I’d heard a great deal about the book I’m reviewing today—I’d heard people say great things; interesting things; and even a few things I was unsure of, especially regarding a certain Amazon.co.uk blurb. However, I’m a sucker for books that everyone’s talking about—especially if it’s fantasy.
The first thing that strikes about Among Thieves: A tale of the Kin, is that Drothe is the bad guy—at least in part—and that whilst the reader should already be flagging him as a ruffian and a lowlife, already the intrigued reader is merely altering the bearings of their moral compass to fit.
Drothe is a Nose (those unfamiliar with this sort of street-talk can probably discern the nature of his work, but for those who’re purer in the fantasy they read, told in the first person, by Drothe himself, explanations of the more important aspects are helpfully included); a damn good nose, at that. From the get-go there are no illusions as to his nature, but despite his grey areas, Drothe instantly presents as a likeable, fun and downright awesome character.
Among Thieves is atmospheric above all else: the setting is artfully vague, but presents enough stock fantasy architecture to allow the reader to assimilate a view of the city. For me, Ildrecca (my own jury is still out on the pronunciation, as I’m seeing Italian double-c sounds here, assisted by the knowledge that Douglas Hulick totes a degree in Medieval History, and fences in the Italian style) is a warm, sandy—or muddy, or cobbled, it depends!—city with old air and older stone. A city constantly built, torn down, and rebuilt again, Ildrecca captures a warm, Southern European medieval vibe, whilst sprinkling in its own fantasy imaginings.
City-set fantasies draw me in far quicker than vast plains and valleys traversed on horseback, and I’d rather streets, than tracts: Ildrecca delivers here, and Hulick’s obvious talent brings the city to life within mere pages. Ildrecca is his city. Moreover, it isDrothe’s city, and as he guides us around, going about his life, we see, hear, smell and taste it firsthand.
The basic premise is that Drothe is Kin: a member of the criminal underworld, essentially preying on other Kin, occasionally the Rags, and finally, the Lighters (‘normal’ people who live in the ‘light’, instead of the ‘dark’ the Kin permeate). In addition, Drothe is looking for a relic—a pen, we find out in due course—and its acquisition is proving not only difficult, but appears to be involving him in something deeper and darker in nature. Relics are tricky things as it is—trinkets touched by one of the incarnations of the eternal emperor, highly valued and even higher risk—let alone a trinket that happens to contain blasphemous musings of a woman once close to the emperor, before he became eternal, before the practice of his endless reincarnation.
Drothe wouldn’t usually get involved—too high risk, too messy, and definitely out of a Nose’s league when there’re Degans, White Sashes and (worst of all) the Grey Princes of the Kin after the book—but choice isn’t always easily come by, and the Nose winds up finding himself light a few pounds of the luxury.
Before long, the Nose realises that to stay alive in this game—let alone stay ahead—he’s going to have to insert himself right where he doesn’t want to be: in the thick of it. With an organisation, a secret family relation, and, whilst he’s at it, the entire Kin to protect, Drothe’s decision to play this dangerous game is not as much his own as his bravado will have you think.
With excellent pacing, mysterious relics and a handful of secret players who’ve not yet taken to the stage, let alone placed their markers, Drothe soon realises that he’ll not only be playing one side against the other, but might have to factor a few things he’s not so willing to gamble on in the stakes—friendship, loyalty, and despite himself, honour.
There may be no honour amongst thieves, but when it comes to Drothe, he clearly missed the memo.
Hulick’s debut is literally stunning: there’s nothing to fault. Friendships are handled superbly, and contrasted perfectly against his relationships with the fellow Kin he must use and abuse along the way. Drothe’s desperation, panic and sheer terror drive the plot onwards, and each chapter adds to the breathtakingly wide-reaching plot. Twists are delivered skilfully, whilst the overall plot is seamlessly joined, with the links between events and characters hidden beneath layer upon layer of smooth storytelling.
There is nothing in this book that doesn’t surprise or delight. Absolutely nothing.
Among Thieves should appeal to fans outside the genre, too: the city setting is almost-historical, and although the story revolves around glimmer (magic), it’s not too far a stretch to liken it to the alchemical and historical occult ‘magic’ found in so many alternative-history settings—especially in Medieval Europe.
At the heart of Among Thieves lies a mystery: a great portion of the book is dedicated to unravelling it, before the various puzzles can be threaded and linked together. In part, it’s also a treasure hunt—the relic is treasure. It’s old, it’s valuable, and it’s been lost for centuries.
Everything in this book aims to please, and it delivers effortlessly.
Why should I read this book?
You should read this book, not because Brent Weeks called it an ‘unalloyed pleasure’, and not because praise for this book has been splashed all over the internet. Not even because Hulick’s fresh and exciting new talent has been likened to the debuts of both Rothfuss and Abercrombie—but rather, because Among Thieves might possibly be the best book you’ll read for some time.
Unique, excellent and delivering far more than promised by the blurb, Among Thieves is an absolute pleasure and adventure to read. Fans will relish the fantasy-mystery, whilst newcomers will drink up the atmosphere of a city that appears so familiar, so real, that they’ll see the genre with fresh eyes, and understand that where there’s magic, there doesn’t have to be dragon eggs, or monsters.
All in all, an absolutely wonderful book.