The blurb for Among Thieves promises a lot; intrigue, magic and empire shattering events. That's pretty much everything I need from a book, having said that I'm usually wary of books where the protagonist is a criminal as it just does not feel gritty enough. Everything is romanticized and we are left having to pretend that criminals are nice people and they are not really doing anything wrong. My interest in magic and empire shattering events made buying this book an easy choice in spite of any misgivings about the protagonist chosen profession. Books like The Lies of Locke Lamora and Retribution Falls made me confident that Among Thieves could pull it off as well.
The story takes place in the city of Ildrecca. An immortal emperor rules with an iron fist, but the underworld is ruled by the Kin. A long time ago the Angels granted the emperor immortality by sundering his soul into three parts thus allowing him to reincarnated forever as three different persons. The Kin is the name of the criminal society and as long as they are not too much of a nuisance the emperor leaves them alone.
Drothe is a criminal that likes to keep a low profile. He is small of stature so we wont se Drothe wielding any massive hammers of war. The rapier is his weapon of choice although he confesses that he is no master swordsman so a poisoned dagger gives him the edge he needs. Nicco, one of the crime lords in the city has employed Drothe as a 'Nose'. A 'Nose' is an information broker who also has to understand the bigger picture involved.
Noses don't just gather whispers off the street - we sift and assemble them, putting together the pieces most Kin miss. We don't just find out something is happening - we find out why it's happening in the first place.Douglas Hulick uses his own jargon for many professions and he always explains them which really helps. Books that have their own jargon but does not explain it very well loses out, The Quantum Thief is an example of a book where it works less well. In Among Thieves we encounter several types of 'Nose': Long, Wide and Narrow. The Wide Nose works the streets and sells his information to anyone. The Long Nose is a spy that infiltrates a rival organisation and a Narrow Nose is counter intelligence and identifies threats from within an organization.
When Drothe suspects his talent at swordsmanship will not be enough he brings his friend Bronze Degan who is an Arm. An Arm is the term for a very accomplished warrior. Bronze Degan belongs to a very old and respected mercenary company with some interesting and possibly impractical traditions. Bronze Degan is my favorite character, he is dapper and taking on four thugs in a dark alley does not even make him sweat. Drothe just seems to get stuck by sharp metal objects in every fight he gets into.
Drothe is relies a lot on his friend and connections throughout the book and you get the impression that without them he would not last long. His skill set is more focused around stealth and dealing with people so he always relies on someone else for muscle. I cannot help thinking that it makes him appear somewhat helpless having to be saved by a friend every five minutes. In a way Drothe makes me think of characters like John Constantine who always gets into really sticky situation but at the least moment manages to get out of it with his bag of tricks.
Apart from being a Nose Drothe also has a relic smuggling business on the side and this is where the story starts. One of his dealers has double crossed him and refuses to give over the relic so Drothe has to apply drastic measures to extract information. Meanwhile the word on the street is that Nicco wants to see Drothe about trouble brewing in Ten Ways. This is the slums of the city and also where Drothe grew up and he had to claw his way out of there. Ten Ways is an area contested by several of the cities crime lords. Someone is targeting Nicco's operations in Ten Ways and he keeps Drothe on the pay roll to prevent these things from happening and when they do he wants to know who is to blame. The solution is far from simple as it soon turns out that the Empire itself is involved along with the legendary Grey Princes who are powerful crime lords that operate from the shadows.
Among Thieves was quick and fun to read. There is a lot of scrapping going in the alleys of Ildrecca and it is all brought to life very well by Douglas Hulick. The plot moves along smoothly and does not rely on anything that feels too much of a coincidence nor anything or anyone acting in an unrealistic manner. I felt Drothe perhaps not being the most interesting character in the story, but it all comes together well.