Saturday, 3 December 2011

Book Review | Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick


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Drothe is a Nose, an informant who finds and takes care of trouble inside the criminal organization he’s a part of. He also smuggles imperial relics on the side.

When his boss sends him to Ten Ways to track down who’s been leaning on his organization’s people, Drothe discovers hints of a much bigger mystery. Someone is trying to stir up trouble between lower-level criminal organizations, including the one Drothe belongs to. And there’s a book rumored to contain imperial glimmer (or magic) that a lot of very dangerous people seem to be looking for - including two crime bosses known as the Gray Princes.

When Drothe discovers the book, he finds himself holding a bit of swag that can bring down emperors, shatter the criminal underworld, and unlock forbidden magic... that's if he can survive long enough to use it.

***

I'm sorry, but I'm sick and tired of hearing how Douglas Hulick is essentially the second coming of Scott Lynch. I've had it up to here with all the talk about the former author's Among Thieves being the equal of The Lies of Locke Lamora by the latter. At this stage, truth be told, I'm not entirely convinced that even The Lies of Locke Lamora is the equal of The Lies of Locke Lamora, as some seem determined to remember it.

There are certain skin-deep similarities between the two books, sure, beginning with an interest in underbellies... in what lies beneath the great kingdoms of coin and spice we fantasy fans have become inured to; the backstabbing and betrayals of trust that come part and parcel with people, if you put enough of them together in a single space. In Among Thieves, the city is Ildrecca, where crimes both petty and perverse are the order of the day. And of course, all high and mighty, the empire turns a blind eye to this endless in-fighting, as if to say: ignore it long enough and it's bound to go away.

Not so much, as it happens.

The only other aspect of Hulick's debut which bears more than a passing resemblance to The Gentlemen Bastards books is in the one-two punch of its central characters, and to be fair, Drothe and Degan are rather too much of a muchness with Locke and Jean. Our narrator Drothe is the brains behind the operation, and Degan is the brawn behind Drothe. One does the thinking and the other does the fighting. But let's be honest: these are archetypes that can be traced back far further than the fiction of Scott Lynch. And archetypes become thus for a reason, insofar as they make for exceedingly convenient narrative devices.

Anyway, that's the last I'll say about The Lies of Locke Lamora. I suppose there are certain similarities between it and this, but they are at most superficial similarities, and once Among Thieves gets going, Hulick comes out from under the shadow of Scott Lynch, and there he stays, in a spotlight he need not share.

The thing of it is, Among Thieves takes altogether too long to get going. Initially, all the fantasy jargon the author sees fit to throw back and forth can feel more than slightly overwhelming, and though we enter the fray mid-thrust, the actual action's over all too soon, segueing into several chapters of thinly-veiled exposition, during which time there is nothing for the reader to do but come to terms with this world, or attempt to.

Eventually, however, Hulick finds good footing, and his debut resolves into a witty, refreshing romp with several outstanding aspects. In Ildrecca a fantasy kingdom more low than high takes shape, and Drothe and Degan, as well as several of their associates - and the villians in this novel roundly outnumber the heroes, such as they are - develop beyond the cardboard archetypes they began literary life as. Winningly, though everyone assumes he's got his head screwed on perfectly well, Drothe is actually a bit rubbish at stuff:

To them, I must have seemed one step ahead, always turning up or slipping away at the worst possible time, when in reality I was stumbling from one clue to another without knowing it. (p.263)

His numbers don't add up, he jumps to the wrong conclusion more often than chance has him happen upon the right one, and in a fight he'd be hopeless were it not for Degan, who has sworn a sacred oath to stand by his side. That said, Drothe still contrives to get the crap kicked out of him in every other chapter.

And then the plot kicks in. It gets complicated quickly:

What had started separately as a cleanup job and a hunt for a missing relic had become a twisted mass involving my sister, assassins, Grey Princes, a Kin war, White Sashes, and now, apparently, a long-dead Paragon and her notes on Imperial magic. (p.237)

By this stage, though, all the jargon has come to mean something. I'd have sooner had this knowledge imparted to me in a more measured manner, but at the end of the day, the result's the same: a real sense that there's more to Ildrecca than meets the eye. That there are more angles on these dirty dealings than just Drothe's. He's caught in the middle of it all right, but this world does not revolve around Drothe at all.

There are some other neat touches, too. I have a real weakness for all things Chris Nolan, and inasmuch as our man is starved of sleep and popping pill-equivalents the whole time, there's an excellent Insomnia-esque element to Among Thieves. At his wit's end as the narrative progresses, Drothe starts losing track of time, making bad decisions simply to have made some decisions; becoming, in short, exponentially less and less reliable as a man, never mind as a narrator.

I sighed and rubbed at the stubble on my face. How many days since Moriarty's? Since Cristiana's? They were all blurring together, along with my thoughts. I blinked, slapped my face, and slipped two seeds. No help. (p.272)

Hulick, I think, could have done more with this, but what there is of it is terrific.

Short a slow start, then, and a bit of wishy-washiness in the calm before the inevitable storm with which it concludes, Among Thieves is smart, character-driven fantasy. A walk on the wild side with more than its fair share of fun and action and intrigue. There are sword-fights galore, everyone betrays everyone else. All in all, Among Thieves delivers exactly what one wants from a story along these low lines: good times and grand larceny by one of the year's most promising new voices.

***

Among Thieves
by Douglas Hulick

UK Publication: April 2011, Tor
US Publication: April 2011, Roc

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7 comments:

  1. Somebody, somewhere, always seems to think pretty much any new fantasy novel is the 'next locke lamora' - and as yet I've not seen anyone come close. Ever hopeful though..

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  2. I know I'm missing the point to them, but I just can't understand the jubilant Second Coming of Scott Lynch! statements, or whoever else's resurrection whatever book's to be. Lynch does not require a second coming, as he's still here. If I'm reading a new author, I really don't want to read the Lies of Lack Lamora, as I have that sitting on my shelf and, if that's what I really wanted, am perfectly capable of taking it down and giving it another read.

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  3. Well said, sirs!

    I think the idea of Among Thieves and all the other books that have been burdened with this sort of me-too marketing is one thing, and if it can be a little dishonest, it's still not a wicked thing to do, to draw a comparison - especially when it's apposite. What I find particularly frustrating is seeing so many bloggers and critics and other opinion-makers and breakers skip in step with what are basically sales aspirations.

    This is how we ended up in a world where people can think Boneshaker is a year's-best contender and sleep soundly at night, isn't it? :I

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  4. Glad I read this review. I've made it about half way through the book, and I'm really struggling to maintain interest in it. I suppose I shall buckle down and continue the read.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    By the way, I read and enjoyed the two Lynch books, such as they are, but I thought they didn't live up to the hype. They're not on my biennial re-read list (with Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Martin and Hamerton), but I might re-read them before the third book is released.

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