Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Microreview [book]: Sworn in Steel by Douglas Hulick

There's No Place Like Home

Among Thieves is a book I've recommended on many occasions to fantasy readers, as well as those looking to dip their feet in the genre after graduating from HBO's Game of Thrones. It's part of the resurgent "thieves and assassins" style of fantasy, the new school of which is perhaps best exemplified by Robin Hobb and Scott Lynch. But Among Thieves has a unique feel to it, more thriller at heart than epic adventure. And the way it balances grit with playfulness feels like a cross between Michael Connoly and Harlan Coben. With swords. And magic.

Among Thieves could also serve as a masterclass in world-building. In Drothe, Hulick presents a relatable hero, and surrounds him with memorable characters: swashbuckling mercenary Bronze Degan, redoubtable lieutenant Fowler Jess, enigmatic Djanese sorcerer Jelem, etc. These characters blend seamlessly into the world around them, which feels smaller and more vivid than in most second-world fantasy. Everything, from the sight and sounds of alt-Byzantine Ildrecca to the lingo, or "cant," employed by the Kin (i.e. underworld) has been fully integrated into the experience, so that it really brings the story to life. Nothing, in other words, feels out of place.

Warning! Spoilers for Among Thieves and Mild Spoilers for Sworn in Steel Follow!

So it was with great anticipation that I started the sequel, Sworn in Steel. Drothe is now a Gray Prince, but finding the adjustment from street-level information gatherer (i.e. a "nose") to shadowy manipulator a bit hard. Then one of his colleagues, Crook-Eye, gets murdered, and there's evidence pointing to Drothe. Drothe knows this because he found the body at a proposed meeting between them, where Drothe was going to bargain for something Crook-Eye had in his possession--the discarded sword of former best friend Bronze Degan--and where a temporary peace was supposed to protect both parties. It's a setup, that much is clear from the beginning. But a setup to convince Drothe to travel to the Empire's political rival, the Despotate of Djan, to seek out Bronze Degan and convince him to return to Ildrecca, in spite of the fact that Drothe betrayed Degan and in the process broke a solemn oath?

In fact that's exactly what it is, and the setup works: Drothe agrees to travel to the Djanese capital of El Qaddice. Only problem is, you can't enter El Qaddice without patronage from someone in the Despot's family. And how is an Imperial thief supposed to get that? Drothe and his "partner," the degan variously known as "Silver" or "Wolf," concoct a scheme involving a troop of actors--after all, the Despot's nephew is a famous patron of the arts. What could possibly go wrong?

Lots, as it happens. There are three basic plots: the main one, in which Drothe tries to gain access to the Old City of El Qaddice and find Bronze Degan; a secondary plot involving shadowy assassins (a thinly-veiled reference to the Hashashin) seeking Drothe's "night vision"; and a tertiary plot involving the smuggling of Imperial "glimmer" (i.e. magic) and rivalry with a local crime boss.

Here's the thing: the ride is pretty enjoyable. Hulick writes clear and tidy prose, and keeps things moving at a good clip. It is certainly a fun read. Yet Sworn in Steel lacks the inspiration of its predecessor. This is perhaps most evident in the world-building, an undoubted strength of Among Thieves, where it is so vivid you can practically smell the marketplace and even imagine the curvature on each individual cobblestone. I have rarely encountered an imagined place in fantasy that feels as fully realized as Ildrecca does. Yet Djan feels empty in comparison, a featureless alt-Arabia save for a few mentions of waterpipes and cardamom. I don't have a problem with writers using medieval Islam and/or Arab culture as a template for modern fantasy, and Hulick is respectful rather than sneering at his subjects (not a high bar to set, but one many writers nevertheless seem incapable of scaling). Thing is, I expected more--I expected Hulick to infuse Djan with the same richness as Ildrecca in Among Thieves. I did not get it.

There are other issues. For one, even if Hulick's writing has good forward momentum, the plots themselves are poorly paced. The tertiary boss vs. boss plot resolves too quickly, while the assassin/night vision plot gets smushed up at the end, and further muddled by the distracting, 11th hour appearance of a djinn (who really should have been either given more attention or dropped altogether). And halfway through we've pretty much forgotten the actors even exist.

I also found myself getting distracted by the use of "cant." It's one thing in Ildrecca, where you have conversations among Kin using shared lingo--that works beautifully in Among Thieves and in the early portions of Sworn in Steel. But it's a different story when you have Drothe in Djan, speaking Djanese, yet still using Kin lingo in conversations with people who don't know what he means. It's like imagining a cockney from London's East End going on vacation to Spain and literally translating rhyming slang into Spanish until local Spaniards ask him what he means by "tachuelas de latón," at which point he then tells them it's a euphemism for "hechos" (facts). Unlikely, right? Minor point, I know, but it bothered me nonetheless. 

All that said, the book is a fun read, and I continue to be a big believer in Hulick and the world he's created. I just didn't love this one like I loved (and continue to love) Among Thieves.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for clean, smooth prose that never gets in the way; +1 for good, old-fashioned thriller fun--in a fantasy setting.

Penalties: -1 for thinness in world-building; -1 for pacing issues.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10. "Enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore."


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.

Reference: Hulick, Douglas. Sworn in Steel [Ace/Roc, 2014].