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.