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Among Thieves - Douglas Hulick

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Monday, December 5, 2011

Among Thieves - Douglas Hulick

Among Thieves is the fifth book I've read this year that I put in the, "This was published because of Scott Lynch" category.  I'm not going to make a big deal about it.  One has nothing to do with the other beyond the fact that editors know they sell because they've sold something like it before.  Ironically, had Douglas Hulick's debut been published in 2006 the category might be named after him.

Drothe - Hulick's protagonist, narrator, and golden boy - is a nose.  In thieves' cant, that means he's an information gatherer.  Working for one of the nastiest crime bosses in Ildrecca, Drothe also dabbles in his fair share of criminal racketeering.  When an Imperial relic he's trafficking goes missing, he'll do just about anything to get it back.  In this case, anything includes brutal torture and manipulating everyone around him.

All that sounds pretty straight forward which does Among Thieves a great disservice.  Not only is Hulick's novel densely plotted (the above 'summary' is the tip of the iceberg), it contains one of the better first person voices in recent memory.  Starting the novel with a brutal torture of one of Drothe's associates, Hulick leads the reader to believe that his main character is morally bankrupt.  Drothe supports the point, thinking it's all quite distasteful, but nothing to lose sleep over.  Afterward he continues to make cutthroat decisions... until they aren't.  And yet, his thoughts don't always recognize the shift, leading me to believe that Drothe is not necessarily as dog-eat-dog as he tries to make himself believe.

While much of the book is medieval spy fiction, there are moments of all out swashbuckling. Hulick, an 17th century Italian rapier combat enthusiast, brings incredible voracity to his fight scenes.  They always conjure a clear sense of energy, but also a technical precision that screams close familiarity.  Unfortunately, Drothe is a pretty average swordsman so most of the fight scenes are him struggling to keep up.  I can only imagine the level of detail Hulick could drill down to inside the head of an adept duelist (Degan, anyone?).

That's an appropriate segue into an area that Among Thieves shines - characters.  For a first person narrative Hulick does a bang up job drawing his cast of ne'er-do-wells.  Degan, a professional mercenary, gets the most screen time as Drothe's protector and best friend.  From the street contacts, to crime bosses, to Imperial guards, Among Thieves is populated with characters that bleed off the page.  It's all too easy for a first person novel to end up with cardboard cutouts for ancillary characters, but in the moment Hulick had me believing their lives continued whether Drothe was there to listen, or not.

As for problem areas, there aren't a lot.  In fact, my only major complaint is that Hulick occasionally ruins his narration with exposition. Most of it takes place in the early going, but in choosing a first person style any sort of exposition sticks out like a sore thumb.  It reminds the reader that he's reading a book written by someone who isn't the narrator.  A certain discipline is required when there's a large amount of information to convey and it's always easier in the third person.

For minor complaints, I found the pace almost too fast.  I never had a chance to take in the scenery leaving me somewhat lukewarm about Hulick's setting.  His city, Ildrecca, isn't clear in my mind, nor are the political workings of the larger empire.  I kept wondering if a few establishing scenes early on before Drothe got pulled into the main plot would have improved the novel's general ambiance.

In a year of strong debuts, Among Thieves is surprisingly one of the best.  If I'm being honest, and, as my readers know (I hope), I always am, the premise is not only familiar, but somewhat tired.  I've read dozens of novel with with a crafty thief and tough sidekick swordsman.  As in all things well worn though, there is a place for someone to do it well and Hulick did that and more.  Where many novels of this type lean heavily on the grittiness of the story to communicate some measure of gravitas, Hulick manages to leverage the relationship between Drothe and Degan into a frank discussion on the nature of commitment.  The ability to interweave some subtext behind what is cosmetically an adventure romp was a compelling and welcome addition.

That, combined with a dynamic voice, and well drawn characters make Among Thieves one of the better debuts of 2011.  Douglas Hulick has added a new chapter to the thief subgenre and it stands out as the best thing to happen to it since Lynch's masterpiece.  I can't wait for the sequel and anything else he churns out in the years to come.

You can follow Douglas Hulick on Twitter or on his website.

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At December 5, 2011 at 2:42 PM , Blogger Jared said...

"Hulick manages to leverage the relationship between Drothe and Degan into a frank discussion on the nature of commitment. The ability to interweave some subtext behind what is cosmetically an adventure romp was a compelling and welcome addition."

Amen. A brilliant book, made even more exciting because it was a debut - can't wait to see where it leads.

At December 5, 2011 at 6:22 PM , Blogger Elfy said...

I agree solidly with nearly everything in the review I said a lot of the same things in mine. It's my debut of the year.

At December 6, 2011 at 6:55 AM , Anonymous redhead said...

you had me at "This was published because of Scott Lynch". . . and then I got distracted by the thieves's cant page.

I've been meaning to read some Hulick, and your review cemented it for me!

At December 6, 2011 at 11:23 AM , Blogger Cursed Armada said...

I also enjoyed this one, but the comparison to Lynch was really had to ignore...

At December 6, 2011 at 11:34 AM , Blogger Justin said...

It's tricky, right? I mean I'm sure Hulick wrote his book or at least was writing it before Lynch was published. It's not his fault they're similar... editors/presses have created the glut of this time of novel through what they purchase.

In other news, I'm in 29 Palms all the time ;)

At December 7, 2011 at 9:49 AM , Blogger Bastard said...

Finished reading this last week and loved it. About Lynch, well other than having thieves in them, there's really not much to compare I think other than the structure of the underworld in some aspects.

But while Gentlemen Bastards is a book/series about cons, Among Thieves has more in common with a detective story.

I think them vastly different, just sharing a few elements.

At December 7, 2011 at 11:08 PM , Blogger Cursed Armada said...

HA, what are you doing in that shithole?! I'm sorry I don't mean to be vulgar, I just really despise that place... I'm active duty Navy... and somehow I'm in the middle of the desert, with not a ship in sight stationed with marines... How did that happen??? lol

At December 8, 2011 at 6:41 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Pass through for work. I live in DC, but travel to the desert frequently. I grew up in Barstow and Apple Valley.

Feel bad for a Navy guy out there. Worst. Posting. Ever.

At December 8, 2011 at 10:57 AM , Blogger Cursed Armada said...

You. Are. So. when i picked the orders I thought, "29 palms California? that must mean there is a beach right by there? And it's in California!" Oh well only a few more months left after I get back from deployment :)


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