A reader will know within a few pages of picking up Among Thieves whether or not the book is for them. Torture scenes are not all that subtle; if that is the starting point an assumption that more darkness will follow is not a stretch. When it quickly becomes apparent that Drothe, the man inflicting the pain is the book’s protagonist the tone is further set.
This is not the most original setting. Drothe is a bad man with a hunt of honor in a typical fantasy city that has an economy that appears to be entirely driven by crime. There are warring crime lords, hidden puppet masters, and a police force that is more interested in protecting the interests of those in power than any kind of civil service. A series of info-dumps from our first person narrator provides this information. It is effective, but slightly awkward. I could find a similar setting in how many other books published the last few years.
Well give it credit, it takes skill to make the familiar work as well as Hulick managed to do here. The crime organizations felt right, perhaps because they felt like actual organizations. Not everyone is a super assassin, look no further than Drothe. While he carries his share of weapons and is reasonable proficient in them his skills are not as a fighter. He is a Nose; a sniffer of information, middleman, and two bit smuggler. Other people in the organization act the bruiser, the fence, or any number of other needed jobs. The Emperor’s lack of concern about rampant crime also works within the setting. There are lines that cannot be crossed, and if crossed the Empire will come down hard, but the organizations’ know where the line is.
Drother is a great main character but I find myself with a couple of quibbles. He is interesting because with only a couple of exceptions he really is an everyman in a land of legends. The power crime lord Drothe works for inspires fear on the street. A mythical group of Gray Princes secretly pull the strings of said crime lord and all his competition, moving Drothe even farther down the line. Even the people he employs hold talents he can’t begin to match; from mythical fighter and sometimes bodyguard Degan to the people who can actually use the magic that saturates the land. Drothe uses his cunning and network not trying to get ahead, but just trying to keep caught up with the spiraling events.
My problem with Drothe comes from the way he is presented. I think I am supposed to like him, even think he is a good person. He acts with honor in his dealings, tries to prevent war, and works solutions that will make as many people as he can happy. He even looks after those he holds power over; specifically a family of renters in a building he owns. But through it all I know he is deep in a criminal organization, hires bad people to do bad things, and was first seen overseeing torture of a man who interfered with a little profit he was trying to make on the side. I prefer my anti-heroes to be anti-heroes and not everyone gets to have the best of both worlds. I also felt his vision condition, the ability to see in the dark, was a clumsy addition that didn’t help the story (nor did it hinder, just didn’t add much).
Get into the story though and it is pure entertainment. The city is a strong setting with a very interesting history (a three bodied, reincarnating Emperor especially stood out). There are double crosses, chases, and plenty of fighting. There is also plenty of plotting and mystery through. That is all feels so familiar is probably intentional; though it already feels a bit dated. Fire years ago I would have probably considered it a near perfect debut; as I read it after so many similar books I am content to just call it an entertaining story.