Among Thieves by Doug Hulick
The first instalment of the Tales of the Kin, Among Thieves is a strong, smart, entertaining debut novel. Set in a corrupt world built upon the destruction wrought by ancient magic, the novel introduces us to Drothe, a somewhat hapless criminal who comes into possession of dangerous knowledge and suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of, well, everybody. In a world where Watchmen exist merely to protect the status quo, and in which the Kin and the Empire have a long history of enmity, Drothe finds himself in the midst of a deadly war where both sides will do anything to take what he has found.
Drothe is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist who develops slowly throughout the novel, starting out as something of a selfish anti-hero before morphing into an unlikely saviour and accidental hero. Like any decent main character, he has flaws and limitations, which make him more interesting and easier to identify with. He is not especially powerful, or overly skilled with weapons, or even remotely tall; but neither is he an obvious underdog with any crippling failings to overcome, as per many recent fantasy trends. He is a middling criminal, with people working beneath him and yet more people pulling his strings from above, and all he wants is to do his job and look out for the few friends he has under his protection. When a dodgy smuggling job becomes more than he can handle, he’s thrown into the midst of potentially huge events, and all his subsequent actions are essentially a chain of reactions driven by his own sense of self-preservation. Many of his victories are brought about by luck rather than skill, and many revelations occur as a result of key misunderstandings rather than any manipulation on Drothe’s part.
My first thought was that Among Thieves would be grimdark to its core – largely because the very first scene involves the torture and interrogation of a prisoner by an ‘Agonyman’ named Shatters – and I’d expected subsequent events to be similarly grim and gory. Instead, the novel is filled with a satisfyingly clever plot, a number of shadowy mysteries, and the gradual unravelling of a series of cryptic clues, clearly favouring thoughtful plot developments over gore-filled shock value. The setting is also nicely brought to life and incorporates a variety of locations, from filthy burned-out hovels to stinking sewers to opulent mansions, and although not exactly unique Hulick’s world does contain some nice little nuggets that make it stand out, such as an Emperor who is slowly losing his sanity from being reincarnated again and again.
Hulick’s prose is straightforward and his first-person narrative is engrossing; his language creates an atmosphere and world that seeps from the pages to engulf the reader. The continual use of thieves’ cant in Among Thieves gives it the feel of a Locke Lamora novel, whilst the hints of dark magic amidst a world of dirt and corruption are reminiscent of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. On top of that, Among Thieves is fast-paced, with a clever balance of intrigue, action and lore. Highly entertaining and highly recommended.