Among Thieves (2021), by M.J. Kuhn, is a sort of two-tier book for me. On the one hand, it’s a fast-paced heist novel that speeds along amiably, easily, and with some humor. On the other hand, it’s somewhat of a paint-by-number heist novel that doesn’t really add anything new to the genre and skimps a bit on characterization and world-building. If it’s your first experience with this type of story, or you’re a younger reader, and/or someone who prefers plot-driven rather than character-driven stories, then it’s probably in the 3.5-4.0-star range. If you’ve read similar works, though, or look for more substance and originality in your characters, it’s more likely a 3.0 or, if you’re grumpy that day, a 2.5.
Ryia Cautella, aka the Butcher of Carrowwick, is the deadly, merciless, axe-throwing enforcer of the Saints, a dockside gang run by the coldly calculating (and highly alliterative) Callum Clem. When a rival gang turns down a job to steal a mysterious artifact from The Guildmaster of Thamorr (the most powerful person in the land, above even the kings), Clem decides it’s the perfect way to get the Saints out of the predicament they’re in and so brings in the rest of the main member of the gang: Claudia Nash, shipmistress supreme; Ivan, the master of disguise; Tristan, the quick-fingered pickpocket/card shark; and Evelyn Linley, former Captain of the respected Needle Guards, now disgraced thanks to Ryia’s actions. They have to somehow get onto the Guildmaster’s tiny island, break into wherever he’s keeping the object (“the quill”), and then get off the island, protected by the Guildmaster’s many Adepts (powerful magic users). Complicating things even further, several members of the group have secrets/hidden pasts that lead to differing goals for the mission and possible betrayal.
To start with the positives, as noted, Among Thieves moves along at a quick pace without being breakneck or frenetic and does so smoothly and breezily, making for an easy one-sitting read. Transitions amongst the 39 third-person POV chapters are seamless, with Ryia getting the lion’s share at more than a third of them and Ivan and Clem by far the least. Humor is a pretty consistent element, and the banter between Ryia and Evelyn is particularly effective and natural. Kuhn also does a nice job in revealing various plot elements (how magic works, the political context, those hidden pasts) bit by bit throughout the early part of the book.
Really, it’s the sort of novel you can absolutely enjoy as just a fun, light read. Issues start to arise when one stops skimming along the surface, though. The worldbuilding is pretty thin and feels more than a little rote. You have your generic dock, mention of your generic gaming house and brothels, a barracks here, a market there, an island over there. None of them feel like true places where people live and work. They’re sketched in enough so characters have places to move through and to, but that’s about it, sort of like the decoy town in Blazing Saddles. The same holds true for the political and magic systems.
Meanwhile, the characters feel a bit off-the-shelf. Clem is your typical cold mastermind underworld boss, Nash your typical brash, boastful queen of the seas pirate, Tristan your typical fast-fingered callow youth, Evelyn your typical soldier of honor forced into grey moral areas, and Ryia your typical main character SQARFF: sassy, quippy, arrogant, rebellious, flirty fighter (TM pending). Outside of Ryia, none are really developed much at all, and even Ryia’s is relatively slight and certainly quick. And yes, a few have those aforementioned secrets, but they don’t really do much to deepen the characters. Ivan has so little POV time that his motivation is pretty much wholly abstract while Tristan’s is wholly familiar and predictable. Finally, Ryia’s character has another issue in that she’s pretty sociopathic at the start, though played lightly, and though she changes, that shift is both completely predictable (why it’s not a spoiler) in how and why and far too easy/fast. The same holds true for the every-person-for-themselves shift to the found-family-leave-no-person-behind.
As for the plot, it does, as noted, speed along, but that’s partly due to Kuhn’s skill but also partly due to how it all is a bit too easy, too fast, and at times too contrived. The get-the-gang together segment is basically calling them into a room. The first brainstorming heist plan belongs to Clem, but he never tells anyone, and we never learn it. The second one comes about with staring at a map and then a casually dropped line that causes an immediate breakthrough. Getting onto the nearly impossible to get onto island involves mostly sailing to it. Getting to the artifact mostly involves climbing some steps and the artifact itself being helpfully totally unguarded in any way, shape, or form despite it being the sole source of power for the strongest magic-user and ruler in the land. And I won’t give other examples of the same sort of issues, meaning the heist in this heist novel is highly anticlimactic and unsatisfying. As is the resolution, which ends with a twist that is, again, completely predictable.
Those last two paragraphs sound pretty negative, and it is true Among Thieves has some major issues. But it’s also true I breezed right through in a mostly pleasurable, light read sort of fashion. It’s not the first book I’d press on someone, and I’d probably recommend it as a library book rather than a purchase, but there are certainly worse descriptors of a novel than “lightly entertaining.” And there’s certainly enough basic skill here in dialogue, flow, etc. to have me check out Kuhn’s next book to see how she’s grown in other areas.
I dunno–I’ll probably read it just for those character names.
Heist books are hard to write! (she says with newfound sympathy.)