The Kin is the criminal underworld of the city of Ildrecca. Drothe, the protagonist of Hulick’s debut, is one of them, a man who finds and takes care of problems for his boss’ organisation—while smuggling dangerous imperial relics on the side. But when his boss, a nasty piece of work by the name of Nicco, orders Drothe to track down the persons responsible for causing trouble for Nicco in the district called Ten Ways, things get complicated. There’s a relic involved, a book that’s attracted the attention of the most dangerous people in the city—a book that could be the destruction of the criminal underworld, a book that could bring down the emperor.
A book which—of course—ultimately ends up in Drothe’s possession, in a course of events which costs Drothe no small amount of blood, pain, and grief.
Among Thieves is a tense little tour through the underworld. It starts fast, and Drothe is continuously caught short by developments—understandably, given the information he has to work with—and many small reveals lead up to the big one: why this particular relic is so important, and what it means for Drothe and his people.
There are several elements which make Among Thieves stand out. The first is voice. Drothe’s first-person style reminds me, strikingly, of early Vlad Taltos—with, perhaps, a little less sarcastic dry wit and a little more bloody determination. (I use the term bloody advisedly: the first few pages include both torture and murder, and the death-and-maiming quotient doesn’t exactly diminish from there.) And the cant which flows naturally in Drothe’s narrative and speech gives the feeling of a fully-realised world.
That’s the second element: worldbuilding. It’s not obvious at first, but as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Ildrecca is not a city in your average fantasy kingdom. The increasingly unstable emperors who have ruled it for the last several centuries are in fact three-part reincarnations of the same man: a man who achieved effective immortality. There’s some theological window-dressing, and some things which seem like throwaway lines at the begin of the book come back to have relevance at the conclusion.
The world-building of the criminal underworld is even more fully realised. The Kin have what appears to be an effective criminal monopoly. Once united under a single leader—who the emperor logically hunted down—now they’re divided between competing factions and the shadowy powerful figures known as Grey Princes, who tend to have mutually antagonistic aims. It’s a nation—or several—in miniature.
The third element that makes Among Thieves stand out is characterisation. Apart from Drothe, our narrator, there are a remarkable number of personalities within its pages, all of them very clearly individuals, not types. Bronze Degan, Drothe’s warrior friend; Nicco and Kells, warring crime bosses; Drothe’s sister Christiana; the Grey Princes Shadow and Solitude. Even characters who only appear briefly are vividly drawn.
It’s not a perfect book. Drothe runs into a lot of incomplete or conflicting information, and the hurrying back-and-forth in response to new crises (which are ever more ready to inflict gross bodily harm upon our narrator) could have been, I think, handled a little more smoothly. But when I began to write this review, I was startled to learn that this is Hulick’s first novel: it really is surprisingly good, with a satisfying, nail-biting conclusion which winds double-cross upon triple-cross upon betrayal until at last uneasy equilibrium is reached.
Not fluffy, and certainly not happy, but definitely good.
Liz Bourke is reading for a research degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. A longtime SFF fan, she also reviews for Ideomancer.com.