Monday, December 19, 2011

Den of Thieves

Just a few days ago, I finished David Chandler's Den of Thieves and I've already embarked on a read through of the sequel, A Thief in the Night since I had it from the library.  Together with the just released (or just about to be released; I haven't been paying close attention) with Honor Among Thieves, this makes up the Ancient Blades trilogy, a very old-fashioned style fantasy story (so far.)  The dedication on Den mentions Leiber, Howard and Moorcock, and the dedication on Thief is to G.G. and D.A. in the outer planes; clearly a somewhat coy reference to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson of "we created D&D" fame.  That should also give you some indication of what kind of story it is.

The books' publisher, HarperCollins, on the other hand, would have you believe that it's in the tradition of the new darker, grimmer epic fantasy; they refer pointedly to Brent Weeks, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, and even make a wild claim that Chandler might have toppled George R. R. Martin from his throne as superlative grim and gritty new fantasy writing.  He was also compared to R. A. Salvatore and Raymond Feist; in my opinion, those are more reasonable (and accurate) comparisons.

In Den of Thieves, the setting is basically a single city, the Free City of Ness, where no man is a serf or villein.  The setting is very Medieval in some ways--rather than merely being "generically" Medieval like a lot of fantasy, this one referred specifically a lot of Medieval institutions and practices, much moreso than most fantasy that I've read (it did use the word villein, after all, as one example.)  That said, it's hardly meant to be a work of thinly veiled historical fiction; the main character, Malden, is a thief with a fairly modern attitude, who finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue and sorcery somewhat by accident.  The main action of the book is two "dungeoncrawls" where he raids two separate facilities to steal the same crown.  Both have a very D&D dungeoncrawl feel to them, including magical traps, demons to overcome and more.

In fact, in all ways, I had a funny feeling that this was the kind of book Gary Gygax himself would have enjoyed, and would have seen as iconically D&D (especially keeping in mind that Gygax also liked to use more authentic Medievalisms than is popular in the game--or the fantasy genre overall--today.)

I found it a little bit less satisfying.  Much less so than, say, Douglas Hulick's recently released novel, which had a similar title and somewhat similar premise.  There were three "main" characters, Malden the thief, Sir Croy, a painfully naive knight, and Cythera, the cursed witch with whom both of those two fall in love (but who cannot touch either of them, and who is enslaved to the main antagonist, sorcerer Hazoth.)  A few minor characters round out the call sheet; Cutbill, the head of the organized crime outfit that employs Malden, the Burgrave, the leader of the Free City, Bikker, the mentor and trainer of Sir Croy, who has turned cynical and mercenary, Slag the dwarf, who makes all of Malden's fancy thief tools, and Kemper, the cursed card shark who assists Malden in his second, more dangerous, heist.

For the most part, I found all of those characters flat and unengaging--more like wooden caricatures than real characters.  This was a major turn-off, as a character like Malden really needs to be somewhat charming and likeable to work.  Sir Croy, in some ways, was the more engaging character, until during the last act of the book, he became frustrating and annoying, and seemed like a tool whereby Chandler could deliver the ham-handed message that honor and idealism is for suckers.

Although the book is reasonably well paced and the action scenes are described beautifully, I also thought the plot and motivations were pretty weak and unconvincing.  More than once, I found myself scratching my head (not literally) and wondering exactly why something had happened, only to decide that it happened because it had to happen to advance the plot, and for no other reason.  Needless to say, that kind of thing takes you out of the book's "reality" when you're reading, and breaks the fourth wall on accident; never a good thing.  One good--and interesting--bit of world building that Chandler did was the concept of the Ancient Blades, which the series is named after.  A number of magical (albeit ugly and utilitarian rather than fancy and Excalibur-like) magical swords, which are the only ways in which demons may be harmed, make up the backstory of Croy and Bikker.  Curiously, this first book doesn't advance that very far, leaves no real open ends to tie up, and leaves little indication that it's part of a trilogy of any kind; it's a very self-contained book, and the series title would seem to be not very apt based on just this book alone.

I think a lot of D&D players will like this book.  It has a very D&Dish feel; maybe even moreso, in some ways, than the official D&D novels.  However, it seems to have some of the same weaknesses that a lot of D&D fiction does; it feels too much like a D&D game and less like a novel in which organic events happen to real-seeming characters.  I'm glad I convinced my library to spring for this series for me; I would have been disappointed if I'd bought these books myself.

Meanwhile, I'm halfway through the sequel already, A Thief In the Night, which looks like it will have much of the same flaws and strengths.  Curiously, I'm still waiting for this to feel like a trilogy and not just unconnected adventures which happen to feature (some of) the same characters.  We'll see how it goes as I advance through the series; the third one is "On Order" via the library, and I'll get it as soon as they have it available and processed.

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