I first came across Among Thieves when talking to my editor about the cover design for The Alchemist of Souls. Marc was thinking of commissioning Larry Rostant, who does a nice line in brooding historical dudes, and used the UK cover of Among Thieves (below) as an example of the look he was going for. Then I met Doug himself on Fantasy Faction, and he was such a nice guy that I couldn’t not read his book. I’m very glad I did, as it turned out to be right up my (dark, rat-infested) alley!
Among Thieves is the story of Drothe (no surname – he’s too cool for that!), a “Nose” or informant in the pay of one of the crimelords of Ildrecca, the capital of a Renaissance-like empire. There are hints of a wider world outside, but the action of the book is confined to the city itself, particularly the seedier quarters where a “shadow empire” of organised crime holds sway. Drothe works for an Upright Man, one of the lower-level bosses who have carved up the city between them but who are themselves pawns in a larger game played by the Gray Princes, near-legendary figures known only by epithets such as “Longreach” or “The Piper’s Son”. Hulick’s use of historical thieves’ cant, supplemented by invented slang, gives shape to what could otherwise be a bewildering array of forgers, fences and hired muscle, as Drothe investigates what seems to be a minor mystery (an undecipherable code found on a smuggler) and finds himself way in over his head.
This is certainly the most action-packed book I’ve read since The Swords of Albion – poor Drothe rarely escapes a chapter without another chase or fight (and a good deal of resultant pain and injury). The pace develops gently at first, allowing the reader time to get to know the world, but by the halfway mark the plot revelations and action set-pieces are coming thick and fast. The fight scenes in particular are very detailed – Hulick is an aficionado of renaissance swordsmanship – indeed almost a little too detailed and blow-by-blow, but this is first-person narrative so I’m willing to cut Drothe a little slack for being hyperaware in combat. I know from firsthand experience (not fighting, I must add) how time really does seem to slow down when your adrenaline spikes!
It’s not all swordplay, however; this is a world of magic too, from minor charms used by the criminal fraternity to spells of earth-shattering power forbidden to all but the emperor. Mostly, though, magic seems to cause more problems than it solves – an approach I heartily endorse. (On a purely personal level, I was interested to note the parallels between this book and my own, though I won’t go into detail here for fear of spoilers – you’ll just have to read them both )
Overall, a cracking debut, and I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel, Sworn in Steel, which is due out later this year.