Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 14 September 2021)
Series: Standalone/Book One
Length: 343 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Magic, betrayal and the ultimate fantasy heist await in Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn, one of the most exciting and compelling debuts of 2021.
Welcome to the city of Carrowwick, where life is cheap and three powerful gangs fight for supremacy and control of its notorious underground. Out of all the thieves, rogues and assassins found within Carrowwick, no one is more feared than Ryia Cautella. Better known as ‘the Butcher’, thanks to her uncanny skill with her twin hatchets, Ryia is sworn to notorious gang-leader Callum Clem, and is the chief enforcer and hidden blade of his Saints gang. But while she seems content to spend her time fighting, drinking, and womanizing, deep down Ryia harbours a dark secret and a hidden past.
Thanks to an incredibly rough childhood, Ryia is in hiding from the most dangerous person in the entire realm, the Guildmaster, the powerful magic user who serves as the de facto ruler of the continent of Thamorr. The Guildmaster runs a continent-spanning organisation whose operatives locate, capture and bind every child with magical potential in order to sell them to the highest bidder. Forced to flee from city to city, constantly changing her identity, Ryia has no chance at a future while the Guildmaster is after her, and there is only so long that she can avoid her fate. However, a chance encounter soon reveals a potential way out of her desperate situation, although it will mean journeying to the most dangerous place in the world, the Guildmaster’s Island, to steal a powerful magical artefact.
Determined to gain her freedom, Ryia prepares to attempt the impossible and infiltrate the Guildmaster’s Island during the annual auction where the bound and brainwashed magic users are sold. However, not even the mighty Butcher can break into this impenetrable fortress alone. Reluctantly forced to work with a team, Ryia sets out with a motley crew of rogues and miscreants, including a forger, a conman, a fallen soldier, and a smuggler. But can this disparate crew pull off their impossible job, or are they all marching towards their deaths? Worse, who among the crew can really be trusted, as every member has their own reason for being there, and none of them would hesitate to stab the others in the back to achieve their goals. Let the heist begin!
This was a brilliant and outstandingly entertaining debut from M. J. Kuhn, who has done a remarkable job with her first book. Among Thieves has a fun and clever story that takes its fantastically motley group of protagonists on an intense and thrilling adventure. I loved the great blend of enthralling characters, an interesting new fantasy setting and an outstanding narrative, and this ended up being one of the best debut novels I have read in 2021.
Among Thieves has a really awesome narrative that I had an absolute blast getting through. Frankly, I was very keen to read this novel the moment I saw it was a fantasy heist novel, as I love it when dark magical settings combine with classic crime fiction heist storylines. Kuhn really did not disappoint as Among Thieves’ narrative is extremely well set out and does a great job bringing together its disparate genre threads. The world, the various characters, and the dark tone of the book are set out quickly in an entertaining and easy-to-follow manner in the first 100 pages. The reader gets a great sense of all the key players of this book, especially as the author makes excellent use of a multiple-perspective storytelling device, with all five members of the heist crew narrating several chapters within the book.
Once the scenario and the characters are established, Kuhn quickly moves into the exciting centre of the novel, which sees the protagonists infiltrating the Guildmaster’s island to find the treasure they seek and steal it. The characters face some major adversity here, from betrayals within and without, as well as the unfortunate attention of rivals, law enforcement and the forces of their target. This leads to several intense and entertaining scenes as the protagonists attempt to overcome these obstacles while their own personal demons and ambitions come to the surface. There is a major twist about two-thirds through Among Thieves that is not only fun and a little unexpected but which also sets up the final arc of the novel extremely well. This final third of the book sees the various characters make their final plays for the prize (if they still want it), while several revelations and twists are brought to the surface. I deeply enjoyed the way that the story turned out, especially the reveal of the book’s real winner, and Kuhn chucks in some great surprises towards the end. The entire story is an amazing blend of intrigue, action, thievery and relatable character interactions, which helps to produce a fast-paced and captivating narrative that I had a really hard time setting down. Kuhn also makes sure to leave a few storylines wide open, which would translate into a sequel extremely well. I really hope that the author continues this storyline in the future as I cannot wait to see how this awesome narrative finishes up.
Easily one of the best things about this amazing novel was the great mixture of unique and entertaining characters. As I mentioned above, Among Thieves’ story features five central protagonists, the members of the heist crew, each of whom has their perspective shown at various points of the book. This includes:
- Ryia, a hardnosed and incredibly powerful killer who parties hard, flirts mercilessly with every female character and kicks ass in some incredibly violent ways. While Ryia appears to be a fun and entertaining character most of the time, she has a very dark past, filled with regret, betrayal, and the shocking actions of her father. Thanks to her tendency to use humour and crassness as a distraction to hide deeper pain, Ryia proves to be both an entertaining and tragic figure, and it was deeply compelling to see her storyline unfold. I loved the focus on her twisted loyalties, especially as she initially plans to betray her crew for her own ends. However, she goes through some major development as the book continues, and slowly establishes some emotional connections she has been missing throughout most of her life. A brilliant and fun central character, you will fall in love with this axe-wielding maniac.
- Tristan, the youngest member of the group and their resident sleight of hand expert, specialising in gambling, cheating and pickpocketing. Tristan is bit of a dandy who was forced into the Saints after incurring a substantial debt, later sticking around due to his unrequited love with Ryia. Like Ryia, Tristan has a lot of secrets from his past and is also a bit of a fugitive. Tristan ends up being forced into some very unfortunate positions as the book continues due to various betrayals (his and other peoples), and he ends up being quite a major figure in the story. I deeply enjoyed some of the great twists surrounding him, and it looks like Kuhn has some intriguing plans for him in the future.
- Nash, the smuggler, a ship captain of great skill and cunning who transports the gang to the Guildmaster’s Island and helps them pull off their heist. Nash is a fun character who has some interesting storylines surrounding her inconvenient relationship with gang leader Callum Clem. While I quite liked her as a protagonist, she was one of the least developed characters in the novel, mainly because she is the only one who didn’t have a plan to betray the gang. Kuhn does add some interesting details to her arc towards the end of Among Thieves, as she is forced to deal with her growing attraction to Ivan, her conflicted loyalty to the insane Callum, and her own ambitions and survival instincts.
- Ivan, the forger who serves as another entertaining character with a compelling storyline around him. Ivan is ultra-talented master of all sorts of forgery, including documents, tattoos, disguises, and everything in between. A natural charmer and brilliant actor, Ivan manages to win the hearts of many, including Nash and the reader. However, he also has a secret past as a freedom fighter, and he sees this job as an opportunity to free his imprisoned brother and re-start his revolution. I found Ivan to be a funny and charming figure, and like I did with Ryia and Tristan, I deeply appreciated the inclusion of a hidden past which motivates his potential betrayal. Ivan ends up in an interesting place at the end of the novel, and it will be fascinating to see how his gamble will play out.
- Evelyn, the former city guard of Carrowwick and Among Thieves’ final point-of-view character. Evelyn is a complex and intense figure, a former honourable officer who is dishonoured and disinherited partially thanks to Ryia’s actions. After a massive bender, she is convinced to join the heist crew by Callum Clem in exchange for being allowed to capture Ryia, whose imprisonment would restore her honour and position. Evelyn has one of the best character arcs in the entire novel, especially as she plays a fish-out-of-water character, as the former cop trapped among a group of thieves. This allows her to serve as an excellent foil to Ryia, and the two have a very adversarial relationship, which naturally develops some romantic overtones as the book progresses. I liked how Evelyn slowly became more devious and criminally minded as the book progresses, and she was an excellent addition to the story, bring some great humour, drama and integrity (briefly) to the narrative.
Overall, I felt that Kuhn did an amazing job establishing all these main characters, and each of them brings something unique and fun to the story. There was a pretty good balance between each of these characters, and it was very enjoyable getting to know all five of them. That being said, having five separate motivations/planned betrayals was a bit much on top of the heist storyline, and it muddied the main plot just a little. Still, I think that Kuhn made it work and it wasn’t too overwhelming. All five characters have great chemistry with each other, and their distinctive perspectives helped to highlight the various mad plans and ideas in a very entertaining light. I had an amazing time following these five rogues, and I look forward to seeing what happens to them in any future novels Kuhn writes. I am also very curious about the side character who was cleverly given a point-of-view chapter at the end of the book, and I am sure it will result in a brilliant and villainous performance in the next book.
In addition to the awesome story and complex characters, I also was quite taken by the intriguing new fantasy world that Kuhn came up with. Among Thieves is set in the continent of Thamorr, which is made up of five kingdoms who all pay homage to the Guildmaster, who controls the supply and demand of the magically powered supersoldiers each nation relies on. Kuhn does a great job of introducing and setting up this new fantasy world, and the reader is soon dragged into the great crime-riddled city of Carrowwick, with its warring gangs, and the eventual travel to the Guidmaster’s island, a grim and hopeless magical fortress. The interplay of the rival gangs, the political upheaval of several kingdoms, and the creation of obedient magical beings are all fantastic and add some great depth and background to the story. I also loved the cool magical system Kuhn works into the narrative really well, ensuring that the control of people with magical potential becomes a major plot point. This amazing setting serves as the perfect backdrop to the fast-paced and clever narrative, and it was quite fascinating to see the characters explore every compelling aspect of it. It looks like this fantasy world will be massively expanded in the future novels, and I cannot wait to what cool new elements Kuhn introduces next.
With her debut novel, Among Thieves, new author M. J. Kuhn has shown herself to be an outstanding and impressive new talent on the fantasy fiction stage. Among Thieves has an awesome and captivating heist-centric storyline, and I loved the cool combination of intense fantasy and thrilling crime fiction elements. This all results in a powerful and intense narrative based on five brilliant and complex characters, which proves to be exceedingly addictive and thrilling. I had an excellent time reading Among Thieves and this was easily one of the best debut novels of 2021.