Friday, March 18, 2011

Review: Among Thieves, A Tale of Kin

Author: Douglas Hulick
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 414
Warnings: References to death, descriptions of fighting.
Rating: 2.5/5

"Among Thieves" is the story of Drothe, an information gatherer who works for a gang boss called Nicco. However Drothe is much more than his ties to Nicco, and this story follows him through the usual treacharous underworld hijinks as he gets beaten up, crosses swords with some pretty crazy villains, breaks (and makes) promises and eventually rises to fame and power in the sprawling city of Ildrecca.

There was one aspect of this book that struck me early on, and really brought down my interest. Initially the "sleazy underworld where the main character has a heart 'o gold" scenario irritated me because it's cliched, but in addition to that Hulick would stop the action and Drothe would to give a brief explanation from his first person perspective every time a new word was mentioned. This takes the reader out of the action, it's heavy-handed and it's not necessary! If Hulick couldn't express the meaning of underworld jargon with context, he shouldn't have used it. This drove me up a wall, and I couldn't get interested in the book until it stopped.

Once we moved out of the introductory phase of the story, I was able to appreciate some of the well-written parts. Hulick creates a multi-facated world, with political, religious and magical systems that I'm dying to hear more about. He also wrote some of the most convincing sword-fighting I've ever read.

This was primarily a story about Drothe, a completely un-collected, stressed-out Nose who survives a unhealthy amount of close calls. His best friend and sidekick Bronze Degean was a good counter-balance (and probably the reason so much of Drothe's schemes worked).  I liked Deagan's solid competence more than Drothe's suaveness, but both were fun characters.

The overarching plot was pretty good too. I think some of the page-to-page details could have been better staged, but once I figured out the big picture, I was pretty interested. It's a good big picture, with all the right plot twists (some obvious and some not) and a great deal of information about Drothe's potential left unanswered. There are also a huge amount of double-crossing and Hulick handled this well.

I am naturally suspicious of books that center around a "criminal underworld" element. It's probably unfair to some really good writers out there who love writing about thieves (or assassins), but I've found it's an excellent tool for cutting down on the number of bad books I read. In general I avoid fantasy books that borrow a big part of their setting from something that's overdone, because it's usually a sign the book is written by a bad author trying to hide their lousy writing with a bunch of flash, or a new author who isn't secure in their own narrative voice.

Thus I started reading this book with tensed shoulders, waiting for the author to trip up and write something insanely stupid. That didn't happen. Sure, there are a few things that I think Hulick could polish, but there was nothing in this book that made me just want to set it down and walk away (which has happened before). What actually happened was the inverse. It took me about 150 pages, but I this book eventually drew me in, despite my resistance. The book improved in quality towards the end. The author's note indicated that Hulick wrote this book over several years (and in between much of his life) and I noticed the improvement in his writing. I look forward to Douglas Hulick's next book.

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