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Sworn in Steel by Douglas Hulick

Sworn in Steel by Douglas Hulick
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Book Name: Sworn in Steel
Author: Douglas Hulick
Publisher(s): Roc (US) Pan (UK)
Formatt: Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy / Noir
Release Date: May 6, 2014 (US) May 8, 2014 (UK)

This review contains spoilers for Among Thieves. Read with caution if you have yet to finish the first book.

It’s no surprise that Douglas Hulick’s Sworn in Steel, the second Tale of the Kin book, found a home on so many lists as one of the most anticipated books of 2014 (including #9 here at Fantasy-Faction.com). Hulick’s debut novel, Among Thieves, introduced us to Drothe, his friend Degan and the criminal underworld in which they live. Filled with plot twists, traitors and disguises, the book was packed with surprises. In its game-changing final plot twist, as Drothe suddenly found himself transformed from a lowly smuggler into one of the city’s elite crime lords – a Gray Prince. In Sworn in Steel, Drothe must acclimate his new role, and as anyone who read Among Thieves might expect, it’s not a smooth transition.

By the time the book opens, Drothe has already been neatly framed for the murder of another Gray Prince and stands at risk of quickly losing his standing – not to mention his life. The man who framed Drothe demands that he travel to the desert kingdom of Djan to find Bronze Degan, the friend he betrayed at the end of Among Thieves, and Drothe soon finds himself in over his head as a newly-minted crime lord who’s not only out of his element, but struggling to find his footing in a strange culture he knows little about.

Hulick’s books have been compared to Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series, and it’s easy to see why. Just like Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen, the relationship between Drothe and Degan was one of the first book’s real strengths, and the criminal lifestyle of the protagonists naturally draws comparisons. Drothe’s voice doesn’t have the unparalleled wit and wordplay of Lynch – to be fair, no one does – but his perspective drives the novel and makes him surprisingly likeable for someone who was torturing another man when we were introduced to him in Among Thieves.

There is an inherent pessimism to the Kin books that makes them just a shade darker than the Gentleman Bastards. While Locke and Jean are motivated by the thrill of the con, Drothe is just trying to make it through the day. He doesn’t seem to relish the criminal lifestyle the way the Gentleman Bastards do – he’s just trying to make a living and keep his enemies from stabbing him with something sharp and pointy.

Moreso, the books are built around entirely opposite plot structures – the Gentleman Bastard books are essentially heist stories, where the enjoyment comes from watching Locke and Jean pull their scheme together. In both Kin books, and especially Sworn in Steel, Drothe is the one trying to figure out his opponents’ plans – it’s essentially a noir mystery with Drothe playing the part of the private investigator.

As the plot progresses, Drothe bounces from one scrape to another, finding new allies and enemies (mostly enemies) in his search for answers. Like any noir detective worth his salt, he runs into his share of femme fatales, violent criminals and mysteries layered upon enigmas, all the while fueled by ever-present ahrami seeds to keep his senses sharp in his quest for answers. Hulick tirelessly propels Drothe from one high-tension encounter to the next, and by the end of the book even if you aren’t entirely convinced that he’s truly a good guy, you’ve got to at least admire Drothe’s dogged determination.

Like Among Thieves, Sworn in Steel is a male-driven story, but an expanded role for Fowler Jess and the addition of a new character bring welcome female voices to Hulick’s tale. Back in her role as Drothe’s bodyguard, Fowler Jess is more than just background in this book, and proves key in helping Drothe realize that the tactics that worked for him when he was just a nose simply don’t work now that he’s a Gray Prince. With the relationship between Drothe and Degan altered due to the conclusion of Among Thieves, the interplay between Drothe and Fowler fills the void, and Fowler’s expanded role is a welcome change.

Perhaps the most interesting addition is Aribah, an assassin who’s clearly a stone-cold killer, but with every scene she’s in, Hulick adds nuance until she’s quickly one of the book’s most compelling characters. Each time she appears, we learn a little more about her personality and her motivations, and it’s obvious that writing her portion of the tale comes very naturally for Hulick. I don’t think Hulick could keep her character out of the next book even if he wanted to, so I’m looking forward to seeing even more of this fascinating assassin moving forward. Given a larger role, she could easily steal the story (pun intended).

Once again, Hulick’s use of thieves’ cant enriches the world, immersing the reader in this world of thieves, thugs and con men. Djan provides potential for an interesting new world for Hulick to play in, and he inhabits it with local crime lords, magic users, dirty politicians and the aforementioned assassins, but it never feels entirely fleshed out in a way that makes it feel as fully populated as Ildrecca was in Among Thieves.

Above all, though, it’s impossible not to admire the risks Hulick took with his second book. Coming off a wildly successful first novel, he shuffled the deck, telling a different type of story in an entirely new environment. Despite the changes, he continued to build upon both Drothe’s character and the Degan society that has become central to the overarching plot. It’s a little weaker than Among Thieves, but it’s a strong entry that’s worth reading, especially if you enjoy gritty fantasy loaded with moral gray areas and ambiguous protagonists.

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Rating: 8.0/10 (5 votes cast)
Sworn in Steel by Douglas Hulick, 8.0 out of 10 based on 5 ratings
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