Among Thieves is a simple enough title but Douglas Hulick’s debut novel - A tale of the Kin #1, ten years labour of love according to Douglas - is anything but simple. A debut that almost rivals Lies of Locke Lamora in terms of the style, the settings and the sheer fun element. Almost. While Lies of.. still remains one of my best reads in terms of fun and entertainment, Among Thieves comes a close second as a debut effort.
A novel that follows in the wake of Sword & Sorcery novels reboot in the dark and gritty fashion hailing grey roguish men (or Boys in the case of Locke and Jean?) with a sense of honour as central characters – Among Thieves sees the rise of yet another thief, Drothe caught in the spider-web of conspiracies and flying knives between different criminal overlords and the empire. Drothe who runs a side business of smuggling imperial relics (when not doing his normal ‘day’ job of being a ‘nose’ ferreting out information from rumours for his boss) happens to come by a relic that has him scrambling and diving in and out of sewers to survive while chased by pretty much everybody alive – a couple of criminal bosses, assassins on hire, the dreaded White Sashes who are the Empire’s clean-up soldiers on the streets, Magicians who can walk into dreams and out, his own sister – now a courtesan and thus wanting to sever ties with her criminal brother, warriors of an age old Order. You name it. It reads like a thriller as Drothe struggles to stay ahead of all of them and also unravel the mystery surrounding the so-called relic and well…stay alive in the process.
Among Thieves is set in the city of Illdrecca, a melting pot of criminal activities split into two section of general populace: the Lighters or the ordinary citizen and the Kin, everybody allied to different crime organizations. The web of activities that play out and overlap are all beautifully organized into different hierarchies based on the job functions like spies (Nose, Wide Nose, Long Nose), muscle for hire (Arms), street magicians (Mouth), rumour mongers (Ears), purse cutters etc. Illdrecca comes alive beautifully in Douglas’ measured prose that alternates between Drothe’s muddled thoughts spilling over each other and the explosive dance of swords that erupts after every thirty or so pages.
Douglas goes for a first-person narrative in the scathing voice of Drothe, a Nose inside the city of Illdrecca – the dark underbelly of the Empire whose job is to ferret out information for his boss, a criminal overlord. Drothe is one of the finest first-person narratives I’ve enjoyed – There is no honour among thieves. Drothe begs to differ. This is not to say that he doesn’t have that side which doesn’t maim, cut or kill to get what he wants. He does all this and more. But at the end something that sets Drothe apart is his unshakeable confidence and his sense of honor that never gets sullied. In the beginning, it is his sense of self-preservation that gets the upper hand and we tend to slot him as just another self-possessed cocky bastard who wants to get by but as the book progresses, we see inside him. And his character becomes more and more endearing with all the chinks visible in that armour of a cocky self-assured survivor. His struggle to do the right thing, his friendship, his affection for his sister and for all the people he has promised to protect and then failed. Drothe is something of a bumbling fool at times and gets his ass kicked in all the fights he gets into. But it’s not his strength or skill you admire. It’s his nerves and sheer will power that you admire. He is a stubborn son of a bitch who will stick to the right way for all that he bleeds.
Suffice to say, his characterization was absolutely brilliant and he stands towering over everyone else in the book. His never-do-well acquaintances include a sell-sword called Bronze Degan with his own mysterious past with a quick wit and an even quicker sword-arm, a magician from the streets (Jelem)who can mouth glimmer(magic), armed muscle for protection and bodyguard detail (Fowler), a Jarkman or master scribe who can forge documents(Baldezar). All of them are interesting studies – characters who bleed and rant and joke while being perfectly lovable and still remain a criminal. I, for one, would have loved to get into both Degan’s and Fowler’s head. Imagine a furious relentless swordfight from inside Degan’s head. The beauty of the swing, the technical precision of that killing thrust and the well-judged parry, the well-executed feint and that swishing killer stroke! Ah!! I hope we get to see more of them soon!
Douglas’ presents a rivetingly new and absorbing fantasy world in Illdrecca – ruled by an Emperor whose soul has been split into three by the Angels and as ordained, the three reincarnations come back to life every cycle to rule the empire. Lots of things come to the forefront pretty early on – that way the writing gets a little tiresome and nothing is as straightforward as it seems. Especially the terms/language of the ‘thieves cant’ that Douglas uses – dustmans, jarkman –I had to go back and forth to pick it up. And just like Drothe caught up in the whirlwind of a wrong conspiracy, till sometime you have no idea of what in the name of the Angels, is happening.
But like a well written book, things start unravelling and the pace picks up as you read sleep-deprived just like Drothe who suffers from insomnia and has something of a substance-addiction to ‘ahrami seeds’ to clear up his mind and think sharper. All the cardboard archetypes that you fit in the characters as soon as you see them, suddenly seems flimsy as they break out of their stereotypes and wham! Hit you with the surprise element. Backstabbing and treachery is the order of the day. As you are swept along by the tide that never ebbs, you thrill and shudder at the same time with the discovery of new plots and newer powerful enemies. I read more than 50% of the book in one sitting. I haven’t done that in a long while now.
A walk on the wild side with some swashbuckling sword fights, an intricate intertwined mystery-plot that seems to get murkier by the page and a rollicking pace that never lets up, Among Thieves is a fine low-fantasy tale that should easily figure in your best fantasy reads ever. A promising new voice, Douglas’ next in the Tales of the Kin, Sworn in Steel is set to be published sometime this year and I for one, am waiting with bated breath.