New Releases: Among Thieves on Douglas Hulick
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Among Thieves is the debut novel from Douglas Hulick. Set in the grimy fantasy city of Ildrecca, it is the tale of Drothe, a hooded-assassin type and member of the city's underworld legion of criminal "Kin".
With a scruffy, dual-wielding piratical looking gentleman and a cover quote from Brent Weeks, the reader can be excused for thinking this is your standard act of adolescent escapism - roguish heroism with a sarcastic, ass-kicking protagonist. And, to a certain degree, all of these things are true. But when push comes to shove, Among Thieves is more Locke Lamora than Night Angel. It is a cunning and well-scripted action-adventure with a surprisingly complex character at its heart. I expected guilty pleasure and found genuine entertainment.
Drothe (granted, a rather unfortunate name) is a "Nose". He works as an information-gatherer for one of the city's "Upright Men" gathering information on the city's delicate political scene. Ildrecca is divided up by the gangs of "Upright Men" with the Emperor (the land's proper monarch) and the mysterious Gray Princes playing their own, grander, game in the background. As a Nose, Drothe gets into all sorts of trouble - especially since he's running his own cons on the side. Fortunately, his best friend, Bronze Degan, is often there to bail him out.
If nothing else, Mr. Hulick gets sixteen bonus points and a silver star for not making Drothe exceptional in any way. He's clever, but knows he's not as smart as many of the real players in the Kin's underworld. He's pretty fiesty, but certainly no match for the hardened killers he encounters. He's well-connected, but still a minor part of the Kin. As for supernatural, prophesy-fulfilling powers? Er... he's got night vision (the legacy of an awkward childhood ritual), but most of the time it is more of a hindrance than a help. In fact, Drothe's unique only for his Sam Spade-like ability to be in the right place at the wrong time.
There are similarities to Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora. The partnership between might and muscle, Drothe/Degan and Locke/Jean, is probably the most obvious in terms of plot elements. The two authors also share an notable penchant for incidental world-building. Ildrecca is a fascinating city in a thoroughly complicated world, but, like any well-crafted novel - we only learn about it through the eyes of our protagonist. As Drothe creeps about in search of a missing artifact (a book, of all things), he unravels layer after layer. Mr. Hulick's use of his homebrewed Thieves' Cant is another noteworthy element along this vein. He drops in his criminal slang naturally, letting the reader determine the meaning of each word through context and repetition. Considering the depth of both the world and the vocabulary, the fact that Among Thieves does not come packaged with appendices and glossary is a brave and utterly praise-worthy decision. Among Thieves is about the story, not the world.
Mr. Hulick also has an impressive knack for introducing other characters as people rather than representatives of a particular class, race or skill-set. Even with Drothe's enemies, we know them for their personal impact on Drothe and Among Thieves, rather than as more meaningful Big Bads. Despite the far-reaching consequences of Drothe's adventures, Among Thieves is kept as a very focused and personal story. Locke Lamora is a more complex book, with a more strategic protagonist and a less linear narrative, but Among Thieves' cleverness still keeps it miles ahead of other titles in the same space.
There are still a few bugs to work out. As mentioned above, Drothe does mostly advance through accident. He's charmingly self-aware of this, but, even so, mostly of his plotting and problem-solving takes place one episodic chapter at a time. In future books, with Drothe as an established character, it would be interesting to see him behave in a less reactive fashion.
Drothe also coasts on an undeserved reputation for "honor". We're told from a few different angles that he's trustworthy and a man of his word, but throughout Among Thieves he breaks more promises than he keeps (including one particularly painful one that I can't detail without spoilers). Drothe always makes a point of suffering whenever he goes back on his word, but without any examples of him keeping his promises, the reader is left feeling like this is merely emo self-flagellation. Deception seems to be his status quo, mostly because, as noted above, he's almost always on the back foot.
Finally, Drothe has a slightly creepy relationship with his sister. This is further emphasized by the lack of an obvious romantic interest in his life. Their love-hate conflict makes for a good subplot, but their interaction occasionally crosses the line to icky. Although not quite Ender/Valentine levels of eew, I could've done without Drothe smelling his sister's "spicy scent" or staring into her "gold and blue eyes".
Among Thieves is, if you'll forgive the cliche, a promising debut. Mr. Hulick has the hard stuff nailed. He's written a tight, jaunty story and filled it with a large cast of memorable personalities. Mr. Hulick has also created one of the most interesting fantasy landscapes in a long time - a land of interfering angels, shadow governments and immortal monarchs - but he keeps his priorities straight and makes sure that the world-building never takes over. At the conclusion of Among Thieves, anything could happen next, and I can't wait to find out.