FORMAT/INFO: Den of Thieves is 480 pages long divided over a Prologue, four titled Parts, and 100 chapters. The book also includes a map of the Free City of Ness and an excerpt from A Thief in the Night, book two of The Ancient Blades trilogy. Narration is in the third person, mostly via the thief Malden and the knight Sir Croy, while minor POVs include Cythera. Den of Thieves is self-contained, but is the first volume in The Ancient Blades trilogy, which will be followed by A Thief in the Night in September 2011 and Honor Among Thieves in November 2011.
ANALYSIS: When I first started reading Den of Thieves, I thought I was reading David Chandler’s debut novel. Soon after, I learned that David Chandler was actually a pen name for David Wellington, a writer of numerous horror novels including the Monster trilogy, the Vampire series and the Werewolf Tales. I’ve never actually read any of David Wellington’s books, but I do own several of the author’s novels because they sound right up my alley. Factor in comparisons to George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch, and I admit I let my expectations run a little wild. So I’m partly to blame for my disappointment with Den of Thieves.
Of course, unfulfilled expectations are not the only reason David Chandler’s “debut” let me down. For starters, Malden is not very compelling as a protagonist, especially when compared to the likes of Locke Lamora from Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard sequence, Mildmay the Fox from Sarah Monette’s The Doctrine of Labyrinths, and Drothe from Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves. All similar heroes/anti-heroes. The problem with Malden, besides a dry narrative voice that is devoid of personality, is the author’s failure to capture the charm and cleverness that Malden supposedly possesses. Plus, for someone who believes there is no honor among thieves, Malden is curiously honorable for a thief.
Sir Croy, the novel’s other main protagonist, is much more likable than Malden for the first three-fifths of the book, but then the knight’s naiveté takes center stage, transforming his admirable qualities — honor, chivalry, loyalty, duty — into annoyances. Then there’s Cythera. Cythera, the daughter of a witch, is an important figure in Den of Thieves because of her curse, her connection to the sorcerer Alebron Hazoth, and the fact that Malden and Sir Croy are both in love with her. As a character, however, it’s hard to sympathize with Cythera, much the way it’s hard to sympathize or care about Malden and Sir Croy. In fact, minor characters like Cutbill, the master of thieves; the card sharp Kemper, whose curse gives him a unique ability; and Murdlin, envoy of the Dwarf Kingdom, were much more interesting in my opinion, and I wish they had been featured more prominently in the novel. Especially Murdlin with his amusing manner of speech: “This way, most hurriedly, like a rabbit making love.” / “Stop standing there manipulating yourself in an erotic fashion.” / “Into the hay that itches like pubic lice.”
Secondly, Den of Thieves is oddly tame considering how much experience David Wellington possesses as a horror fiction author. Sure, there’s the Lovecraftian-inspired guardian of the Burgrave’s crown, Hazoth’s demon child, and various other atrocities, not to mention the violence and rare profanity, but overall, I was disappointed by how PG-13 the novel turned out to be. Particularly when the book is mentioned in the same breath as George R. R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Scott Lynch, whose novels are known for their realism and grittiness. If only that was the case with David Chandler’s novel. Instead, Den of Thieves is much more fantastical and over-the-top, having more in common — based on what I’ve heard — with its other comparisons in R.A. Salvatore and Raymond E. Feist. Not a bad thing if you’re a fan of those authors, but not what I was expecting.
Third, the writing in Den of Thieves is disappointingly uneven. The story’s pacing may be engaging, the prose polished, and the action scenes entertaining and well-written, but I expected more from someone with ten novels under his belt. Because Den of Thieves is David Wellington’s first foray into fantasy, I can forgive the lackluster world-building, which primarily focuses on the Free City of Ness, its charter with the King of Skrae, Ancient Blades, and the Bloodgod Sadu, while including such familiar tropes as dwarves, elves and ogres. I can also overlook the lack of imagination found in the book’s magic system, which features curses, summoning demons, magic swords, paying a price to use sorcery, etc. What I cannot forgive or overlook is the novel’s aforementioned shallow characterization and a story that suffers from predictability, weak plotting, and flimsy rationalizations. Like the whole reason the Burgrave’s crown was stolen in the first place!? Or Hazoth’s motives — if the sorcerer is so powerful, why would he even worry about the King of Skrae? Or anyone else for that matter?
Not only that, but was it really necessary for the author to spell out the novel’s various twists, especially considering how easy it was to figure things out beforehand? Also, is there any reason I should continue reading The Ancient Blades trilogy? The first book ties things up so neatly, I have no motivation to pick up the sequel. What’s the overarching story arc? The conflict? The end goal? Worst of all, Den of Thieves could have been so much better. What if the book was darker and grittier? What if the main characters were charming and sympathetic? What if the story was cunningly plotted and full of unexpected twists and surprises? What if…
Despite my obvious disappointment with the book, Den of Thieves is not nearly as bad as I’m making it sound. It may not offer fully developed characters, in-depth world-building, creative ideas, or clever plotting, but thanks to swift pacing and non-stop sword & sorcery action, Den of Thieves does provide lots of fun and thrills. Keeping expectations lowered though is the key to enjoying this novel. Because of the thief protagonist, the plot involving the Burgrave’s crown, and various other factors, I can see why Den of Thieves has drawn comparisons to Martin, Abercrombie, and Lynch. Unfortunately, neither the book nor the author is anywhere close to that level. In fact, Den of Thieves is not even on the same level as Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves, a similar yet far superior fantasy debut that was released this same year. However, as long as readers understand what kind of book they’re getting, then Den of Thieves has plenty to offer…