Fantasy got to the stage a while ago where it’s less “Them’s the evil dodgy types, we’re the doe-eyed loveable lot” and more “Golly check out all these lovely shades of grey!” which is a bit of relief considering that fantasy is usually known for the Lord of the Rings style epic Good vs Evil chess games that totally have their place, but felt a bit stale. Along came George RR Martin with his wickedly wicked A Song of Ice and Fire series, and in his wake Scott Lynch with his fantastic Gentleman Bastard sequence as well as Joe Abercrombie with the First Law trilogy (et al) and various other authors, all of whom are doing very well painting fantasy a very fetching shade of gritty, witty grey. Seeing characters with more darkness and grime makes them seem even more engaged with their world so all the world-building the authors do becomes so much more worthwhile and believable, and leavened with the right amount of humour and thrills, the plots feel like more of a rollicking read.
And I enjoy a good rollicking read, I do. Like, for instance, Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves, let’s say.
What we have here is a guy introduced to us while he’s torturing a guy, as you do. It’s fun, quite gory and sets a nice grim earthy tone for the rest of the book. Welcome to Drothe! He is a nice man really (persistent, intelligent and thoughtful) but he does some very mean and painful things to people. He has a social-climber sister with whom he is slightly at odds with and it’s his job to ferret things out (or Nose about, as you will) for his mob boss, Nicco. There’s an old and mystical book, which is so fantastically genre-centric and genre-savvy and yet not what you expect. It’s a nice set-up with a few little swerves and the odd satisfying twist (always nice to have twists that illustrate the world further and aren’t set up to make the reader feel like a moron). The fight scenes are nicely done with a sort of cinematic quality to them that made each one distinct and easy to visualize and in parts they’re really quite inventive, as is the magic system – there isn’t one explicitly set forth as Drothe isn’t a magic user except for being possessed of night sight, but what you see of the magic used by other characters and what we’re told about the Imperial magic is all tantalizing.
The pacing was a bit off in places, it felt too short and I wish there was more Christiana, but it’s a solid début – it’s a good, intriguing, exciting book. It’s “more of the same” along the lines of the authors listed above but it’s gone in a curious direction that ensures it stands on its own merit, although it isn’t quite up to the dizzying heights of an Abercrombie just yet.
What I loved most is that as it’s written in first person the whole thing is about him, his experiences, the city of Ildrecca from his perspective, and he is a fun character to see it all through. It glances over enough details about history, magic and politics to give us a good sense of the city and the world and how things work but it’s all crying out for detail, or other complementary view points. Slightly spoilery: the ending seemed rushed and a bit haphazard. It didn’t make sense given the other characters at play, but that said, I liked it, mainly because it gives rise to a really interesting situation. It had the air of establishing characters and setting before getting to the real meat of the story. There’s a lot of promise here; it’s a rollicking read with the potential to develop into a properly interesting and original series, so obviously I hope there’s more.