Eagle-eyed readers might have spotted that Douglas Hulick's Among Thieves is the sole representative from the land of sword-swinging, spell-slinging secondary world fantasy. In a banner year for doorstop fantasy, with (very) big names publishing (very) big books, it is somehow appropriate that the entire hooded man sub-genre is represented by this slender, cunningly-composed debut.
This isn't to say that the lumbering fantasy epic is dead (or even remotely unappreciated), but when looking at our criteria, the majority of these books aren't actually progressing the genre as much as revelling in its status quo (which, to avoid derailing the debate - is a pretty good status quo). Among Thieves contains all the swashbuckling escapist glamour and packages it together in a novel kind of way.
Among Thieves follows the adventures (misadventures, perhaps) of Drothe, a mid-level thief in a cosmopolitan fantasy city that's reminiscent of Scott Lynch's Camorr and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar. From the opening pages, Drothe's world is clearly an astounding place, but, miraculously enough, the focus never drifts from the characters. Mr. Hulick teases the reader with Triumvirate Emperors, Gray Princes, warrior guilds and lost magic. But none of these heady concepts actually matter. Among Thieves is wisely limited to following Drothe's personal journey.
Early in the book, Drothe stumbles across a McGuffin and his comfortable (if dodgy) life is uprooted. He's a petty player who buys into the wrong game. With his family, friends and personal security on the line (not to mention his honor and his reputation), Drothe has to make a series of increasingly difficult decisions. These escalate until he's ultimately forced to make unpleasant sacrifices. The millennial magical hoo-hah of the immortal god-emperors? Utterly unimportant. The reader is far more invested in Drothe's strained relationships with his sister and his best friend.
The idea of absolute light and darkness in fantasy has moved on from Eddings and Tolkien to a gray-scale moral spectrum. Mr. Hulick balances the realistic (a morally ambiguous protagonist) with the approachable (he's not a dick). Drothe is a professional thief and petty criminal, but he's not an irredeemable bastard. His transgressions against the rule of law are minor enough that the reader can still identify with him as one of us, one of the good guys. Similarly, by keeping the grimness to a minimum, Drothe's flaws stem from normal, human, emotional transgressions: mistakes or oversights with which readers can empathise, not over-the-top sins that alienate them. There's no character-building rape, badly rationalised torture or callous murder.
Drothe is not a particularly remarkable character. In fact, he's noteworthy for his exceptional ordinariness. In a genre plagued with chosen ones and superhuman entities, Drothe's pretty-good-ness is a rare thing: a moment of empathy in a genre tradition dominated by escapism. He's alright with his sword. He's almost always the cleverest person in the room. He's mostly honorable and generally well-respected. But Drothe's more lucky than good and his instincts are sharper than his brains. He relies heavily on a network of specialised friends, all of whom are more competent and more successful than he is. He has a love-hate relationship with his own sibling, primarily stemming from the fact that he's kind of embarrassing.
Drothe's in over his head from start to finish, and his scramble to keep up is what makes the story so captivating. In a category dominated by demi-god bastards, Drothe's a break in the tradition: one of us as we are, not one of us as we'd love to be. He is, in short, the hooded everyman.
From 16 January to 3 February, members of The Kitschies' judging panel will be discussing all of the 2011 finalists. Each review only reflects the view of that judge, and should not be taken as representative of the panel's collective opinion or final selection.