In Brief: Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves provides fantasy fans a first-rate immersion in one of the great but often overlooked settings of the genre: the thieves guild. The story, a first-person account of local rogue Dorthe, twists, turns, and double-crosses through mean streets, imperial plots, and ancient conspiracies.
Pros: For a thief, spy, and wise-guy, Drothe is a likable guy and an excellent narrator. Hulick does a fine job describing the workings of the Kin underworld, injecting their Cant speech, and providing a descriptive background of the city, Ildrecca, without going overboard or bogging down. The action and swordplay are also well-written.
Cons: A first-person fantasy novel will nearly always lack a level of self-awareness by the narrator. In other words, Drothe tells the story, while withholding some key developments, and doesn’t seem that changed or affected by it. That’s mostly OK. I wonder if Hulick could have pulled this story off in a close third person perspective, which would have freed him up to do some chapters from other character viewpoints as well.
Review: Admit it: if you come to fantasy fiction from any kind of role-playing background (e.g. D&D, GURPS, etc.), you probably have a soft spot for the thief. He’s the guy who blends into shadows, ferrets out information, picks locks, and infiltrates hard targets. He contributes through guile, stealth, and skill rather than brawn or sorcery. In most fantasy, the thief is a supporting character, there to pick pockets, sneak around, double cross, etc. Not often enough do we see a novel not only devoted to this archetype, but set in the seamy underworld of the thief’s domain.
Among Thieves – A Tale of the Kin, delves into this world from the opening scene. Drothe, is a Nose – a wiseguy collector of information and spreader of rumors – with enough clout and experience to be successful without being important. He moves from dodge to dodge, specializing in artifact retrieval, which soon puts him on the trail of a relic – a book. Drothe starts sniffing around, finding clues that seem to link the book to a burgeoning underworld war in a particularly seedy part of town. Old favors get called in. Powerful crime lords and imperial forces get interested. Drothe quickly starts to understand that this book many involve powerful, forbidden magic, and old secrets. He’s in over his head.
Hulick moves his protagonist through this shadowy web with skill, providing enough detail and nuance to give the reader a sense of the city, its history, and its many layers of underworld society. He doesn’t go overboard as is so often the case in fantasy and keeps the plot and Drothe moving. This book is a caper and a mystery at its heart, which means timing and pacing are very important. The author and his editors deserve kudos for finding the right balance. It’s obvious Hulick had a huge amount of background notes and material he used in building this world and story, but he was sharp enough to keep this from overwhelming the novel.
The characters are fun and vivid as well. Sure, they’re built from well-used archetypes (a mix of crime novels and fantasy), but the important ones are distinctive enough. Bronze Degan, a sort of mercenary with a secret code of honor, protects Drothe’s back and jabs back and forth verbally with him to good effect. Christiana, Drothe’s sister, has moved up from the street to the nobility without revealing her true origins. Her secret gives Drothe additional worries and headaches. Jelem is an outlander wizard, providing occasional help for a price. And the crimelords with whom Drothe works and runs afoul – Nicco and Kells and Shadow – all convincing and distinct in their way.
This being a first-person novel, the heart and soul of the story resides firmly with Drothe. He seems more motivated by loyalty to his friends and allies than turning a buck, and his curiosity, wit, and, yes, humility make him easy to like and identify with almost immediately. Drothe’s skills and contacts help him move from one mystery and escape to the next. He manipulates people, sure, and calls in old favors and betrays old trusts. But he feels bad about doing it, rationalizes, and ultimately looks for the path to redemption. It’s a strange code of honor Hulick has created for his lead thief, yet this only adds to the enjoyment.
My main problems with first-person novels in fantasy are annoying narrators, point-of-view limitations, and literary hang-ups. Among Thieves doesn’t suffer from the first. The point-of-view limitations are more speculative on my part: I like a close third person story that switches between several lead characters, and Hulick’s skill with Drothe makes me wonder if he couldn’t have pulled this off with a few more leads. As far as the literary argument: when a first-person lead withholds key information for the sake of a plot, this annoys me. The fact that Drothe is telling this tale lets me know he’s not going to die. And self-awareness and epiphany are supposed to be key elements of the first-person story (at least according to our literary betters). These are very minor nitpicks, probably my own personal hangups, and certainly shouldn’t dissuade a potential reader.
Bottom Line: Among Thieves is well-written underworld fun. For those looking for a book set in the urban-crime sub-genre of fantasy, this is a real treat. I’m looking forward to Doug Hulick’s next story and eager to see where he takes us.