Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick
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.
Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick is the first Great Summer Read of 2011. The book demands a beach, SPF3 30 sunscreen and a long-necked amber bottle fogged with condensation.
I didn’t love the book as much as my fellow reviewers (above), for some reasons I’ll explain below, but I’m still going to give it four stars. Normally, for me to give a book four stars it has to have exceptional prose, intense or intriguing characters, and/or something that makes me think about the world differently. Among Thieves doesn’t have all of those, but its mission is only to be darned entertaining. It fulfills its mission and that should be rewarded.
In the city of Ildrecca’s criminal underworld, certain occupations have the names of body parts. Swords-for-hire are called Arms. Magicians, who chant spells, are called Mouths. People who know the word on the street are called Ears, and spies are Noses. Drothe is a Nose.
Drothe’s employer is a street-level crime boss or Upright Man named Niccos. In the network of semi-organized crime that fills the streets of Ildrecca (there is no legitimate industry in the book except for street markets and the occasional pub) there are Upright Men and, above them, the even more powerful Gray Princes. Drothe reminisces about the stories he’s heard about the old days, when all the criminal gangs were united under a Dark King, the “flip side” of the reincarnated emperor, until the emperor had the Dark King executed.
Among Thieves has a strong plot, a clever, convoluted mystery and characters that are just as developed as they need to be. The concept of the reincarnated emperor that exists in three aspects — each one of which rules in rotation — is fascinating. There are enough ancient relics and mysterious writings, including a book of magic, to satisfy even me. Some secondary characters are only developed so they can be put in jeopardy as a warning to Drothe, but Hulick manages to convince us that this is street life, and not just a plot mechanism.
Drothe has very little magic himself, although it seems to run down the very drains of the city around him. He is smart, tough and very, very competent at what he does. His stubbornness, his grumpy loyalty and his attempts to mask the affection he feels for people, even from himself, make him a protagonist to root for and an engaging first-person narrator. As he hunts down the magic book, tries to derail a gang war, and schemes to stay alive, we want him to win.
There are many sword fights and chase scenes. Drothe is not a super-fighter like his friend Degan, so his battles are ones of strategy. Drothe is well-armed and has a few tricks up his sleeve, and down his boot, and in his belt… you get the picture. While Hulick does not flesh out the city of Ildrecca geographically, he does give us concrete details that tickle all the senses, even when it’s just Drothe taking a break:
[I]… sat down on the stoop and dug out two ahrami seeds from the pouch around my neck. They were small and oval, the size of my largest knuckle, and darkly roasted. I rubbed them between my palms to let them absorb the sweat. A sharp, acrid smell, with subtle hints of cinnamon, earth and smoke rose up from my hands. I felt my pulse quicken at the aroma.
So what’s not to like? Well, the naming conventions drove me to distraction. “What naming conventions?” you say, and I say, “Exactly.” Here is a short list of the names that appear in the book: Athel, Anhya, Baldasar, Christiana, Cosima, Drothe, Eppydris, Fowler Jess, Larrios, Nestor, Niccos, Sebastian, Stephen. Greek, Latin-root, Old English-Root, Middle European and made-up Middle Eastern are all tossed together in one big name salad. This might work if we knew more about the city — waves of immigration, a port town, something like that — or more about the three incarnated aspects of the eternal emperor whose names are Stephen, Theodoi and Lucien. We don’t, and so these out-of-a-hat names distract.
Why does this matter? My suspension of disbelief will not withstand constant assault by the writer, and these names show up on every page. This, and a couple other small inconsistencies, like the written language of the empire (glyph, or cursive script?) eroded away at Hulick’s otherwise finely conceived world.
Among Thieves is the first book of a series. With the mysterious emperor and his incarnations growing more unstable, there is plenty left to write about. Drothe’s own growth, and the back-story of his stepfather, who appeared in his life and educated him, and his sister, so carefully, hints at another mystery to unravel.
Ultimately, this is a fun read. If you liked The Name of the Rose, you will enjoy Among Thieves. With its political layers, swordplay, and double and triple-crosses, it has the flavor of The Three Musketeers, but people who love The Maltese Falcon would like this book too. When it comes to pure entertainment, like Drothe, Among Thieves delivers the goods.
In Ildrecca, the capital of the Dorminikan Empire, there is, and always has been, a dark empire thriving beneath the ruling one: the criminal underworld of the people who lovingly call themselves the Kin. Drothe is a Nose — an information gatherer — who has spent most of his life as one of the Kin. Drothe works for one of the many crime lords, but smuggles holy relics on the side. Things go bad fast when Drothe’s boss sends him into Ten Ways to investigate rumors of rival gangs’ aggressions. Of all the seedy cordons in Ildrecca that the Kin control, Ten Ways is the most run-down, dangerous, and fiercely independent. Ten Ways is also the one place Drothe hoped he would never return to. While on this mission, Drothe’s self-interests conflict with his full-time job and he ends up in possession of an ancient holy book that contains secrets that can destroy the empire or grant the power to rule all.
If you combined the movies Gangs of New York and The Usual Suspects, turned that into a fantasy story, and then add just a smidgen of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, you’d end-up with something close to Among Thieves.
The story is told in the first person which, When done right, makes the reader’s connection to the story more intimate. However, it does take an exceptionally talented author to pull it off. The point-of-view character has to keep the reader’s interest throughout the story, and the writing has to be clever enough that we learn all we need to know about the setting and the other characters without losing the sense that we’re only seeing things through the narrator’s eyes. Hulick makes this seem easy. He builds a hard world of shadowed back-alleys, cruel enemies, dangerous allies, and too few trusted friends, all revolving around Drothe.
Hulick also does a bang-up job with the other characters, which must be the most difficult part of creating a story in the first person perspective. I especially liked the elite mercenary, Bronze Degan, who serves as the brawn to Drothe’s brains. Their friendship made me miss some of my old high school buddies.
Hulick’s skillful use of street slang, or thieves’ cant, is a blast. It clearly sets the Kin apart from the “lighters” — upright citizens — and brings so much color into the tale that other similar fantasy stories seem lame in comparison. The dialog of the best gangster movies is part of why they’re so much fun to watch and it’s about time that the same concept was truly embraced when writing roguish fantasy characters. (“Forget about it.”) The language really brings the characters to life.
One of the most exciting things is Hulick’s concept. As the complete title suggests, Among Thieves: A Tale of the Kin, is the first of a series of stand-alone books that won’t necessarily be about Drothe or any of the other characters in this installment. Hulick has created a criminal underworld that is ripe for rogues to pursue adventurous exploits.
Among Thieves is full of twists and turns that spring from conspiracies within conspiracies. For every wily move Drothe makes, he only puts himself, and sometimes his few friends, more at risk, as the stakes become higher than anyone could have imagined. The fate of a kingdom comes to rest on the honor of one thief among many thieves.
Mr. Hulick, in the tradition of the Kin, please accept me into your organization. In this way, you cannot dust me without just cause and I cannot betray you without knowing that I face the ultimate retribution. But I’ll also get to be brought along for your forthcoming adventures as one of the Kin.
Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves has been highly praised by three of my fellow reviewers and is featured in our Favorite Books of 2011 list, so when I saw that Tantor produced it on audio last month, of course I had to try it. As I expected, it did not disappoint, yet I didn’t love it as much as Greg and Robert did. I have to agree almost completely with what they said about this fun fantasy adventure, though. My lower rating merely reflects my personal taste for this type of tale. Among Thieves is a sword & sorcery mystery set in a decadent city. It could be compared to Scott Lynch’s work or even Fritz Leiber’s LANKHMAR stories except that, though well-written, Among Thieves lacks the high language and humorous philosophical musings that elevate Leiber’s stories above other S & S tales and makes them so appealing to me.
I liked the setting of the city of Ildrecca, a cosmopolitan center with a seedy underside, and the elaborate criminal organization with its own slang and rules of honor. Our hero, Drothe the “nose,” is an honorable thief who has a heart, a sense of loyalty, and a desire to do the right thing for his city. I adored his companion, Bronze Degan, and sometimes wished that the story were not all told from Drothe’s POV so that we could learn more about Degan. I hope future KIN stories will also include this intriguing character. Drothe’s aristocratic sister is another character I’d like to meet again.
I was fascinated by the idea of an emperor who used dark magic to divide his soul into three parts, inadvertently creating his own rivals and producing paranoia. The magic in Drothe’s world is dark and frightening, and I look forward to seeing more of this in future installments.
I did have a couple of issues with Among Thieves. There were so many bumps, ditches, twists and turns in the narrowly-focused linear plot that I sometimes felt like I was running an obstacle course in a tunnel. Whenever Drothe figured something out, or got a step ahead, there’d be a new revelation, or a guy with a sword, right around the corner. Or the ominous voice behind him saying “Not so fast.” (Okay, maybe not exactly that, but something really similar.) I was never sure what was true, or just another red herring, until the very end. I also had a hard time believing the parts of the plot that involved taking oaths. I can’t say more without spoiling things, but I struggled with this. Lastly, there were too many play-by-play descriptions of sword fights for me. But that’s just me.
Other than those minor issues, I enjoyed Hulick’s characters and the world he created and I will certainly be picking up his next TALES OF THE KIN, Sworn in Steel. I’ll be listening to it on audio because I was very pleased with Kirby Heyborne’s narration. He did a great job with all the characters, both male and female, common and aristocratic. You can sample and purchase Among Thieves in downloadable audio format from Tantor or Audible. Last I checked, it was less expensive at Tantor unless you’re going to use an Audible credit.
Tales of the Kin — (2011-2012) Publisher: Drothe is a Nose, an informant who finds and takes care of trouble inside the criminal organization he’s a part of. He also smuggles imperial relics on the side. When his boss sends him to Ten Ways to track down who’s been leaning on his organization’s people, Drothe discovers hints of a much bigger mystery. Someone is trying to stir up trouble between lower-level criminal organizations, including the one Drothe belongs to. And there’s a book rumored to contain imperial glimmer (or magic) that a lot of very dangerous people seem to be looking for — including two crime bosses known as the Gray Princes. When Drothe discovers the book, he finds himself holding a bit of swag that can bring down emperors, shatter the criminal underworld, and unlock forbidden magic… that’s if he can survive long enough to use it.
I love stories about thieves, cheats, con-artists and criminals…I’d check this out. Sadly, I wasn’t impressed with The Lies of Locke Lamora. Hopefully this will do the trick though.
I actually preferred this to Abercrombie and Lynch. The others were really good, but I’m kind of tired of the hard edge that some of the newer fantasy has. This book has all the ingredients that make the others great without having all the profanity and downright meanness that lurks in some of the other books.
I like stories about clever criminals, too, Andrew. SQT’s comments make me think I’ll like this a lot. Thanks, Robert!
Among Thieves is definitely more accessible and less gritty than Abercrombie or Lynch, but I like Abercrombie’s humor/sarcasm and I think Lynch’s writing is stronger and more clever than Hulick’s. Still, it’s a great book and I hope it does well :)
Another book that sounds similar to Among Thieves is David Chandler’s debut novel “Den of Thieves” which comes out in July from Harper Voyager…
The city in the cover looks like they are experiencing the Super Moon. :) (Seriously, though, I like the cover. Nicely intense.)
I love it when bad guys are the “good” guys or the hero of the story too.
I might have to check this out too.
To be honest, I prefer the UK cover more. The US one seems more suited for an urban fantasy novel ;)
Greg, I would definitely give the book a shot. It’s worth it!
Interesting post from Mr. Hulick over at Aidan’s blog. It’s about reading reviews.
This sounds like great fun!
I loved it. I can’t wait for the next one. :)
Glad you liked the book Greg! It’s the best fantasy debut I’ve read so far and I can’t wait for the next one either :)
Rob T. – I was interested in this book when I read the title but you’re high rating sold me.
I hope an audio version will be forthcoming!
I read the Kindle version which seemed like it came out the same day as the physical book. Does it usually take long for the audio versions?
I could see where the audio version of this book would be a lot of fun if they pick the right person to read it. I kept thinking of the dialog of that movie called Snatch that starred Jason Stratham and Brad Pitt, while I was reading it. Because both that movie and this book had very unique thieves’ cant.
(fair warning- thieves’ cant is a new phrase for me, so I’ll probably be wearing it out. ;) )
There won’t necessarily be an audio version. The audio companies make decisions about what to try to acquire and then they have to deal with rights and stuff. There’s a lot of books that they can’t get the rights for because of deals the authors have with other publishers. Sometimes it works out that an audio version comes out on the same day as print and Kindle if all that stuff is worked out before the book is published in print. That’s usually for books that the audio company suspects will be successful.
Great review Marion. :)
A couple differing points for the sake of a sincerely friendly debate though, if that’s ok:
Illdrecca is this empire’s capitol city- A lot of capitol cities don’t have a legitimate industry to speak of right? Governing itself is many times the reason for the a capitol city’s being, and all the the things that go along with meeting the needs or wants or the people running the empire. (Which is probably one of the reasons for Washington D.C.’s high crime rate. All the politicians looking for drugs and hookers :))
And as far as the names, I got the impression that Illdrecca is somewhat of a melting-pot of cultures. There were districts that was populated by people from far-away lands. Even Drothe himself was not native-born of Illdrecca. he was from the country.
I liked this book and will definitely read the next one. It was nonstop action.
Great review Kat. I really liked Bronze Degan and the whole mercenary brotherhood he was a part of. I’d like to see him and I’m sure we’ll see more of the Degans (I hope that is the correct name. My memory cannot be trusted these days.) in the further Tales of the Kin.