Category Archives: Douglas Hulick

In the Merry Month of May

Actually, I’m not sure what’s so merry about it, but that’s the saying, so there you go.

Finals finished up this week.  I got my grades in yesterday, and spent today dealing with all the emails from the students who weren’t happy about their lab grades.  I did have one student who sent me an email telling me I had done more than teach her physics this semester, I had taught her to believe in herself.  That’s the sort of thing you frame.  I guess some days it really is worth chewing through the straps.

Sworn-in-Steel-US-appvdI’ve been getting a little reading done, which I’ll blog about over the next few days.  I’m hoping to finish Sworn in Steel by Douglas Hulick tonight, but I may not be able to stay awake that long.  This is the sequel to Among Thieves, which was one of my favorite books the year it came out.  One of the next things up is The Silver Stallion, the next volume in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.  Other than that, I’ll be trying to get as many things read as possible.  I’m a bit behind on what folks have been sending me, so I’m going to read amongst those titles as the fancy hits me, whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, or crime.

There are some other things, but I’ll save mentioning them for another post.

Worldcon Report, Part 1

This is going to be the written report, mostly without pictures because I haven’t had time to sort through the ones I took and see what I want to post.  It’s been one of those weeks at work and it started on the way down to San Antonio.  I spent more time than I would have liked dealing with a couple of problems that waited until I was on the road to arise.  I post some pictures in the next few days.


James Gunn at his reception.

I had to teach class Thursday morning, so by the time I got to San Antonio, checked into the hotel and hoofed it over to the convention center to register, I just made it before registration closed.  I wandered the dealer’s room and familiarized myself with the layout before grabbing a bite.  At least I intended to.  I ran into Adrian Simmons, editor of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and ended up accompanying him to a private, invitation-only reception for James Gunn.  Adrian had been invited, and I went along as his guest.  It was a great event, and I took advantage of the opportunity to speak with him.  He’s 90, and critics are calling his new novel his best.  I picked up a signed copy before the weekend was over.  There’ll be a review going up at Futures Past and Present sometime in the next few months.  Learning of Fred Poh’s death made me extra glad I grabbed a signed copy, in spite of being a little overbudget.


What would you eat for a book?

Later I attended the Bookswarm party, which was packed.  I got a chance to talk to Martha Wells for a few minutes, and I walked away with two free books.  The theme of the party was Eat a Bug, Get a Book.  The bugs were sanitized and freeze dried.  (I ate a mole circket and a dung beetle and got The Other Half of the Sky edited by Athena Andreadis and Exile by Betsy Dornbush.)  The highlight of the party was getting to meet Brad Beaulieu, Douglas Hulett, Courtney Schafer, and Zachary Jernigan.  If you haven’t read them, you should.  Other than a glimpse of Jernigan from across the street, the only one of that group that I saw after that night was Courtney Schafer.

The next day was one of those where there was about twelve hours of programming I wanted to attend, all of it in a three hour block.  I went to most of the Robert E. Howard panels, of which there were many.  Most of the hanging out I did with friends was with members of the Robert E. Howard Foundation or chatting with folks at parties.  Saturday was much the same, but Sunday was a little more relaxed.  Among the non-Howard panels I attended were a discussion of C. L. Moore’s “Vintage Season”, the history of firearms in the 1800s, a discussion on writing that included Michael Swanwick and James Patrick Kelly, a panel of Texas writers who have passed on, and readings by Jack McDevitt and Howard Waldrop.  I only caught part of the panel on sword and sorcery since it was up against one of the more interesting Robert E. Howard panels.  The autographing lines were either nonexistent or ridiculously long, so I only got a few signatures.


Sword and Sorcery Panel: (l. to r.) Stina Leitch, Lou Anders, Sam Sykes, Saladin Ahmed, Chris Willrich

I went to the Alamo Saturday morning with Bill Cavalier, editor of REHupa.  He hadn’t seen it, and it had been a while since I had paid my respects.  Next to the Alamo is the Menger Hotel.  Teddy Roosevelt recruited the Rough Riders in the bar, and it’s something of a mini-museum.  I’ll do a write-up of it on Dispatches From the Lone Star Front over the weekend.

I didn’t try to attend the Hugos.  I wasn’t impressed with the slate of nominees for the most part.  But it’s a popularity contest, and currently my tastes and those of the field are in a state of moderate divergence.  The Legacy Circle of the REH Foundation went to dinner Saturday night.

There were some free books, including NESFA’s three volume Chad Oliver set.  I found the first two of the Heinlein juveniles I was missing, and picked up an extra copy of Glory Road.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of that novel.  I read it when I was about 14, and it’s about time for a reread.


It’s good to be the king.

Some overall thoughts.  First, this was the first time I’ve been able to attend a Worldcon.  It wasn’t quite what I expected.  I’ve attended World Fantasy twice, and the density of pros in that venue is high, but then that’s a convention that’s aimed at pros.  Worldcon is more geared for fans.  I never saw some of the bigger names, although I know they were there.  Most of the ones I did see, I only saw once or twice.  The convention center is a bit too spread out for this sort of event.

I was surprised at crowded it wasn’t.  I was also a little surprised with how old the average attendee seemed to be.  While people seemed to be having a good time, I didn’t detect a great deal of excitement.  Maybe that’s because I’m getting older, but everything seemed more laid back than I was expecting.

I’d certainly attend another Worldcon, but only if it wasn’t at the same time classes started.  And only if it wasn’t too far away.  While I enjoyed it and am glad I went, I wouldn’t travel halfway around the world, or even the country, to repeat the experience.

I’ll post some more photos later in the week.

Anne Lyle’s The Alchemist of Souls

The Alchemist of Souls
Anne Lyle
Angry Robot Books
432pp B-format paperback, £8.99
448pp mass-market paperback
$7.99 US $8.99 CAN

I had intended to have this book read and reviewed two or three weeks ago, on or about the release date, but life has been happening at my house, and I’m a little behind.  My apologies to Ms. Lyle and Angry Robot for the delay.  I know Angry Robot likes to have reviews for review copies posted within two weeks of the book’s release, and I’m a little beyond that.

Anyway, I was eagerly awaiting this one, and my expectations were higher than usual due to all the positive advance buzz surrounding it.  And while I enjoyed the book, as is often the case in these types of situations, I was somewhat disappointed.

Only somewhat, mind you.  I’ll get to that in a bit.

First, a brief overview of what the book is about.  A number of years ago, we’re not told exactly when that I noticed, explorers to the New World discovered a race of beings called Skraylings.  They look something like elves, and they’ve just sent their first ambassador to England, where Elizabeth I sits on the throne.  None of the other countries such as France and Spain have Skraying ambassadors.  This being historical fantasy of the alternate history sort, Elizabeth has a husband and two sons who don’t exist in our history.  In honor of the ambassador’s arrival, a competition between three rival theater groups has been decreed, with the ambassador serving as the judge. 

Malverny Catlyn is a down on his luck swordsman who is about 26, has no means of support, and a twin brother locked up in Bedlam. That last bit turns out to be important.  Out of nowhere, he gets the job as the ambassador’s personal bodyguard.  By specific request of the ambassador.  Whom Mal has never met.  Clearly something is going on.

Coby is a Dutch refugee who is working for one of the theater companies, disguised as a boy.  She’s about seventeen.  Her path crosses with Mal’s when she’s recruited to spy on Mal.  Mal, meanwhile, has been recruited by the Queen’s own spymaster to spy on the Skraylings.

There’s quite a bit of intrigue as well as a conspiracy.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t hard to figure out who was behind the conspiracy.  To me it seemed obvious.

I’ve never been fond of the trope wherein people, usually women, disguise themselves as someone of the opposite gender, usually men.  I find the comic relief aspects of such a situation to wear thin pretty quickly, even when Shakespeare himself is the one writing the story.  Your mileage may vary.  (In the interest of fairness, I do acknowledge that men dressing as women was common in the theater in those days, and so some of that sort of thing is to be expected in novel where theaters are a central part of the plot.)  And if not played for laughs, it’s been my observation that too often the author uses the situation to lecture the reader on women’s rights.  One way to throw me out of a story quickly is to have a character in a previous historical time period think, talk, and/or act with late twentieth/early twenty-first century sensibilities and standards.  Ms. Lyle, to her credit resists this temptation.  At least for the most part.  There were a couple of places where that wasn’t the case, the most grievous being when Coby was thinking about how women would never go back to wearing skirts if they were ever allowed to wear pants.  Again, this is one of those things where your mileage may vary.

The thing that most disappointed me, however, was what I considered the lack of swordplay for a book promoted as a swashbuckler.  There was some, don’t get me wrong, just not enough for my liking, and what there was was brief and over quickly.  Contrast that with Among Thieves, by Douglas Hulick, where the sword fights went on for pages and you never noticed because you were so engrossed in them.  Instead, the emphasis was on the romance, again not unexpected in a novel set in Elizabethan times.  It was just that I couldn’t buy into the romance, not the main one between Coby and Mal, or any of the others.  Maybe because in the back of my mind I was thinking How Would Shakespeare Have Written This?, a comparison that no author can win. 

On the positive side, though, Ms. Lyle has done her research and done it well.  Mal Catlyn was actually a historical figure, although nothing like the character here, as Ms. Lyle explains in an afterward.  What impressed me, and impressed me quite favorably, was how well the period came to life.  All the grit and oppression, the poverty and the class system, all were on display.  The world felt lived in, something that is very hard to pull off, even for writers with many more novels to their credit than Ms Lyle.  (This is her debut novel.)

The writing is also high quality.  There were several points in the story, primarily early in the story, where I might have put the book down and not returned to it had it not been for Ms. Lyle’s prose.  While it was obvious to me who was behind the conspiracy that targets Mal and the theater group Coby belongs to, the role Mal’s twin played in the story kept me guessing until the end.  In fact, it was the ending that sold the book for me.  All immediate plot threads were tied up, but some longer term ones have interesting implications.

The last few pages seemed to be setting up the next novel in the series, in which it appears Mal will go to France.  Of course, he’ll be a spy.  I’m interested in seeing what Ms. Lyle will do there, especially if she can bring France to life like she did England.

I realize my remarks have been more negative than positive, but this wasn’t a bad book.  It just wasn’t quite what I was expecting and not entirely to my taste.  There is very much an audience for it.  I’m just not quite it, although I won’t give up on the series yet.  If you think you might like it, check it out.  There’s an excerpt below.

The Best Six Novels I’ve Read in the First Six Months of 2011, Sort of

Well, 2011 is about half gone, and while I’m not going to look at the New Year’s Resolutions I posted (because I’ve exceeded some considerably and failed at other even more), I thought this would be a good time to look back over the novels I’ve read during the first half of the year that I’ve written about and see which ones were the best.

One thing quickly became clear:  I need to read more novels.  Not all the novels I’ve read have appeared here for the simple reason that some of them were not fantasy or historical adventure.  I’ve decided to keep the science fiction separate (which is why I started Futures Past and Present), and after one review, I’ve not blogged about any mysteries or detective stories.

So here’s my list of the top six (very loosely defined, as you’ll see) of the best novels I’ve read so far this year.

6.  The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi and The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell.  Okay, if you want to get picky, these are two books, not one, and they’re novellas rather than novels.  I”m going to stretch the definitions a little because they were written in a unique collaborative manner, take place in the same world, were marketed together, and were published at the same time.  They discuss a world filled with something called bramble, which I described in my review as kudzu on steroids.  Bramble is the side-effect of using magic and is slowly taking over the world.  And it’s a world I want to see more of.

5.  Hawkwood’s Voyage by Paul Kearney.  This one is the first of a series of five.  It’s in print in an omnibus volume entitled Hawkwood and the Kings along with the second installment, The Heretic Kings.  I’ve read both of them, although I haven’t gotten to the remaining three yet (I will).  I think I prefer Hawkwood’s Voyage to The Heretic Kings simply because of the way it’s structured.  There are several viewpoint characters, and in the first book, the viewpoint alternates between chapters.  In the second, the book is divided into sections with each section telling the story from a particular character’s viewpoint.  This is epic fantasy on a dark and bloody scale, with action, intrigue, heroism, villainy, and mystery.  They’re both much better than average, and if you haven’t read them, you should.  My reviews of both are here and here

4.  This book will be discussed later.  You’ll see why.  Trust me.

3.  The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells.  This is the first in a series of at least three.  Martha Wells has been posting snippets of the next volume on her blog, but I’ve not had a chance to read them yet. This series could turn out to be science fiction at some point, but for now I’m considering it fantasy for two reasons.  One, Martha has only written fantasy so far.  Two, it reads like a fantasy.  But it has that sense of wonder you get with the best science fiction that seems to be missing these days.  It’s the story of a young man (but not a human man) you discovers who his people are and what his purpose in life is.  It has some of the best aerial combat sequences I’ve read in a long time.  Here’s what I thought of it in detail.

2.  Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick.  This one is a great novel about an honorable thief who finds himself trying to save his kingdom.  The sword fights go on for pages, yet Hulick, an accomplished fencer, makes them seem like only a couple of paragraphs, they flow so naturally.  Beginning writers should study him to learn how to write a fight scene.  Loads of fun.  The complete review is here.

4.  Thirteen Years Later, 1. Twelve by Jasper Kent.  Vampire hunting during the Napoleonic Wars. Evil, repulsive vampires, not the sweet, sexy kind meant to appeal to the necrophilic fantasies of teenage girls.  The vampires in these books are pure evil and not to be trusted at all.  This is vampire hunting for the intelligent reader.  I’ve put these two books together because they are part of a greater story arc.  While you can read Twelve as a standalone, Thirteen Years Later is very much dependent on the previous book.  I put them together on the list because I think of them as part of the same work.  How to rank them, along with The Cloud Roads and Among Thieves was tough.  I loved each of these four books, but for different reasons.  In the end, I decided to use the vampire books to bookend (so to speak) the other two.  This pair of books is intelligent, fresh, and surprising.  A high water mark in vampire fiction.  Reviews are here and here.

And that’s it.  The best six novels I’ve read in the first six months of the year.  If you’re looking for a good read, you can’t go wrong with any of these.  I’ve put a widget up at the top of the page in case anyone decides to take a closer look at one of these books.  It will probably stay up for the next month or so.

I’m looking forward to what the next six months will hold.

When Honor is a Career Liability

Among Thieves
Douglas Hulick
Roc, 417 p., $7.99

This is a first novel, but it doesn’t read like a first novel.  It’s polished, complex, fast-moving, and keeps you off balance.  In other words, it’s a great deal of fun.  If you like Scott Lynch or Stephen Brust, this one is probably your cup of tea.

To briefly explain the setup.  Ildrecca is an ancient city, seat of an ancient empire.  An empire with a very old emperor.  A number of centuries ago, the Angels split the soul of the Emperor Dorminikos into three parts.  Each of the three parts was then reincarnated as the emperors Markino, Theodoi, and Lucien.  When one dies, the next in the cycle assumes the throne.  That way there is always one aspect of the original in power at any time.  Sort of a sovereignty-by-time-share.

This arrangement has worked for centuries and allowed for a (mostly) unbroken sequence of rule, with only a few interruptions when someone has attempted kill off the present incarnation and take over before the next incarnation can be identified.  There’s only one problem.  Each incarnation is starting to show signs of insanity, and each incarnation is showing those signs earlier in his life than his predecessors.

In this world there’s a very developed criminal society called the Kin.  Drothe is one of the Kin, and acts as a Nose for his boss Nicco.  A Nose is someone who is basically an information conduit both from the street to his boss and from his boss to the street.  Nicco is an Upright Man, which is sort of like a mafia don in this world.  There are also Dark Princes, who are like boss-of-bosses and can often do magic, which in this book is called glimmer.

In addition to working for Nicco, Drothe has a lucrative side business going as well, one in which he sells relics of the Emperor’s previous incarnations.  The book opens when someone has sold one of Drothe’s relics instead of delivering it to Drothe.  In attempting to recover it, Drothe finds himself drawn into a many-layered conspiracy involving an ancient journal from the early days of the Empire.  A journal any number of people seem to be willing to do any number of unpleasant things to get, including but not limited to:  torture, killings, arson, starting a war among the Kin, betrayal.  A journal that will allow the person who has it to defeat the Dark Princes and become the Dark King.

It doesn’t help that someone drags Drothe’s younger sister Christiana into the mess.  Drothe strives to keep their relationship a secret.  She married into the nobility, and is now widowed.  Having an older brother who’s of the Kin is something of a liability at Court.  Christiana has even gone so far as to attempt to assassinate Drothe to maintain her status.  But that’s all in the past…

The plot here is complex.  Very little is as it appears on the surface.  If you read this book, and you should, be prepared to have your perceptions yanked around a bit.  That was one of the enjoyable things about the stoory.  There were plenty of surprises.  They all made sense, and they were all logical.

Among Thieves has been compared to the work of Scott Lynch, and it’s easy to see why.  If you like Lynch, you will probably like this one as well.  But this is not a Lynch knockoff.  The setting is different, the characters are different, and the overall theme and tone of the book is different.  Whereas Scott Lynch weaves long plots that you savor even as the action explodes, with lots of flashbacks thrown in to allow you to catch your breath, Hulick moves the plot along at an even more breakneck pace.  There are some flashbacks, but not nearly as many as in Lynch’s work. They’re brief and serve primarily to give you background information you need to understand some of the significance of what’s happening.  Revelations come fast and furious, especially towards the end, when events barrel to a climax.

It’s been a while since I read Lynch, but I don’t recall him dealing with themes such as honor and betrayal and the costs inherent in each to the extent that Hulick does.  Yes, those themes do appear in Lynch, but everything in Among Thieves ultimately revolves around levels of loyalty and commitment and betrayal and what to do when obligations come into conflict with each other.  And the toll each of those things takes on a person.  Ultimately Drothe is an honorable man, something one of the Dark Princes comments on at a pivotal point in the novel. Being an honorable man among thieves means that no good deed goes unpunished.

Hulick is a fencer.  He writes from what he knows, and it’s evident to anyone who has ever spent much time with a blade in his/her hand.  His fight scenes, and there are a number of times when characters cross swords, ring with authenticity.  Most of the sword fights aren’t quick; instead, they can go on for pages and contain a level of detail that I haven’t seen much of in my reading in a while.  Whereas many authors would give a summary of the trusts, parries, and lunges in a fight, Hulick gives the reader a blow by blow description, including all the things that affect a fight such besides the swords.  And the fights certainly aren’t boring.  Hulick is an author who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to combat with a blade.  This allows him to pull the reader into the fight on a visceral level.

Drothe isn’t the best swordsman on the street; he gets his butt kicked plenty of times.  But he keeps on  fighting against his situation.  He’s a morally complex character, one who cares about the innocents around him, the rest of the Kin, what he can do to protect them.  Yet he’s also not without his flaws.  He’s not above killing solely for revenge or to torture in order to gain information.

Drothe isn’t the only three dimensional character.  Most of the others are as well.  Certainly the apothecary and his wife, who are Drothe’s tenants are well developed and interesting people, and I wish they had been given a greater role in the story, especially Cosima.  So are most of the major characters in the Kin and Drothe’s friends, such as Bronze Degan, a member of an elite fighting corps.  Like the plot, as the books goes on, the characters get deeper and more complex.  Probably the most complex is the friendship Drothe has with Degan, which becomes one of the pivotal relationships in the novel.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the plot or the interactions and relationships between all the characters.  To tell more would be to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering those depths for yourself.  Hulick leaves enough loose ends and enough questions unanswered, such as just who was Drothe’s stepfather, that there’s plenty of room for a sequel.  Don’t let that put you off from reading the book.  All of the major questions central to the conflict in the book are answered.

This is an impressive debut by a writer who, if he can maintain this level and continue to grow, and I hope and believe that he can, will be a major player in the fantasy field.  An Upright Man in the genre, if you will.

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