CLASSIFICATION: Among Thieves is like a cross between Scott Lynch’s The Gentleman Bastard series and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire, told in a first-person narrative reminiscent of Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse novels but without the hard-boiled cynicism. Apart from the occasional expletive and some graphic violence, Among Thieves mainly keeps to a PG-13 rating. Recommended for readers who like their fantasy “dark and gritty”, but still accessible.
FORMAT/INFO: Among Thieves is 432 pages long divided over 31 numbered chapters. Narration is in the first person, exclusively via the protagonist Drothe. Among Thieves reads as a stand-alone novel, but is the first volume in an open-ended series that will see at least two more sequels. April 1, 2011 marks the UK Paperback publication of Among Thieves via Tor UK. The US version will be published on April 5, 2011 via Roc.
ANALYSIS: George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson, R. Scott Bakker, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Glen Cook, Alan Campbell, Richard K. Morgan, Tim Lebbon, K.J. Parker, David Keck, Sarah Monette, Matthew Stover, Ian Graham, Jesse Bullington, Brent Weeks, Sam Sykes, Jon Sprunk… these are just some of the authors who are currently writing what may be considered “dark and gritty” fantasy, a subgenre that has exploded in popularity the past few years. Continuing this trend in 2011 is Douglas Hulick.
Douglas Hulick is the author of Among Thieves, an exciting fantasy debut set against a criminal underworld in the Byzantine/Constantinople-influenced city of Ildrecca. A world comprised of Gray Princes, Upright Men, Blades, Ears, Purse Cutters, Talkers, Whisperers, Agonymen, Whipjacks, Dealers, Jarkmen, Snilchs, Draw Latchs, Tails, Squinters, and various other Kin. Among Thieves is the story of one Kin in particular, a Nose named Drothe:
I’m an information broker, and I gather what I can by any means I can: paid informants, bribes, eavesdropping, blackmail, burglary, frame-ups… and even, on rare occasions, torture — whatever it takes to get the story. That’s what sets a Nose apart from a run-of-the-mill rumormonger. We not only collect the pieces; we also put them together. We don’t just find out something is happening — we find out why it’s happening in the first place. And then, we sell the information.
Drothe may be a criminal, one willing to lie, cheat, steal, kill or torture in order to get what he wants, but he’s a very likable criminal. A lot of that has to do with the author’s decision to write Drothe in the first person. First-person narratives are much more intimate than the third-person perspectives usually found in fantasy novels, so readers are able to immediately forge a strong connection with Drothe, making it easier to care about the protagonist, even if he is a criminal and commits immoral acts. In this case, Drothe’s first-person POV is made even stronger by a warm and very accessible narrative voice:
Battered, broken, his glory literally falling off him in pieces, he still stood tall and pointed the way to redemption. The carved souls under his care had vanished with his missing arm, but that didn’t mean they were forgotten. I could see the weight of his face, the droop of his eyelids, the slight lean of one shoulder. If ever an Angel knew despair and failure, it was this one.
Other charming attributes include Drothe’s toughness, a quick wit, his persistence, and a strong sense of honor which extends to his family, his friends, his employer and his fellow Kin. Honor is Drothe’s most likable asset because it shows that he actually cares about other people more than himself, a quality that paints Drothe as a hero rather than an antihero. Of course, it’s his honor that also gets Drothe into trouble, especially as the stakes become bigger. In addition to all this, Drothe is also a fairly skilled fighter for his small stature and possesses magically enhanced night vision, which gives him an edge in tight situations.
Because Among Thieves is told in the first person, supporting characters aren’t nearly as well-rounded as Drothe. Fortunately, Drothe develops some interesting relationships with the supporting cast that not only play an important role in Among Thieves, but could also prove vital in future tales of the Kin. These include relationships with Baroness Christiana Sephada, the mercenary Bronze Degan, the Upright Man Kells, the Djanese Zakur Jelem, and the Gray Prince Solitude.
World-building in Among Thieves is nicely balanced. Douglas Hulick provides enough information to give readers a solid understanding of the setting the author has created, but not too much to interrupt the flow of the story or slow down the pacing. The most interesting aspect of this world is the emperor, Stephen Dorminikos: “He was the Triumvirate Eternal, the ruler whose soul had been broken into three parts so that he might forever be reborn as one of three versions of himself — Markino, Theodoi, and Lucien — each version following the next by a generation, to watch over the empire. So the Angels had decreed, and so it had been.” Also of interest are the mercenary Order of the Degans with their sacred Oath; the history of Isidore, a Dark King who once “stood at the head of all the Kin, controlling a criminal empire that spanned the underside of the true empire”; and the Gray Princes — “Half-mythical crime lords who ran shadow kingdoms among the Kin” and were “legends to be avoided at all costs, if you were wise.” As far as the thieves’ cant used in the book, it does add a little flavor to the narrative, but is not nearly as colorful or distinctive as the slang used in Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths.
Magic in Among Thieves is pretty straightforward. There’s a power source called the Nether and then there are the different degrees of magic that can be performed from simple street magic to more complex magic like dream manipulation or portable glimmer — magic keyed to ordinary objects that can then be used by anyone with hardly any effort on the user’s part — and finally the much more powerful imperial glimmer which is considered “magic that was gifted to the emperor and his court by the Angels.” Not exactly groundbreaking stuff as far as magic systems go, but it does add an element of danger and excitement to the book.
Apart from Drothe and his engaging first-person narrative, what I love most about Among Thieves is the fast-paced, well-executed story. A story full of mystery and intrigue, breathtaking fight scenes, unexpected plot twists, surprising revelations and clever cons. A story that hooked me from the first chapter, kept me entertained until the very last page, and then left me begging for the sequel.
Negatively, I had a few minor complaints about the book, but nothing that really impacted the way I felt about the novel. Still, it’s impossible to completely ignore the various dei ex machina used to help Drothe out of deadly situations, or the way Drothe is able to hold his own against enemies who are far more skilled and dangerous than the Nose, or Drothe’s sudden advancement at the end of the novel which reminded me of the film The Chronicles of Riddick. Once again though, these issues did little to dampen the excitement I felt when reading Among Thieves.
CONCLUSION: As far as fantasy debuts go, Among Thieves is not on the same level as such standouts as Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora or Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, but it’s damn close thanks to a fantastic protagonist in Drothe, Drothe’s accessible narrative voice, a very polished writing performance by Douglas Hulick, and a story that entertains from beginning to end. In short, it will be a crime if Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves isn’t in the running for the best fantasy debut of 2011.