I get a bit blasé about claims that a new writer is ‘the best thing since Scott Lynch/Brent Weeks/Joe Abercrombie’ – all of which have been said about Douglas Hulick, who has been heaped with praise for his debut novel Among Thieves.
Ildrecca is a dangerous city, if you don’t know what you’re doing. It takes a canny hand and a wary eye to run these streets and survive. Fortunately, Drothe has both. He has been a member of the Kin for years, rubbing elbows with thieves and murderers from the dirtiest of alleys to the finest of neighbourhoods. Working for a crime lord, he finds and takes care of trouble inside his boss’s organisation – while smuggling relics on the side.
But when his boss orders Drothe to track down whoever is leaning on his organisation’s people, he stumbles upon a much bigger mystery. There’s a book, a relic any number of deadly people seem to be looking for – a book that just might bring down emperors and shatter the criminal underworld. A book now inconveniently in Drothe’s hands…
Hulick certainly went with the notion of starting this tale of nefarious dealings with a bang – a torture scene where his protagonist is the torturer. It’s a big risk. And a testament to Hulick’s writing skill that despite such a start, I ended up thoroughly liking Drothe, who turns out to be a dependable chap – in a squirrelly, sneaking back-handed way…. The story is told in first person viewpoint. As well as getting to know Drothe’s interestingly complex character, we also are treated to a front row seat as this Nose is pitchforked into the middle of a plot with more twists than a corkscrew.
Hulick’s other strength is his depiction of the world. Ildrecca is wonderfully described, particularly the revolting slum that is Ten Ways. This is a complex world, with plenty of politics and religion, along with a magic called glimmer. However, we learn of it in manageable slices as the plot whips along – there’s no dreary two-page exposition. I also love the way that some of Drothe’s assumptions are completely undercut by the end of the book. In addition to Drothe, there is an entertaining cast of characters – as this is apparently the start of a series, I’m looking forward to seeing more of Christiana, Drothe’s enigmatic sister, who has managed to marry into nobility.
An aspect of the book that I particularly enjoyed, was Hulick’s use of language. This is something, in my opinion, not enough fantasy/science fiction authors consider sufficiently. It always grates with me when I hear a 20th century idiom roll off the tongue of an otherworldly wizard, or a posthuman character travelling faster-than-light. Hulick addresses this issue with his Cant. There are those readers who profess to have found it off-putting and claim that it got in the way of the story. I’m scratching my head over that one. Once I got into the rhythm of the writing, I found that I rarely had to stop and think about exactly what was being said – and if I did, surely it isn’t necessarily a major problem? If he’d made the whole language completely impenetrable, I could see why readers might have grounds for protesting, but in the act of picking up a book I expect to engage with it. As a reader, I do prefer an author who presupposes that I am intelligent and capable of joining up some of the dots myself.
The fight scenes are well handled – although if I’ve got a grizzle, there’s probably a couple too many for my taste – however that said, I’m aware that solid fans of this sub-genre really appreciate all the dashing and slashing with sharp, pointy weapons. And the major twist at the end was one I really didn’t see coming. All in all, for once I find myself nodding at the favourable comparisons with Lynch, Weeks et al… In fact, chaps, I think you’ll need to look to your laurels. If this series fulfils its promise – I can see newcomer Hulick being a real contender.