Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Book Review: Den of Thieves

David Chandler offered me the chance to read the first novel in his upcoming fantasy trilogy, “The Ancient Blades.” Den of Thieves is Mr. Chandler’s first fantasy novel, but not his first professionally published novel, having written horror novels previously.

Den of Thieves is an interesting book. Firstly, it is the most medieval fantasy novel I have ever read. By this I mean that Mr. Chandler has done his homework and his Free City of Ness looks and feels like a medieval city, and not a Ren-fair city. You see this a lot in the little details: the tanners shops reek, magic swords weep “vitriol,” and children drink small beer. This gives the book a very different flavor from most fantasy novels. The closest comparison I can make is maybe to David Drake's “Thieves World” stories (you know, like the one where the protagonist finds a secret door by peeing on the floor). There are a few spots where certain details feel off (Ness is one of those cities that somehow thrive even though they actively work to keep a lot of people from entering) but for the most part just reading about the city was fun, and it really feels like a place the protagonists live in.

The story looks like heist fiction but is really a mystery spanning two capers. It even wraps up with a standard full explanation/confession from the villain. Other than that, the book is full of little surprises. Similar to "Babylon 5" and the stories of Joss Wheadon, certain familiar tropes are set up to confound your expectations. If you pick this book up and read the prologue, you're likely to think you've read this story before and that the characters feel a little flat. Some of them are a touch pat, and there's at least one relationship in the book that doesn't work for me (two characters never get around to killing one another as the situation they find themselves in would seem to dictate; instead they develop an almost friendly business relationship). I also have a few nitpicky issues with the book, like the map not being entirely accurate in a few important details, but these are easy to ignore and won’t spoil the fun.

And there is a lot to like here. If you're a fan of the Middle Ages, you'll enjoy the historical touches. If you like your fantasy dark and gritty, you'll enjoy the down-in-the-gutters focus. GMs will find a trove of neat ideas, from unusual magic swords to bizarre demons to fiendish traps and clever ways to get around them. This book is full of the fun lateral thinking we OSR types are always crowing about. And if you are a big fan of thieves, you'll really enjoy both the glimpse we get of Ness’ thieves guild and the two heists.

If you do enjoy Den of Thieves, you’ll be happy to hear that the two following books of the trilogy are slated to be released this October and December. Thankfully, while Mr. Chandler's books follow the current fantasy trend of being a touch on the thick side, he hasn't embraced the notion that readers should have to wait years between installments. Mr. Chandler is also an old-schooler himself, so be sure to check out the Russ Nicholson illustrations on the trilogy's web page and offer him your congratulations on his getting published by HarperCollins.


Chris Kutalik said...

Great review, very even-handed.

I will definitely have to read it now, as a free book by a fellow D&Der it jumped ahead in the queue.

Anonymous said...

We have the great pleasure of playing with David in the New York Red Box group, although now that he's a published author he always has to buy the snacks for everyone.
- Tavis