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.
There has been a trend in the last seven years or so of fantasy novels focusing on the criminal underworld with protagonists who are varying shades of grey. The covers often feature men in hoods and the quality of these books varies a great deal in my opinion. Given the wealth of material available in this sub-genre, I read from this segment very sparingly. Having said all of that, I think to date Among Thieves is my fantasy debut of the year. When I finished it I had the same vibe and buzz as when I finished reading The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch for the first time. Both are excellent stories bursting at the seams with brilliant characterisation and a story with many plot twists that keep the reader off balance. With some novels I have a general idea of where events are going and with others the author throws in twists that appear to be there only to shock the reader and there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason for them. The best written novels are those where the author lulls you into a comfortable place and then pulls the rug out from under you, but if you go back you can see the clues that led to the twist.
Among Thieves is a cousin of Scott Lynch’s books because it deals with various criminal gangs vying for control of a city. The story is focused on the criminal gangs and it’s about how they operate and how they control larger events which shape the world around them, as opposed to being caught up in world events and having to adapt. An example of the latter would be The Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks where the city is invaded and the lead assassin character is swept along rather than being the architect.
In some ways Among Thieves feels more local, the story is focused in one place but we are made aware of other times and places, adding a richness and depth to the world without the need for lots of exposition. Where relevant we might learn about a former ruler or a bit of local history, but it’s done sparingly, keeping the story moving at a good pace. Hulick has got the world building balance just right for me and the information given is there for a reason and not just for show.
Characterisation is excellent and the world is full of terribly flawed and unpleasant individuals who don’t always make the right decision and they must face the consequences of those actions. Magic does feature in the story, but it is treated as an unstable and dangerous commodity that a rare few can perform accurately. Most criminals don’t bother with it as the rewards are not equal to the risk, so they give it a wide berth. They rely on their wits and their steel, their team and their boss. Crime is organised with gangs protecting territories and as expected conflicts occur when gangs overstep their boundaries.
A fascinating aspect to the book is the use of street slang, or thieves cant, to describe various people and their roles within the criminal underworld. Arms are enforcers, Ears are informers etc. The main character Drothe is a Nose, someone who roots out information for his boss, a sort of internal affairs officer, who smells out trouble and reports back before matters can develop. Of course that’s how it would be in a perfect world and as expected Drothe gets caught up in something over his head and has to find a way out.
I’ve said it in other reviews - if there’s nothing likeable about a character, especially the main one, and you can’t bond with them in some way then it’s difficult to care about their fate and keep reading. Drothe was by no means a saint but at his core I thought he was a good person, someone trying to do the right thing, so I was able to sympathise with his situation. Without spoiling it, some of the villains are so incredibly fascinating that I wanted to know more about them too and just points to the author’s talent for characterisation.
Among Thieves is a dark and twisted story that is firmly focused on the seedier and darker side of life in a fantasy city. If you are happy with your main character being less than perfect then you will enjoy this, but if you need a hero with a chiselled jaw and no flaws then look elsewhere. It’s brutal, brilliantly told, gripping and very exciting read. When I finished I was desperate to read more and I hope there will be other novels in the series as there is certainly a lot left to explore in the world Hulick has created.