AMONG THIEVES by Douglas Hulick
Roc, 2011, 417 pages, 978-0-451-46390-6, Mass Market Paperback, $7.99
Over the years, I’ve picked up a lot of books simply because I had nowhere to go but the bookstore when waiting to meet my friends for dinner. After browsing for two hours, I feel like I have to buy at least one thing in order to make my aimless wandering mean something. Of course, by the time I get to the restaurant (early) and start to read, the person I’m meeting usually walks through the door (also early). But in the end, I’ve still got a new book, so I can’t complain very much.
Among Thieves caught my eye as I browsed the aisles last week, and since I tend to like a good story about the criminal underworld, I thought it sounded pretty interesting. I was surprised later to find out that this is a fairly new release–out this past April–and a debut novel with more likely to come.
The story is told by Drothe, a Nose, or information gatherer, for one of the Upright Men of Ildrecca. While chasing down a relic that has been diverted from his possession, Drothe becomes involved in a series of incidents that point toward something big happening in the Ten Ways cordon. The next thing he knows, people are trying to kill him, and if he hopes to outlast players far more powerful than he is, Drothe must get a hold of the one thing they’re all looking for.
That’s the basic idea, at least. There’s actually a lot that happens in this novel, and the plot is pretty twisty-turny. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on what comes next, the story ducks under your arm and runs in the opposite direction. It makes for some pretty exciting reading as long as you can keep up. My opinion? It’s one of the things I liked most about this book. Other reviews have implied (or outright stated) that they thought the plot suffered for being too complicated. I couldn’t disagree more. There’s nothing more dull to me than a plot I can predict from page one. The more complex the better, I say, provided the author is able to deliver an adequate wrap up for all of the flailing story threads.
So, I like twisty-turny, and I don’t think Hulick left anything unresolved. In fact, for the first of a series, this book comes together pretty tidily while still leaving plenty of room for any books that may follow.
The characters in this novel are varied in terms of personality. Drothe is down to earth and well aware of the dangers that lurk around him. His friend Degan is also pretty grounded, but in that constantly amused and confident-because-he-should-be kind of way. The Upright Men, or crime lords, that we get to see in this novel are two sides of a coin: one is rash with a violent temper, and the other is level-headed but also resigned to fight when the conflict breaks out. Sprinkled among these are the loyal and the conniving, but guessing which is which can sometimes be a challenge.
I liked Drothe as a main character because he’s obviously not perfect–he’s not even exceptional, really, compared to those around him–yet, despite living in a world of the morally gray, he has his own sense of what is right and wrong. It’s one thing (and not a particularly bothersome thing) for him to kill someone or have them tortured–that’s simply how life is for people like him–but when it comes to the well-being of the Kin as a whole, he’s able to see the bigger picture and, dare I say it, act for the greater good.
Of course, acting for the greater good manages to get him in all kinds of near-lethal trouble, and when it starts to involve the people he’s promised to protect, Drothe is more than a little put out. His sense of commitment to others is pretty strong, even when he finds himself failing them completely, and that makes him likeable to me.
The world of Among Thieves isn’t very heavily detailed outside of Ildrecca itself, and even then we’re given only the basics in terms of description. This didn’t particularly bother me, since I was more focused on the events than I was on the world, but it did sometimes result in only a vague idea of where people were going and how large the territories were. If there could have been any improvement in the novel, it would have been in this area. I don’t need the story bogged down with heavy descriptions, but a little more solidity and spice to the setting would have been a lovely addition. And while the lack of greater detail didn’t hurt my experience of the story, I suspect there are those readers who will have an issue with it.
There’s magic in this world, usually referred to as “glimmer,” and though it’s a pretty big part of the plot, there aren’t any wild magicians running around. This was something I rather enjoyed–most of the magic in Among Thieves is cast on objects that then perform a particular function, whether as weapons or as something else. These items are called “portable glimmer,” and are distinctly different from the other two forms of magic: the illegal kind and imperial magic, both of which are forbidden for use on the street. There’s some explanation of these last two types of magic in the story, but I suspect (or hope) that there will be more about them at some point in future novels.
Among Thieves is really about Drothe, the decisions he makes, and how the events of the novel affect him personally. There are big things happening in the world, but Drothe only cares about that so far as it affects him and the Kin. Much of what he does during the story he does by accident or by stumbling upon what he needs. Given the ending, however, I suspect he’ll need to learn how to be more proactive.
On the whole, I’m happy with my impromptu purchase. It was a fun read that moved quickly and kept me interested. I’ll definitely pick up the next book in the series to see how Drothe manages to make a comeback.