Tuesday, March 22, 2011

“Among Thieves” by Douglas Hulick (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Douglas Hulick Website
Order “Among ThievesHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read Fantasy Faction’s Interview with Douglas Hulick HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Douglas Hulick has a B.A. and M.A. in Medieval History. He also practices and teaches Western European Martial Arts (WMA) with a focus on early 17th century Italian rapier combat. Among Thieves is his debut novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: Ildrecca is a dangerous city if you don’t know what you’re doing. It takes a canny hand and a wary eye to run these streets and survive. Fortunately, Drothe has both. He has been a member of the Kin for years, rubbing elbows with thieves and murderers from the dirtiest of alleys to the finest of neighborhoods. Working for a crime lord, he finds and takes care of trouble inside his boss’s organization—while smuggling imperial relics on the side.

But when his boss orders Drothe to track down whoever is leaning on his organization’s people, he stumbles upon a much bigger mystery. A mystery involving a book that any number of deadly people seem to be looking for—a book that just might bring down emperors and shatter the criminal underworld.

A book now inconveniently in Drothe’s hands…

CLASSIFICATION: Among Thieves is like a cross between Scott Lynch’s the Gentleman Bastard series and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire, but 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 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 thirty-one numbered chapters. Narration is in the first-person, exclusively via the protagonist Drothe. Among Thieves reads as a standalone 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 (see below) 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 though 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’s 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 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...

Three 2011 Novels - Short Discussion: Appanah, "Locke" and Anderson/Herbert (by Liviu Suciu)

Since I am trying to showcase as many 2011 interesting books of various kinds as I can, but the number of full reviews I can do is limited, it is inevitable that some books won't receive as complete coverage as I wish. I keep the continually updated post with 2011 books read HERE, while I revise review priorities all the time as my last quite unexpected review shows and from time to time I will try to do a short discussion of several books that otherwise would slip through.


The Last Brother (A+, recommended unreservedly) by Nathacha Appanah (translation by Geoffrey Strachan) is a wonderfully written, emotional novel about a friendship between two very different boys. Raj a native of Mauritius, poor, more or less uneducated and with a tragic family history and David, an orphan Jewish boy from Prague that had found himself bewilderingly imprisoned in a camp on that remote and sometimes deadly island - due to an unforgiving climate and illnesses for natives and Europeans alike - by the British government after being denied access to Palestine in the early 1940's.

I heard about The Last Brother from the B&N newsletter on "new voices in fiction" and it intrigued me so I got a look the first time I saw it and I really liked it though I thought it was a bit too short to fully blow me away.

With the premise outlined above and with the book starting with Raj in old age recollecting what happened at least in general lines, there are few surprises as the direction of the story goes. The writing is top notch and the characterizations of Raj and David are superb, so the book becomes a page turner where you really get to care about the boys and you wish a miracle will happen and alter the already known events. The novel is pretty emotional but not in a particularly depressing way and I found myself very moved by many of the events and by the epilogue.


Hellhole (A, recommended to fans of large scale epics) by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson is the start of an old fashioned space opera series that resembles the second author's Seven Suns sags in a lot of ways though its universe has different characteristics from the Seven Suns saga as far as FTL and the consequent distribution of power goes. The blurb below gives a good outline of the series' beggining though of course things are considerably more complicated and the characters cast is pretty big as befits a space opera saga.

"Only the most desperate colonists dare to make a new home on Hellhole. Reeling from a recent asteroid impact, tortured with horrific storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and churning volcanic eruptions, the planet is a dumping ground for undesirables, misfits, and charlatans…but also a haven for dreamers and independent pioneers.

Against all odds, an exiled general named Adolphus has turned Hellhole into a place of real opportunity for the desperate colonists who call the planet their home. While the colonists are hard at work developing the planet, General Adolphus secretly builds alliances with the leaders of the other Deep Zone worlds, forming a clandestine coalition against the tyrannical, fossilized government responsible for their exile."

"Hellhole" is traditional space opera and as noted above follows the same narrative structure as in both Kevin Anderson's series I've read - Seven Suns and Terra Incognita - with various pov's in various threads, in various locations throughout the settled universe - here there are 20 core-worlds exploiting 54 colony worlds of which the so called Hellhole is just one though it is quickly clear it will be the most important - threads that intertwine, separate, intertwine back.

As in Seven Suns and especially in the Terra Incognita series, important characters can die at any time so do not get overtly fond of anyone. The writing style is the clear one familiar from the above and the book is a fun adventure you do not want to put down, a bit on the campy side and predictable in large measure, but entertaining nonetheless since there are enough twists to keep things interesting and the characters quickly acquire the "root for/hate" characteristics so familiar from the earlier series.

As a series debut it ends on the typical KJA' semi-cliffhanger and I definitely plan to read the next as soon as I can get it, though my hope is the authors will keep the series manageable for its depth - currently I would say 3-4 novels, but of course if the universe expands considerably, could be more - since that was the one thing I disliked about Seven Suns, while Terra Incognita is among my current top fantasy series precisely by its relative compactness (though calling a series with three 600 page books compact stretches things a little, the natural comparison is with seven volumes sagas or 1000 page doorstops, not the slim 200 page The Last Brother above).


Up Against It (C, enough nuggets to make it worth a check but a minor disappointment overall) by "MJ Locke" has a very interesting premise and a great opening 40-50 pages but things go mostly downhill after that. There are quite a few nuggets like a newly awakened AI that steals the show in all its interactions with humans and a "genetic cult" with surprising philosophies and depth, but the writing style of the pseudonymous author is just not up to handling the interesting world building she created and the novel is mostly a pretty boring slog despite its supposed frantic pace and race against the clock for the inhabitants of Phocaea to save themselves from multiple threats. Here is a little from the blurb giving you an idea of the setting:

"Geoff and his friends live in Phocaea, a distant asteroid colony on the Solar System's frontier. They're your basic high-spirited young adults, enjoying such pastimes as hacking matter compilers to produce dancing skeletons that prance through the low-gee communal areas, using their rocket-bikes to salvage methane ice shrapnel that flies away when the colony brings in a big (and vital) rock of the stuff, and figuring out how to avoid the ubiquitous surveillance motes that are the million eyes of 'Stroiders, a reality-TV show whose Earthside producers have paid handsomely for the privilege of spying on every detail of the Phocaeans' lives.


In addition to Geoff, our story revolves around Jane, the colony's resource manager -- a bureaucrat engineer in charge of keeping the plumbing running on an artificial island of humanity poised on the knife-edge of hard vacuum and unforgiving space. She's more than a century old, and good at her job, but she is torn between the technical demands of the colony and the political realities of her situation, in which the fishbowl effect of 'Stroiders is compounded by a reputation economy that turns every person into a beauty contest competitor. Her manoeuvrings to keep politics and engineering in harmony are the heart of the book."

The two story lines indicated above, while theoretically converging in the last part of the book do not mesh well for the most part and the book jumps around without a clear focus and with little that conveys the sense of urgency of the events after the excellent beginning.

It is almost like Up Against It started with "how cool are these ideas and this setting!" and then fit a plot and characters around and the natural result is utter lack of coherence and continually disrupted narrative flow. While the cool ideas/setting keep the book readable for the aforementioned nuggets, the novel tries to be both traditional sf in which Geoff and his friends save the day and "realistic thriller" in which there are things like bureaucracies and parents and the two modes just jar badly one against each other.