taking a break:
[I]… sat down on the stoop and dug out two ahrami seeds from the pouch around my neck. They were small and oval, the size of my largest knuckle, and darkly roasted. I rubbed them between my palms to let them absorb the sweat. A sharp, acrid smell, with subtle hints of cinnamon, earth and smoke rose up from my hands. I felt my pulse quicken at the aroma.
So what’s not to like? Well, the naming conventions drove me to distraction. “What naming conventions?” you say, and I say, “Exactly.” Here is a short list of the names that appear in the book: Athel, Anhya, Baldasar, Christiana, Cosima, Drothe, Eppydris, Fowler Jess, Larrios, Nestor, Niccos, Sebastian, Stephen. Greek, Latin-root, Old English-Root, Middle European and made-up Middle Eastern are all tossed together in one big name salad. This might work if we knew more about the city — waves of immigration, a port town, something like that — or more about the three incarnated aspects of the eternal emperor whose names are Stephen, Theodoi and Lucien. We don’t, and so these out-of-a-hat names distract.
Why does this matter? My suspension of disbelief will not withstand constant assault by the writer, and these names show up on every page. This, and a couple other small inconsistencies, like the written language of the empire (glyph, or cursive script?) eroded away at Hulick’s otherwise finely conceived world.
Among Thieves is the first book of a series. With the mysterious emperor and his incarnations growing more unstable, there is plenty left to write about. Drothe’s own growth, and the back-story of his stepfather, who appeared in his life and educated him, and his sister, so carefully, hints at another mystery to unravel.
Ultimately, this is a fun read. If you liked The Name of the Rose, you will enjoy Among Thieves. With its political layers, swordplay, and double and triple-crosses, it has the flavor of The Three Musketeers, but people who love The Maltese Falcon would like this book too. When it comes to pure entertainment, like Drothe, Among Thieves delivers the goods.