BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Drothe, a thief, finds himself navigating a conflict which threatens his personal and professional lives, one which has the all-too-real potential to destroy much more than just the criminal underworld of the city of Ildrecca.
PROS: A persistent sense of humour; a great range of male and female characters; an interesting plot that doesn’t overwhelm.
CONS: Easy to overlook in the grand scheme of things; a potentially immemorable, safe plot; too many events crammed into too short a time frame.
BOTTOM LINE: A fun, engaging read that pulls you along but likely won’t leave a lasting impression.
Douglas Hulick’s debut novel, Among Thieves, is best described as a fun, exciting and compelling adventure. Taking place over the course of a couple of days in the city of Ildrecca, we follow the thief Drothe and his companion-in-arms Bronze Degan as they get drawn into the vicious maelstrom created by high-stakes gang warfare. Add into this mixture forbidden magic, being under threat from the Empire’s most powerful troops, and a careless death perpetually looming over their heads — and the main characters become the underdogs in the battle against almost-insurmountable odds.
This is, without a doubt, a light read. Even when considering Drothe’s clashing professional and personal interests, the politics of a diverse city and an in-depth magical system being woven in, Hulick keeps all of the story’s threads under control and there is no real sense of the characters nor the plot even threatening to overwhelm the reader. With this level of control in place, it allows the story to proceed at a brisk pace, free of any obstacles that may trip the reader. Characters, places and items move in and out of the foreground, manipulated by Hulick with the same tricks his own characters use – subterfuge, sleight of hand, misdirection, etc. – and this adds an element of mystery to the story.
Drothe himself is a natural narrator. He’s unafraid to pepper the text with humorous comments even in its darker moments. His dry outlook on life leads to some very natural-feeling conversations, and as a vehicle for the plot he works very well. Of course, as with authors like Stephen King, there’s often a tendancy to push some sort of sexual gaze into the character’s narration, and Hulick doesn’t refrain from this, but the most incongrous moment of this is easily explained and actually feeds into the more light-hearted nature of what is a somewhat dark book.
Praise must be given to Hulick for the characters he has created, in terms of the racial and gender diversity. The culture of Among Thieves‘ Djanese has clearly been inspired by that of the Turks, Arabs and other cultures of the western-most Islamic frontier of the Middle Ages. As well as this, gender roles are much less clearly defined, with women found frequently as thieves, leaders and even members of the White Sashes, the most elite and most feared forces of the Emperor. It’s implied that these gender roles are the norm since they are not mentioned by the characters, which makes the unremarkable quite remarkable.
There are a few things that are less good about this novel, however. For all of the strength in the telling of the plot, it’s not particularly strong itself. It hinges on a fairly unusual pivot (revealing it would be a spoiler), and there are a few little bits of information that are never found out by the most skilled intelligencers, which seems more like the author taking a bit of artistic license. It’s as if the reader is expected to take certain aspects of Drothe’s behaviour for granted, even though the potential for even a casual error is quite large.
In summary, Among Thieves is a fun, interesting novel with a believable world and a great range of characters, but almost everything about it is safe. There isn’t a lot here to challenge the reader. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – a fast-paced, exciting read doesn’t need to challenge – but this lack of interaction with the reader, combined with a well-handled plot that rests all too much on the narrator leads to a story that, whilst fun, is unlikely to leave a lasting impression on most readers. It is, however, still to be considered a recommended book.