Book Reviews · Fantasy

Review: Among Thieves by M.J. Kuhn

WHO NEEDS FRIENDS WHEN YOU HAVE AXES?

Ryia ‘the Butcher’ Cautella has earned her reputation as the quickest, deadliest blade in the city – not to mention the sharpest tongue. But Ryia Cautella is not her real name. A deadly secret has kept Ryia in hiding, running from city to city, doing whatever it takes to stay one step ahead of the formidable Guildmaster – sovereign ruler of the five kingdoms. But even the most powerful men can be defeated. 

One last impossible job is all that stands between Ryia and her freedom – but even the Butcher can’t do it alone. She teams up with the Saints, a crew of uniquely skilled miscreants, smugglers and thieves, to carry off a death-defying heist into the most tightly guarded island in the kingdoms – the Guildmaster’s stronghold. Unfortunately for Ryia, her new allies are nearly as selfish as she is, and they all have plans of their own…

Thank you to NetGalley and Gollancz for the eARC in exchange for an honest review.

Among Thieves was a really fun read that had me hooked from the start, and with Ryia as the opening point of view it definitely kept me entertained, as she is very snarky, but also very capable, which I like. Ryia is notorious in Carrowwick for her deadly skills, shadowy presence, and infamous axes she always keeps upon her person, and she works for Callum Clem, leader of the Saints, the city’s most powerful gang – for now. Things have been going a little wrong for the Saints recently, and there is talk of the rival gangs joining forces on a big job that will see them claim the highest position. Ryia’s mission when we meet her is to shake down a visiting prince who broke contract with Clem and to obtain information. So far, standard, and the Lottery (aka the slums of the city) is an immediately familiar place for those who read a lot of fantasy set in cities, and the key characters all have recognisable elements while also being unique.

There’s Ryia, already mentioned, who is a witty assassin with a difficult past, and a secret that holds implications not only for herself but the whole world; Nash, a smuggler who has survived by letting people believe she shared Callum Clem’s bed; Tristan, light-fingered and quick-witted, who works for Clem to pay off the debt of trying to steal from him, but won’t tell anyone where he’s from; Ivan, the charmingly handsome disguise master skilled in sewing intricate outfits that can change colour and style with the tug of a string; and Evelyn, the disgraced -yet self righteous- Needle Guard who knows all the details about royal comings and goings, and how to break into the archive.

“Going one day without committing murder is not exactly a bragging point for most people.”

“I’m not most people.”

And the job is, as always in a good heist story, seemingly impossible: our characters must break into the island of the Guildmaster, the man who controls the entire kingdom with his Adept, to retrieve a magic quill of unknown properties. But let’s talk about the world-building, otherwise the sentence I’ve just written makes no sense: the known world is divided into nations, each with its own king, but is controlled by the Guildmaster, a title passed down from one Adept to another, the first being Declan Day. What are the Adept? Essentially people born with magic, either Kinetics or Sensor, and we learn that there was a time in which they were free and wrecked havoc on non-magical people, until one of their own -the very same Declan Day- found a way to bring all Adepts under his control, and they are now sold as slaves throughout the kingdom. Somehow, the Guildmaster knows where each Adept is in the world at any given time, and shows up to collect Adept-born children and train them on his island – when they’re old enough, they’re sold in the great auction attended by all the royals and merchants of the kingdom, and they are wiped of any free will and respond only to the command of their master, who brands them with their blood. It’s pretty grim, and the book does some interesting things with the way some of the non-Adept characters start of thinking of magic users as things and then coming to realise the horror of this slave trade.

This whole magic system is very interesting, and so is the dynamic between the characters, because they’re all in this job for their own gains – on the outside acting on behalf of feared leader Callum Clem, while each scheming to use the reward to solve their own problems. I liked this tension, and the inevitable way in which the crew become a bit of a family while on the job, making any betrayals even worse. There were a few elements that felt a little flat to me, with most of the nations heavily drawing on different European countries, and the two things that kept taking me out of the narrative were the names of the months – essentially the same as ours but spelled different, like Juli – and the way Ivan, who is from fantasy Russia and always inserts random words of his own language into his sentences and inner monologue, which in my experience is not what a bilingual would do when he is otherwise fully fluent in the secondary language, as Ivan seems to be. That’s just me nitpicking, but I enjoyed reading Among Thieves and I do hope there is a followup, as a lot of plot lines are left unresolved.

Book Info

Published: 9th September 2021, by Gollancz
Genre: fantasy
Pages: 352
Series: none (at the moment)
Narration style: third person past tense, multiple points of view
Format read: eARC
Content Warnings: slavery, violence, some confinement

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