Among Thieves: A Tale of the Kin by Douglas Hulick
Anyone who reads this blog may know I finished this book about two months ago and I've been raving about it ever since. I waited to post a review because I didn't want to put this up too soon and have you forget about this title-- because I'm recommending it for sure. But we're closing in on just a couple of weeks until the April 5th release date-- and I want to get the buzz started on this one (as if I have that kind of influence). You'll thank me later.
Drothe is a member of the criminal world of the Kin. Known as a Nose, Drothe is an information gatherer by trade. He works the criminal underworld of Ildrecca and sifts through the information that might be useful to the crime lord he works for. But for all the dangers a Nose might run into while trying to navigate the dangerous world of the Kin, it's Drothe's side business of selling relics that proves to be the most deadly.
Drothe's latest attempt at moving a relic gets unusually complicated as some dangerous people start trying to get their hands on it themselves. And while Drothe is trying to figure out that puzzle, rumors of a war within different factions of the Kin begin to start gaining momentum. Drothe tries to put them off as idle speculation, but it isn't long before he gets sucked into the middle of a turf war. And the relic, which just happens to end up in Drothe's hands, is right at the center of the fight-- and a lot of powerful people want to get their hands on that relic.
"Among Thieves" is a fooler. You'll look at the cover and think it's just an average fantasy debut. You might pass it up because it doesn't have the buzz we've grown accustomed to when authors like Patrick Rothfuss or Joe Abercrombie made their well publicized entry into the genre. And all I can say is-- I'm baffled that "Among Thieves" hasn't had more buzz surrounding it. It's a really good book. So good that I was inspired to write this post outlining what I like in fantasy fiction-- and why "Among Thieves" met every criteria.
But since this is the official review, I'll go over some of those points again.
Fantasy can be tough because creating a new world with all the trappings of fantasy, including magic and the social/political structure is hard to make believable. Too many authors are tempted to fall back on the template set up by authors like J.R.R Tolkien or go so far afield that there isn't much for the reader to grab onto as things get really weird. But Douglas Hulick finds a balance that is just right in the world he creates for "Among Thieves." We've all read stories about assassins and thieves in our favorite fantasy, so it's a bit of a challenge to create something we haven't seen before. So Hulick does the smart thing and doesn't try to start from scratch. He uses the "cant" or thieves' argot drawn from Elizabethan England and Twentieth Century American-underworld slang as a foundation for the language and culture and extemporizes from there-- and it works. The culture and politics are Hulick's own, but the commonality of language lends a sense of credibility that makes the whole structure really solid.
Magic is also tricky in fantasy. I like magic that is there, but not overwhelmingly so. What I liked about how the magic is used in "Among Thieves" is that it's there, but not easy to use or cheap to buy. Drothe is a thief who also has useful magical ability that was handed down to him from his stepfather, but it's a subtle gift with some downsides that make it a hindrance to anyone who isn't up to no good. Kulick does a good job of establishing what the boundaries of the magic are without hard-to-follow info-dumps and I liked how it never interfered with the flow of the larger story.
And when it comes to the most important part of the story (in my opinion), the characters, Hulick does a terrific job. One of my main complaints with popular fiction is the temptation to use stereotypes to build characters and the unfortunate result that the characters never move beyond outlines of familiar personalities. Drothe, as a thief who is cast as the hero, is a well known personality in fantasy fiction. But Hulick does a very good job of establishing Drothe as someone who finds the honor in a largely dishonorable world. I liked that the story existed within the confines of the criminal underworld. The thieving and scheming exists in a place where people know the rules and act accordingly. But most importantly, each character has a distinct set of characteristics and motives.
The story structure was also exceptionally well done. I appreciate that Hulick didn't rush the story. The hunt for the relic that is integral to the plot isn't treated as an aside and the narrative is allowed to grow and develop at a natural pace. Other, smaller things also tickled my fancy when it came to "Among Thieves" as well. For example, Hulick doesn't use a lot of profanity, which is kind of refreshing given the frequency it seems to be used in modern fantasy these days. There is plenty of content that could be referred to as "gritty" -- to use the most overused adjective in reviewing today-- but nothing that doesn't fit perfectly into the story. I'm also not a huge fan of prose-heavy writing, so I liked the straight forward style of Hulick's writing. If I could think of the biggest compliment I would give a writer, it would be to say a book is seamless. And in my opinion-- "Among Thieves" is seamless storytelling.
Don't let the fact that this is a humble paperback release fool you-- this is a book worth mentioning. And I sincerely hope it gets the attention it deserves.
5 out of 5 stars.