Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick
Among Thieves: A Tale of the Kin
Thieves’ exploits have become more popular in recent years. From Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora to Rachel Aaron’s Eli Monpress, some pretty memorable characters hearken to that most sneaky of professions. And while most draw on some kind of knowledge of cons or break-ins, not many tackle the culture of thieves (outside of The Godfather, at any rate). Newcomer Douglas Hulick does just that in Among Thieves, a novel rife with double-dealing and glimpses into a city’s sordid underbelly.
Drothe is known as a Nose, a thief who passes and gathers information. He also occasionally deals in acquiring and selling antiquities and relics. When one of his men apparently absconds with a rare relic, Drothe takes it personally and has the man tortured for information. But something has scared this criminal worse than the possibility of death.
With this one betrayal begins a series of events that could rock the local Underworld to its core. There is a book, a rare and dangerous book, which has surfaced after centuries buried in obscurity. It contains forbidden magic, and he who claims it can rule the criminal world with an iron fist… or possibly form ambitions of more than just being a mob boss. With the Emperor’s soldiers breathing down their necks, Drothe and his friends desperately hunt for the book, in the hopes of preventing a war that will shake the city to its core.
This novel has an interesting genesis: the author found a used dictionary of thieves’ cant and began dreaming up a story based on what he read about not only the language, but the culture that produced it. From there, the beginnings of the story of Drothe and his friends, allies and enemies took shape over the course of around ten years.
However, I do find it a bit puzzling that a book based on a cryptic slang doesn’t have a glossary anywhere within it. I poked around the author’s website, and he states there that not including a glossary was a conscious decision on his part. He says “I wanted to challenge myself to define as much of the cant as possible through context; to have the reader figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar term based on how it’s used and the actions or events surrounding it.” And for the most part, he does the job. However, there are some terms that only become clear through repeated usage, which leaves the reader a bit in the dark until a few repetitions help clarity along. I’d rather have had the glossary. But as the author further states that he hates glossaries, I wouldn’t hold out hope for one in a future novel. Perhaps something of that sort will pop up on his website.
Basically, I think that not giving readers that “out” is a mistake for a first time author, especially one who’s creating an entire world and culture from scratch and readers have no previous experience with the author’s writing style. So many first novels get lost in the crowd, and while that may not happen with this one, I do think that any new author should take every advantage they can get.
And I’m one of those people who love glossaries, so I freely admit to being biased.
As for the story, there are a satisfying number of twists and turns before the final curtain falls, and many of them are unexpected. That said, I would have liked to see the novel clock in at a lower page count. At 414 pages, the story felt a bit chunky. I realize that many of the relationships, personal and professional, among the thieves need to be fleshed out, but with so much happening, the amount of information is a bit overmuch to take in. I don’t know how much lighter the novel could be, but I think a smidgen more tightness of prose would have made this novel even better.
My favorite aspect of the novel was the friendship between Drothe and his friend and bodyguard Degan. I do hope that we see more of Degan in future novels, because his character is an impressively complex one. And in a way, his character helps to define Drothe’s character. The two play off of each other in a way that enhances them both.
Just behind this, the next thing that impressed me was the history of the ruler. Magic was used to split a former emperor into three separate souls who are constantly reborn and succeed each other on the throne. The three have been at war among themselves for a couple of centuries, and such events would likely make the basis for an even more entertaining tale. Drothe’s story does play out against that backdrop to a certain extent, but it’s an element of past history that I’d love to see explored in more detail.
The culture of the Underworld itself is shown fairly well. Readers get a sense of the various types of “jobs” that thieves might do, the complex nature of loyalty to different bosses or territories, and the chain of command that governs everybody’s actions. I don’t think the author has left much to build on here—he’s done a thorough job with this first novel, and future stories will hopefully use this framework to expand into new areas.
Although prone to a few of the hiccups to which any first time author can fall prey, Among Thieves is a complex and entertaining novel. Delve into this one and be prepared to get drawn into the shadowy world of criminals and unlikely heroes. You may even be moved to look a bit more closely at the deep history, from Elizabethan England to the present day, which underlies this book.
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on May 26, 2011.