Drothe has a problem. He's all set to sell an imperial reliquary when his supplier double-crosses him, selling it to someone else—a someone whom the supplier refuses to name. Discovering this treachery, Drothe tries to find said reliquary, but through various twists of fortune ends up seeking an entirely different object, which is so hotly contested that numerous people try to kill him. All of this is tied up in larger machinations within the criminal underworld, machinations in which Drothe inevitably finds himself entangled and which will have far-reaching consequences for the Kin, the criminal world of Ildrecca.
Stories of thieves' guilds and the criminal underworld are common ones in the fantasy genre. They tend to proceed in one of two directions: the morality tale dealing with serious ethical issues and social fears, or the romp, where the criminal element exists just for the fun of it (like the criminal underworld in any of David Eddings's works, for example). Hulick chooses the romp, allowing his characters to steal from honest citizens and knock each other over the head with few qualms. Unfortunately, his execution is missing crucial aspects of the romp trope—it is slow-paced and the adventure is not engaging.
Among Thieves is told as a first person narrative, and opens with Drothe inspecting Athel the Grinner, a victim of torture—torture for which Drothe is directly responsible. Drothe experiences some angst over the use of torture, but neither enough to establish him as someone forced by circumstances to unwillingly commit unpleasant deeds, nor little enough to show him as merciless. Instead he appears shallow. Confronted with the outcome of the torture, he wonders whether "any of the sympathy or pity I felt showed on my face . . . I don't have to like what I do" (p. 1), but as soon as Drothe gets some information Athel as a person is forgotten; he becomes just a puzzle to solve. This lack of depth in Drothe continues throughout most of the book. Despite narrating the story, Drothe remains two-dimensional, stumbling from one event to the next with little volition. He is not, however, pictured as fate's plaything, an unwitting tool of destiny; instead he's a tool of the story, present in order to progress the narrative.
Introductions to Drothe's family, friends, and bosses do not help; there is little insight into Drothe's emotions at any point. Drothe's sister figures in the story, and there is some discussion of Drothe's history—a mysterious stepfather, a family tragedy—but so little is made of apparently momentous events that this history becomes an unnecessary complication. The backstory's immediate use is in explaining Drothe's extraordinary night vision, a trick that even with this explanation struggles to be more than a McGuffin. Friends and associates flit through the story, interacting with Drothe when the narrative demands it; many are brought in to add color (the other criminals), or to provide information (various extras, including a scribe and a magic worker). It is only rarely that they are of interest in themselves, or that they serve to illuminate Drothe and his motivations. (It should be noted that there are a number of female characters, in a variety of roles—informant, thug, leader—and while they are boring, they are no more boring than the men.) The one character who could have broken this pattern is Bronze Degan, the friend whose relationship with Drothe could have made this a great buddy-book: it is explained early on that they "had been running the streets together long enough" that thanking each other was unnecessary (p. 4), and there are many scenes in which Drothe and Degan go adventuring together. However, these scenes do not feature the witty dialogue, references to shared history, or unspoken understanding that would convey a convincing, long-standing friendship. Overall, Drothe comes across as bland; neither amusing nor morose, neither intriguing nor repellant.
Drothe is a criminal—a Nose, or information-gatherer—and therefore one of the Kin. Among Thieves is subtitled "A Tale of the Kin," meaning a story of the criminals inhabiting the Imperial city of Ildrecca (and possibly the empire itself, although that's never made clear). The novel suggests, though does not explain, that the criminals are tied together by some sort of bond—possibly of loyalty, possibly honor, possibly simple tradition. There are many unanswered questions about the Kin, without which they don't make sense as a group. What if someone outside of the Kin decides to turn criminal? Given that the story turns, in part, on internal wrangling, what advantage do the characters gain by being Kin? This criminal community is another McGuffin, allowing Drothe to call on other criminals without having to explain why they should answer, and it feels entirely perfunctory.
Bland characters might be forgivable if the plot were original or well-paced. Unfortunately, Among Thieves's is not. There is little original in the story of a criminal who starts with what seems a simple con and ends up involved in something much bigger. Events progress from the initial double cross, to Drothe discovering the book that everyone seems to want, to more double crosses and a final revelation, with few surprises and poor pacing. The narrative moves from one step to another as though Hulick is ticking off plot requirements one by one: a double cross, a fight, a helpful foreigner, a fight, a confrontation with the boss leading to a new avenue to explore . . . and so on. The action veers from plodding through one set piece of information gathering after another in the book's first third, then rushing madly from dramatic fight scene to double cross to another fight scene in the final two thirds.
Additionally, the larger world that Hulick has created is poorly presented; the reader is given hints but nothing concrete, and these eventually come to feel like remnants of worldbuilding that no longer have context. The empire is never named, and its only neighbour mentioned is the Despotate of Djan, with which the empire "was in one of its intermittent periods of peace" (p. 135, although there are "refugees from the Djanese frontier" in Ildrecca, p. 19), and that only because one of the people Drothe needs to consult is Djanese. Ildrecca is the capital city, and the action never leaves its walls; in fact, it hardly seems to leave a fairly small neighbourhood (although there's no map of the city, so it is difficult to keep track of where anyone is or whether timescales are plausible). Marvellous stories can certainly be told within a very small geographical area, but in that case discussion of the world outside should illuminate the world inside; that is not the case here.
There are some interesting worldbuilding tidbits dropped into the mix, but few are developed in such a way as to enhance the narrative. One is the notion of an emperor who, in three different incarnations, has been ruling almost continuously for many centuries. How exactly that would work—especially with the conflicts between the three incarnations that are hinted at—could make for a very interesting political story. However, this idea is not developed at all, and thus feels extraneous to the plot; it is, perhaps, intended to set up the next instalment in the series.
The book's depiction of magic is similarly problematic. It's mentioned early on (criminals are "kept alive by Imperial magic", p. 17), and Drothe gets a fright when he thinks he is "being spelled" (p. 50), but the reader finds out little else until magic is suddenly introduced into a fight on page 94 (Drothe discovers that "there [are] runes tied into the knots" of the rope his assailant is using). However, what constitutes magic isn't explained at all until a third of the way into the book, when it's called glimmer and there's a discussion of the legal, illegal, and imperial kinds. Glimmer plays a largely perfunctory role for most of the story; it is not integrated into the society, but is also not a taboo topic. It is mentioned only when it is useful in furthering the plot, feeling therefore like a last-minute addition. More problematic is the fact that towards the conclusion of the story, the use of glimmer suddenly assumes huge significance. This significance is unheralded, making it an awkward addition to the plot.
Among Thieves, then, is a disappointing novel. It has a serviceable but unoriginal plot, an utterly forgettable cast, and world-building whose few interesting elements do not make up for the novel's overall failure to generate interest.
Alexandra Pierce reads a lot of science fiction and fantasy, blogs about it at Randomly Yours, Alex, and talks about it as one third of the Galactic Suburbia podcast team. In between, she tries to instill a love of English and History in high school students.