Drothe is a Nose. In a city of thieves, his role is as an information gatherer and curator for his employer, a roughhewn boxer of an Upright Man (think mob boss) called Nicco. It’s a decent life, one that Drothe has developed over years as one of the Kin. On the side, Drothe likes to track down Imperial artifacts as a hobby. When the search for an artifact he is itching after dovetails into doings in a key section of the city where Nicco’s men are being harassed, Drothe finds himself quickly in over his head. And being an information gatherer, and not the best blade, might not be enough to keep him from being perforated, as the stakes of what really is going on in Ildrecca slowly become clear. A book falls into his hands, a book that a fair number of powerful people want, at any cost.
Among Thieves is the debut sword and sorcery novel from Douglas Hulick.
There is a lot to like in Among Thieves, things that would commend it to you out of the growing subgenre of books with roguish characters and pointed swordplay that Mr. Scott Lynch helped reboot a few years ago.
The worldbuilding gets first pride of place. Even in a city of thieves, the idea of so many kinds of thieves, with adivision of labor of skills androles, and a hierarchy and web of relationships is amazingly done. We get to see all sorts of kinds of thieves, and more are casually mentioned. Information brokers. Pickpockets. Burglars. Beggars.Torturers. Muscle. And many more. It feels like House Jhereg in Steven Brust’s novels, but with even more fractal complexity and detail.
Beyond the types of thieves, in sword and sorcery fashion, we get a view of the city, a hazier viewer of the dangerous role of magic, the nature of the Empire, an invented Thieves’s Cant for the Kin and a lot more. I would like liked a map of the city, and I suspect given a couple more novels, Ildrecca and its inhabitants will feel as real and fully formed as Sanctuary, Lankhmar or Adrilankha.
Hulick is a fencing enthusiast, and it shows in the writing. While the main character Drothe himself is at best an average combatant, he does have a best friend, Bronze Degan, who is one of the best fighters in the city. It is with Degan that Hulick’s enthusiasm, interest and knowledge of Renaissance era swordplay finds full flower and expression. Maybe there is a bit too much love of the clash of steel, but the knowledge that the author brings to the combatants and combats is palpable and obvious. There is no “flynning” here, the combats are much more reminiscent of the Michael York era Musketeers rather than the Chris O’Donnell Disney Musketeers.
There is a interesting set of characters here in Ildrecca, too. I liked many of the supporting characters more than Drothe himself, as we meet a stratum of Kin from the low, to those in Drothe’s employ, to the real movers and shakers of the criminal underworld. And Drothe’s sister, married into the aristocracy but no less dangerous for it. Drothe himself is not a wunderkind, and sometimes the supporting characters (especially Degan) threaten to overshadow our protagonist whenever we meet them.
I’m not sure if this is because of character itself (being an information broker and drawing out information on people), or just the fact that the characters that Drothe meet are more interesting intrinsically. It’s not the usual problem one gets with a first person narrative, but I suspect that if Drothe was more intelligent and a better swordsman than his cheerful ordinariness in both, this problem would be less apparent.
So what didn’t I like so much about an otherwise very entertaining read? A few debut novel mistakes. A bit too much on the exposition, especially given the point of view. Certainly, its a way to deliver information the reader really needs to get her feet wet, but it does feel tonally wrong. I’m also still not quite convinced on his relationship with his sister, either, why she does try to kill him so often. Also, while he is often very prepared, Drothe does survive some of his situations a little too much on luck and fortune. I do think that at a gaming table, Drothe would have serious problems in the combats and problems he runs up against, if the dice were honest.
Still, the inventive worldbuilding and supporting characters make this more than just another Scott Lynch clone. The ending promises a change of status for Drothe, and it will be very interesting to see how Hulick has his protagonist handle that change. I definitely am up for reading much more about the world of the Kin.