Douglas Hulick’s debut novel, Among Thieves, came out in the spring of 2011. It’s taken three years for the sequel, Sworn in Steel, to be ready to hit the shelves (and ebook vendors) of the world. With such a long wait, it’s hard not to expect great things.
That’s probably an unfair expectation.
Immediate spoilers below for Among Thieves.
When Among Thieves concluded, Drothe, its protagonist, had both betrayed his best friend and been catapulted to primacy within the criminal underworld of the empire in which he lives. But Drothe has no idea how to be a Gray Prince of the Kin, no idea how to build and run a large organisation; and his problems are compounded when a member of a warrior association, a man known as Wolf, assassinates another Gray Prince and lays the blame on Drothe. Wolf is a member of the order of Degans, an order of nigh-unbeatable warriors oathbound to defend the empire, but an order which has long been at odds over what their oath actually means. And he wants Drothe to find the man called Bronze Degan, who has thrown away his sword and left the order.
If Drothe refuses, Wolf will keep killing people and framing Drothe for their deaths.
Bronze Degan is the friend that Drothe betrayed. So in the hopes of both making things right, and in getting Wolf off his back, Drothe leaves his home ground and sets out for the capital of the Despotate of Djan, in company with a group of travelling players. In Djan, he’ll face local crimelords, magicians, and all-but-invisible assassins—not to mention local distrust of foreigners, politics, the history of the Degan order, and a pissed-off spirit.
There’s good and bad in this novel. Sworn in Steel closely follows Among Thieves in tone and mood, being saturated in shades of moral darkness and closely attached to getting its protagonist as bruised, bloody, and beaten up as possible. Drothe has a persuasively readable voice, and Hulick’s liberal use of adapted thieves’ cant gives depth and texture to his criminal underworld. Hulick’s Kin books share similarities with Kelly McCullough’s Blade novels, with Steven Brust’s early Vlad Taltos novels, and—to a degree—with Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, but Hulick’s tone is grimmer.
His characterisation is also less assured, and his ability to sustain a coherent narrative through-line less well-developed, than with the aforementioned authors and works. Among Thieves maintained its tension by playing with an interesting setting, an intriguing macguffin-conceit, and a wide variety of violent set-pieces. Sworn in Steel’s central concerns are more obvious, and the tension as a consequence is less well-maintained. Narrative structure is not Hulick’s strong point. There are some good fight scenes—indeed, one feels Hulick has studied combat—and while almost none of the major characters in this novel are female, Hulick has filled in the background with a variety of women; but one comes to feel that Sworn in Steel is more of a collection of loosely-connected incidents than it is a novel driving towards climax and denouement. They are entertaining incidents, but they do not build on each other very well; they don’t sheer the tension up to the highest pitch.
And I’m disappointed in Hulick’s Despotate of Djan. Not so much the setting, which is solid, but the characters with which he’s peopled it. Here, more so than in Among Thieves, one is left with the impression that rather than thinking through and filling out the corners of his world, he’s fallen back on the tropes of easy exoticism. Djan is a desert kingdom, and here we have robed assassins with blades of shadow, magic on every street corner, wazirs who disapprove of foreigners and so on, and Hulick doesn’t innovate enough with his material for me to escape the inevitable sensation of déjà vu.
It’s possible I’ve fallen prey to critics’ disease; that I’ve read so much that it takes something really different—or something that really hits my narrative preferences—to stir me to appreciation. I don’t think so, though. Hulick’s second novel doesn’t work as well for me as his first did: this is a solid, competent effort, but without the flair and drive that would take it into the realm of the excitingly good. Fans of gritty fantasy who want more underworld action will find something to enjoy here—but I recommend you start with his first novel, because I think you’ll enjoy it more.