Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Among Thieves

US Cover
Yesterday late afternoon, despite a very busy schedule, I was able to polish off Douglas Hulick's debut novel, Among Thieves.  This is a fantastic novel, and it manages to do a lot of what I would want fantasy to do.  The main character, Drothe, is a charming scoundrel, not a hero.  In fact, we're introduced to him as he's supervising the torture of a smuggler who failed to deliver the product that he promised.  Drothe himself is a somewhat locally prominent member of "the Kin" which is local slang for the fantasy Mafia. 

This torture scene is perhaps for a bit of schock value, though.  Among Thieves does not wallow in sordidness or violence, it also makes it clear that such is part of life in the setting as presented.  It used violence to make a point, but in general, the main character and his friends are sympathetic and likeable.  This torture scene starts a chain of events that entangles Drothe in a much bigger game than he is aware, putting him and those he cares about in harm's way repeatedly.  From this point on, the pacing and structure of the novel greatly resembles that of a mainstream bestseller thriller in many regards--something that I've actually specifically advocated.  Unlike Polansky's Low Town, which I also recently reviewed, magic and the fantastic in general are a bit more suffused in the story, though.  Not so much that it isn't at heart a swashbuckling thriller of down-to-earth scoundrels--because that's certainly exactly what it is--but enough that it doesn't feel like the story could simply have been set in an actual historical setting and been told pretty much as is without any problem either.

All in all, this is a very strong debut novel.  To make matters even better, Hulick was contracted to write at least three novels, and the second has a cover already unveiled--even though pre-orders from Amazon indicate that it's a good nine months away from being released.  The third should be out in 2013, so they're due to come out at a decent clip.  I enjoyed it enough that I'm excited to see the follow-ups, and I hope it sells well enough that the three aren't the only novels we get in the series.  I think there's a lot more that can be done with the book than we got here.

Jann in Dark•Heritage
On a minor note, there were a lot of correspondences to my own DARK•HERITAGE setting too, although many of them were minor.  All of the action takes place in Ildrecca (which sounds a bit like my own city of Iclezza, I thought) which Hulick says is vaguely a fantasy analog of Byzantium or Constantinople (and later, of course, Istanbul.  They Might Be Giants actually left off the original name there.)  This gives the whole setting--what we see of it, anyway--a vaguely early Middle Ages or Late Antiquity Mediterranean feel, and names in the story are often somewhat Italian or Greek sounding (I don't have any Greek in DARK•HERITAGE, of course, but I've got lots of Italian and Catalan and pseudo-Spanish.)  And Hulick makes a few references to (and has a semi-major character who's a member of) a middle-eastern pseudo Persian/Arabian/Turkish ethnicity called the Djan or Djanese, which is seems like a slightly novel take on the transliterations jann and djinn; combining the first part of the latter with the vowel of the former.  My setting, of course, has the jann--not exactly genies, but rather a culture with a fantasy vaguely Arabian Nights-like feel--which seems to be exactly what Hulick did, again.

UK Cover
So, if the novel did exactly what I think a fantasy novel should in terms of structure and format, managed to do it well, and even has a few obvious similarities to my own setting, I should have loved this novel.  It should shoot to near the top of my list of favorite fantasy novels of all time in fact.  Well... it didn't quite do that.  I do like it a lot, but I didn't completely love it all the way, and while I'm excited to read the follow ups, I'm not going to turn in my library copy and run out and buy my own because, heck, I know I'll re-read it over and over again still.  So, while it seems a bit gauche to complain about a novel that I liked quite a bit, and possibly change the tenor of an overwhelmingly positive review to one that sounds a bit mixed (although that's not my intention) I'm going to do it anyway, because reading this novel, and seeing where Hulick wasn't quite able to make it work for me, was--if nothing else--very educational.  It gave me some important flags to watch out for myself.

 First; the novel didn't do a lot of setting development.  While this isn't necessarily a problem--and I don't mean to imply that none was done of course; there were a few interesting takes on the organizations of Ildrecca, the history and theology of the Empire, the nature of magic, and a few other things--there wasn't quite enough.  There's a specific reason for this, which I'll get to in a moment.  Without this specific reason, it probably would have been sufficient, and in fact, you've gotta be careful as a fantasy writer to not dally too long in the travelogue aspect of your setting.  While I think that it's actually one of the things that fantasy readers in general want from their books, I've read plenty of fantasy books where momentum, plot, and other essential features of a well-written novel are completely thrown out the door while the author meanders through a lecture on the history, geography or anthropology of his setting.  Bad form.  You've got to be careful to give the readers enough to scratch their itch to explore through the book while not derailing the other aspects of what makes a well-written novel actually be well-written.  So, being very careful, and in fact possibly quite spare, in setting description isn't a bad thing.

However Hulick's plot revolves around a "secret history" theme.  That what the characters know and take for granted actually is not true.  I love secret histories (thanks X-files!) but it's a little difficult to pull them off in fantasy.  In the real world, what the characters take for granted is the same as what the readers take for granted, which makes it easy.  If I posit a secret history in which John Kennedy was actually an alien doppelganger of some kind, making Lee Harvey Oswald a self-sacrificing hero who saved the human race from alien invasion, the "shock value" of that secret history is easy to maintain, because, well, we all know about the Kennedy assassination, and we all know that John F. Kennedy was, of course, a guy from the East Coast, not an alien lookalike.  In a fantasy setting, though, if you want to throw a secret history out there, you first have to strongly and firmly ground the "establishment" story.  Otherwise, when you hint that there's a secret history behind the establishment story... well, yeah, OK.  Whatever.  Hulick either 1) didn't ground his establishment story well enough, or 2) threw the secret history monkey wrench out there too early (in a subsequent book might have worked better, maybe?) or 3) both.

Also; in a similar theme, stuff that I gather we (as readers) were meant to find shocking or emotional, I often did not.  When friends, neighbors, or people that Drothe cares for are beaten or otherwise threatened, it lacks the emotional punch that I think it's meant to have; again, because we haven't yet come to care about them enough.  In his effort to keep the plot moving, Hulick failed to sufficiently develop the characters as well as the setting, so that when things happen to them later in the novel, we're left wondering why we should care too much, except from an academic perspective.  For that matter, Drothe himself, while charming, doesn't necessarily inspire a lot of tension from his first persion narrative.  I think the tone of the book is a little too easy-going and--dare I say it--swashbuckling to really convey the darkness that the plot and descriptions are trying to make us sense.

And I almost hesitate to call either of them problems, because in general, I think fantasy is notorious for being over-blown, over-written and glacially slow in its pace.  The brisk pace of novels like Low Town and Among Thieves are godsends--but they also both go a little too far.  We need to see enough of the setting and the characters if we're going to care about them later in the book.  And in the wake of the success of lots of darker, grim n gritty fantasy authors, wallowing in darkness is becoming a bit of a strong theme too; one that I don't care to see expanded too much.  I like some darkness to my stories--and I like it quite a lot, actually--and I'm feeling a bit done with the "bright and polite" style of much of the fantasy genre of the past.  But, again, that's a trend that's easy to overdo--guys like Joe Abercrombie or Mark Lawrence (reportedly; I haven't read him yet and may not based on a number of reviews I've read) or any number of others can frequently go too far, making the darkness gratuitous and sordid rather than a compelling feature.  But again; Hulick probably could have done a little bit more than he did there.  Not because the events described in the book weren't frequently fairly dark, but because the tone didn't quite match them.  The tone made the book feel like it was The Three Musketeers trying to pretend like it was The Godfather but not quite managing to pull it off convincingly all the time.

Now that I've finished it, I really need to refrain from picking up anything else at the library for a little while, finish Eisenhorn, and knock back a few more of the books I've bought before I get distracted away from them again.

No comments: