Imagine a story like Goodfellas or The Sopranos, but taking place in a gritty underbelly of a fantasy landscape where Noses poke around for information, Degans are the hired swordsmen/swordswomen, and Mouths cast spells; these individuals (among others) all work for an Upright Man. You might have an idea of what to expect from Douglas Hulick’s exciting debut novel Among Thieves, but don’t line up your expectations like eggs and expect chickens to hatch out of all of them. Hulick spins a great tale that keeps the pages turning and pivots the plot along some unexpected routes in this very enjoyable debut novel.
Drothe is a Nose, a person who finds information and reports back to Upright Man Nicco, his boss in the Kin. Or, in modern Mafioso parlance, he finds information for his Boss in the Mafia. Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves is his debut novel and is seamless blend of street-level fantasy Sword and Sorcery and Mafia fiction. The novel opens, in Drothe’s first person narrative, to Drothe interrogating a ne’er do well for information and an object. In addition to being a Nose, Drothe fancies the rare artifact. Unfortunately for him, things get a little bit sideways when the artifact he’s hoping to find intertwines with his role in Nicco’s, his Upright Man’s, organization.
Drothe’s closest companion is Bronze Degan, a swordsman and heavy within the Organization. He goes by no name except for his title despite having what seems to be the longest history with Drothe compared to many of the characters. Well, except for Drothe’s sister Christiana, a courtesan whose familial connection to Drothe is known only by a few for her standing in Upper Society would be brought into question should her relation to Drothe be known by a greater number of people. The dynamic between the two played out quite well as we learned about their history and with each interaction.
But the star of the novel is, of course, Drothe. We see everything through his eyes, hear the tale through his voice. Despite his criminal occupation, he has a streak of honor in that he always keeps his word. Unfortunately, that strength of character is something other characters exploit which puts our hero in many a corner throughout the novel. In a lot of ways, Drothe reminded me of another first person narrator published by the Roc imprint – Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden. Both characters tend to get the snot beaten out of them, but they are both resilient. Both characters get little sleep while in the middle of their adventure and come across as extremely driven despite their beaten-down exhaustion. Harry Dresden happens to be one of my favorite fictional characters (and The Dresden Files a top tier series for me), so this is a good comparison for Drothe and his creator Douglas Hulick.
While many of the main players were male, the ladies seem to be on equal footing even if there were more male characters. The Gray Princes, individuals even higher up than the Upright Men with great powers are a mysterious, looming, and fear-inducing bunch. In Hulick’s world, men and women can be Gray Princes. Each role within an Upright Man’s organization doesn’t seem to have a bias based on gender. For example, Oaks, which are basically bodyguard lookouts, have both genders in their line of work.
Reading through the novel, I was impressed with the world-building both in what the world is and how it came through the characters. A fascinating overall setting (a world with a deep history); an absorbing treet level-view (Ten Ways Cordons); the character types (Gray Princes, Upright Men); a powerful and supernatural ruler (an Emperor whose essence was split in three, with each taking turns returning to life and ruling); and, most importantly, engaging characters make for some hints of deepness.
In many ways, I was reminded quite a bit of Erikson’s Malazan saga. While Erikson’s saga is quite sprawling and Epic and global; here in Hulick’s Tales of the Kin, at least in the first novel, he’s managed to capture an essence of that world building and molded into his own creation which is quite rife for the type of Sword and Sorcery tale he’s spun. A fine balance between the hints at something larger and the intimacy evoked through Drothe’s first person narration and the primary setting of the city of Ildrecca makes for a fun, evocative adventure There has seemed to be a bit of a renaissance of Sword and Sorcery novels in recent years and Among Thieves is a novel that captures the modern sensibility along with the classic feel quite well.
As the novel progresses, the narrative as told through Drothe moves apace quite well. I had strong urges to read “just a bit more” before closing the book for my lunch break or before sleep, in other words, a very compelling narrative. Among Thieves is an assured debut; it works great as an introduction to Hulick and the world/characters he’s created and as an invitation to spend more time with the world and characters.
© 2014 Rob H. Bedford
Mark Yon / Hobbit reviewed the book when it first published in 2011
Roc, April 2011
Mass Market Paperback, 432 Pages / ISBN: 978-0-451- 639-0-6
Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Roc