samedi 26 juillet 2014

Sworn in Steel by Douglas Hulick


Three months after his rise to the position of Gray Prince of the criminal elite, Drothe is struggling to bring together an organization worthy of the name while his fellow Gray Princes conspire against him. When one of those enemies dies with all clues pointing to Drothe as the culprit, Drothe is forced to flee before the other members of the Kin ally against him. Carrying an offer of redemption to an old friend, Drothe travels to the Despotate of Djan, enemy of the Empire, where he may just be able to get away from the price on his head. However there are even more enemies waiting in the Despotate and time is running out before the latest Gray Prince becomes the latest to fall...

One of my favourite fantasy debuts a couple of years ago, Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves was a tour-de-force, introducing a new world and a new character combined with some great plotting to create an unforgettable rollercoaster ride reminiscent of The Lies of Locke Lamora. I eagerly awaited the sequel... and waited... and waited... and waited. An initial release date in 2012 was pushed back, then left open ended and it was only in May of this year that the book, Sworn in Steel, was finally released. As such, it shot to the top of my To-Read-List for my summer holidays. And all in all, it was worth the wait.

Due to the long delay, it was difficult while reading Sworn in Steel to remember exactly what had happened in the last one. It would probably have been worth flicking through that earlier book to remind myself before delving into this one, but I was hoping that there would be enough in the novel to help me pick up the threads once again. While by the end of the novel I could basically remember what had happened in Among Thieves, so much happened in the three months in-story between the two books that sometimes it was hard to figure out what I was forgetting from the first book and what was off-screen in the intervening months. Because of that, the initial few chapters, while action-packed, were sometimes a struggle as I tried to place events in their context.

As mentioned above, a lot has happened in the three months since Among Thieves ended, most of it to do with Drothe’s attempts to secure his position as a Gray Prince, a kind of mafia don in this fantasy world of the Kin. One of the main events is the murder of another Gray Prince, a murder that has been laid very carefully on Drothe’s doorstep. This murder acts as the catalyst that sets Drothe on his journey to the Despotate, a journey that will take him into the middle of a dangerous conspiracy and deeper into the mysteries of the Degans.

In Among Thieves, one of the main draws was Drothe as narrator and he continues to be just as engaging and witty this time. While first-person can be difficult to pull off in a plot of such convoluted complexity, Hulick pulls it off masterfully, placing Drothe up on a pedestal of similar first person heroes alongside Fitz or Phedre. This voice is what carries the book and Hulick does it extremely well.

At the same time, Hulick expands and deepens the world he has created, introducing us to Djan, a really well realised addition to the world. Hulick describes Djan with a deft hand, creating a living breathing city reminiscent of other sand-blasted, Arabian fantasy cities. Providing a neat twist on the magic already developed in the first book, Djan has a much looser relationship to its use, away from the control of the Empire. At the same time, Hulick delves into an element of imperial life only touched upon in the first book – the world of the theatre. Forced to work with a theatre troop, Drothe becomes involved in the day to day life of the actors, allowing Hulick to create a cast of truly interesting, interesting characters as foils for Drothe to work with. Drothe finds himself in a fish-out-of-water situation, forcing him to jump through hoops in an attempt to get out of the life-or-death trap he has fallen into.

Through the plot, Hulick also continues to develop the mystery of the degans and their past, hitting the reader with some huge and surprising revelations. We get more degans here than in the first book and they come centre stage, their organisation and origins delved into in some detail. They are truly key to everything that is going on, the core of a complex thread with numerous threads that nevertheless come together in a very clever way at the end. Unfortunately, before that rousing finale, the middle section sags, with too much time spent on the minutiae of Droth’s day to day life. A lot of this could easily have been culled to create a much more streamlined adventure.

Marred by a clumsy, confused opening and an unwieldy middle, Sworn in Steel is an exciting, action-packed fantasy adventure that continues to delve into the deep world Hulick first introduced in Among Thieves. Helped by an engaging first-person narration, the novel explores new parts of the world while adding unexpected depths and surprises to elements touched upon in the first book. A rousing finish that masterfully combines the different elements of the novel sets up a third novel nicely and I will definitely be looking forward to it when it comes out. Let’s just hope that it takes less time than Sworn in Steel!

I gave Sworn in Steel 3 element-named degans out of 5.

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