BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Drothe, now a Gray Prince, journeys to a foreign land to track down his best friend, only to find himself trapped in a hostile city with dangerous people and factions calling for his blood.
PROS: A more complex plot; intriguing and likeable new characters; greater exploration of the world and its lore.
CONS: Still continues with a too-short time frame; twists and turns are frequent and over-dramatic.
BOTTOM LINE: An improvement on Among Thieves that continues to be enjoyable and compelling.
With Sworn in Steel, Hulick picks up the story of Drothe three months after the events of Among Thieves. As Drothe comes to terms with his new position as a Gray Prince in the city of Ildrecca, he is framed for a murder he didn’t commit. With the Order of the Degans and members of his fellow kin breathing down his neck, Drothe is forced to leave the city and venture to the Djanese city of el-Qaddice. There he tries to track down Bronze Degan, only to find himself a target based on his being an Imperial alone. Caught up in local politics, he has only a few weeks to find Degan before being thrown out of the city.
Among Thieves was a fun read, and there wasn’t much Hulick could have done to improve it, yet with Sworn in Steel he has managed to find hidden depths in the world he created. The switch to the city of the sworn enemies of the Empire adds an ever-persistant sense of peril to the story, and this also allowed for comparison between the Kin and their Djanese equivalent, the Zakur. This contrast between the Grecian-style Dorminikan Empire and the Arabic-influenced Despotate of Djan is compelling in its own right, especially as the text becomes flavoured with references to the culture and the lifestyles of the Djanese people, giving the story echoes of other fantasy titles such as Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon.
Drothe and his companions are as enjoyable as they were in the first novel, and while Drothe once again seems capable of superhuman endurance and perception, he remains just as natural a narrator. The wit and the outlook present in Among Thieves continues just as strongly here, and through Drothe’s eyes Hulick paints a vivid picture of a beautiful yet deadly city — its criminal elements both familiar and yet alien at the same time. The Zakur pose a formidable challenge to Drothe, able to track him with ease as he stumbles through unfamiliar territory, keeping Drothe and the reader on their toes as danger is always lurking in the shadows and on the rooftops, just out of sight while still making its presence known.
There aren’t many glaring flaws with this novel, but there continues to be a lot of action occurring in a very short space of time making Drothe’s endurance seem almost superhuman. He can find himself in a number of fights and take a few beatings within the space of a night with no rest between, yet still function reasonably normally (albeit with the help of seeds he chews). Although this does keep the book going at a fair pace without needing to break up the action, it can lead to disbelief that so many plot points could happen so close together with that much direct involvement from Drothe. Hulick also occasionally strings together a long set of plot reveals, leading to an ever-increasing level of drama that can get a little tiresome. It is as if he has to best the previous revelation with another one, with some chapters ending after a page or two of near-constant reveals.
Sworn in Steel is ultimately an engaging and interesting read, and while it may lack some of the more thought-provoking moments of Among Thieves, it ends on a much stronger note with clear questions and goals to be addressed in the third title of the series.