Heir of Novron by Michael J. Sullivan – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the third and final volume in the Riyria Revelations series by Michael J. Sullivan, collecting together the novels Wintertide and Percepliquis.
“An explosive finale to the saga of Royce, Hadrian and Arista, Heir of Novron is simply fantastic in scope and execution. A must read of the year.” ~The Founding Fields
Note: The review is broken down into two parts: the first half is for Wintertide, the fifth novel of the series, and the second half is for Percepliquis, the sixth and final novel.
Note: There will be minor spoilers.
Coming off Rise of Empire, I had a lot of expectations for Heir of Novron, especially since The Emerald Storm was not as great as I had expected it to be and because it raised so many questions by the end of its narrative. The world of Elan is one of the most compelling and deviously simplistic fantasy settings out there and I was hungry for more. I wanted to see how Michael would resolve the conflicts between his protagonists and how he would execute on the expected climax.
So when I finally put down Heir of Novron, I was left rather speechless because the omnibus is simply awesome.
Over the course of the series, dozens of characters have been introduced, politics and intrigue have been at the forefront of all the events, and the protagonists are being literally put through hell in every novel. Not to mention that many of the characters we have seen so far, whether major or minor, are all hiding secrets, terrible secrets even. So to see the revealing of all these secrets was extremely rewarding and thrilling in equal measure.
Wintertide picks up just a few months after the events of The Emerald Storm as Royce and Melborn arrive back in Aquesta on their quest for the true long-lost heir of Novron. Of course, events have taken a turn for the dire, especially since the ending of The Emerald Storm so nothing is going as expected. Arista and Esraheddon are missing. The New Empire is beating Melengar into submission. Empress Modina is to be married to Regent Ethelred. The Wintertide celebrations are about to start, complete with jousting tournaments and lots of flirting and chivalry. The last one does not sound all that serious but trust me, it is quite central to our thieving duo.
Wintertide comes very, very close to being the best novel in the series so far. It is absolutely jam-packed with action, intrigue, mystery, thrills, heroics, revelations and Riyria. The best thing about the Riyria Revelations novels so far has been that they are stories told about a very grass-roots setting that makes no pretense of being grandiose or epic in the Tolkien-ish sense of the word. That really is the charm of the series and Michael continues that in Wintertide because his style and his narrative are such a joy to read. This is especially important in this novel because the majority of the events take place in just Aquesta, the heart of the New Empire. Aquesta is like the heart of a spider-web that is stretching out to all of Avryn and it is no surprise that it is the focal location for Wintertide. Against the backdrop of the season celebrations, it adds to the down-to-earth nature of the series.
I have said it before, and it bears repeating that Michael is excellent at characterisation. The star of this novel is Empress Modina, and she is followed in quick succession by Hadrian, Royce and then finally, Arista. I’d like to give an honourable mention to Secretary Amilia and to Sir Breckton as well because, over the course of the novel, I’ve grown to just love the two of them. Humble origins for both, and yet so important in the events that are coming.
Long-term fans of the series will agree that it is high time Modina did something to get out of her desperate self-destructive funk, and Michael does exactly that. She is the one who grows the most in Wintertide, and the one who will give you one of the biggest surprises of the series. Wintertide is partly about her finally becoming the Empress that the masses believe her to be and what she should be. Consequently, it is also about the fall from power of the two Regents, Bishop Saldur and King Ethelred. This is definitely one of the best character arcs in the novel.
Royce, ah Royce. Michael puts him through some serious hell in the novel, especially towards the end, all of which is really, really heart-breaking. I rarely see characters suffer so much in a fantasy novel. However, the most spectacular part of his arc in Wintertide is towards the end because Michael finally delivers on the promise of Royce’s dark nature unleashed. Heart-breaking like I said, but breath-taking at the same time too and enough to make you shiver as you turn the pages.
Hadrian was somewhat of a letdown. Forced to make a deal with the villains, he is presented well as someone caught between his loyalties, his affections, his duty and his honour, I couldn’t escape the feeling that he was being presented as too awesome in his action scenes. So far we have seen Hadrian as a monster in a sword-fight, one of the best there is, which is quite natural given his background but still, it struck a wrong chord with me. Surely if a character is forced into a situation he is mightily unfamiliar with, he shouldn’t win through in a spectacular, jaw-dropping manner? I’m very, very divided on this issue. I can almost see the necessity of it, but I think it could have been handled in a more natural and down to earth manner.
Sir Breckton and Amilia are so good in their simplicity that it makes you wonder why they haven’t been major characters from the beginning. Amilia is beginning to come to terms with her noble status but it is quite a twisted road still but she still handles it with natural talent. Which really shouldn’t be a surprise this far in the series. In fact, she reminds me quite a bit of Shaggy and Scooby-Doo at their best when they screw up, or think they screw up, but turns out that they solve the mystery anyway. Amilia is very much like that. Of course, she has the gallant Sir Breckton to assist her so she’s not completely on her own and the budding romance between the two of them is fun to read.
And finally Arista. Her near-descent into madness is neither enjoyable nor fun, but it is still evocative and powerful. Its not easy to continue living when everything around you comes crashing down and you are helpless and friendless, which is something that Michael captured well in Wintertide. Like Royce, her character arc is very heart-breaking to read and makes you feel really sorry for her. She has given up more than most in the last few years and more is to come. Quite how Michael found it in him to give us this startling character arc I have no idea, but I’m glad he did. It added a very real, very appropriate grittiness to the setting.
The pacing, as always, is excellent. Events move quickly, especially in the last third of the novel where they are pretty much sprinting along, but you are still able to keep up with it. Wintertide is one wild ride and you are never disappointed with its highs and lows. The narrative is just so engaging that at times, you don’t even bother considering if the pacing is smooth or not (it actually is pretty smooth). You are just too lost in the story to care!
One of things that really make Michael stand-out above many of his fellow fantasy authors is his attention to detail. In The Emerald Storm, he created a very realistic sea-adventure and you could almost feel that you were there on the Emerald Storm, operating the ship alongside Royce and Hadrian. He does this again here with Hadrian and the jousting tournament. His descriptions are not overly wordy and are just about the right length to create the world.
As for the plot itself, it is a big step up from The Emerald Storm and just as fantastic as the first three novels in the series. The way that all the mysteries, both new and old, unfold is great and you can see that Michael is beginning to wrap up several of the side-plots and is setting things up to finish in a major, explosive way.
My criticism from the Rise of Empire review still stands though: Wintertide is just not a stand-alone novel. This late into the series, there is just too much going on for the reader to really get into or understand without knowing all that has come before. I appreciate the effort of trying to make the novels stand apart from the others but it just doesn’t work because there are some things that cannot be taken at face value and need an explanation, such as who Riyria is, what is Arista doing in Aquesta, who is Degan Gaunt, and so on. Too much.
Apart from that however, Wintertide is a fantastic novel. And Michael continues what he started in Wintertide with Percepliquis, the epic and climactic finisher of the series.
The clock is now two minutes to midnight with an ancient enemy has awoken and is rampaging throughout Avryn with contemptuous ease and our protagonists from across the series now set out for their greatest mission yet. That mission being to discover the long-lost city of Percepliquis, the ancient capital of the Novronian Empire.
Like I’ve already said, Percepliquis is an all-round fantastic climax to the entire series. Michael once again comes to the fore with all his delightful little mysteries that seek to confound you at every turn and keep you guessing but which still resolve in the end in ways you don’t expect. As much as the novel is about wrapping up the series and giving us great action scenes and the usual intrigue, it is also about discovering the lost heritage of the protagonists, whether it Royce, Hadrian, Arista, Degan, the dwarf Magnus or even Modina herself.
The best thing about Percepliquis is that Michael pretty much wraps up all his side plots and major plots very nicely, very tidily. Bits of dialogue and passing references from early on in the novels turn out to have greater significance in the world of Elan than the reader could have imagined. Not to mention that the majority of the twists are completely unexpected yet make complete sense once you read their resolution. And entirely in keeping with the rest of the series, the characters are not who we think they are or have been led to believe they are. This extends to every character in the series, irrespective of their status as protagonists or supporting characters.
And that, is a beauty. It is rare to find such a novel in speculative fiction and Michael has definitely delivered very well on the promise from the Theft of Swords and Rise of Empire omnibuses.
I hate to say this because I love Avempartha so much, but Percepliquis is hands down the best novel of Riyria Revelations and that as a finisher, it more than holds its own against novels like Wintertide and Nyphron Rising. From start to finish, it is brilliantly executed in terms of everything, whether it be dialogue or pacing or characterisation or the mysteries.
The world of Elan being a unique setting does not preclude from traditional stories being told with it as the backdrop. Percepliquis is very much a quest-action-adventure-fantasy story set in a world with dwarves and goblins and elves and dragons. With the heroes’ quest to retrieve an ancient artefact from the lost capital, Percepliquis is an even more thrilling ride than either Avempartha, Nyphron Rising or Wintertide. It is an absolute gem of a story, simply put.
Over the course of Percepliquis, we see some strong, consistent character growth for Arista, who needed it most of all because so far, there were too many things going around her that meant she couldn’t fulfill her potential. But she does this in the climax novel. She grows up both mentally and skill-wise and I have to say that she is one of the more endearing characters in the series. Seeing her come into her own and inheriting the mantle of the Cenzar of old, the practitioners of magic in the Novronian Empire, and as Esraheddon’s successor is a fulfilling experience in its own.
Hadrian and Royce get the least characterisation space in the novel but that is understandable since they’ve had the stage to themselves for an overwhelming majority of the time in the series so far. These two don’t really need to grow any more but rather, they just need to become more well-rounded. And that does happen. The last few chapters of the novel, before the denouement, really get that across. They are both highly skilled as thieves and swordsmen and what not, but they are also flawed and have their own faults since they both suppress a really dark part of their nature, Royce more so than Hadrian. But when it all inevitably cracks, I would recommend keeping away from these two. The results can be…. messy.
One of the other magnificent things about the novel are the scenes that are set in Percepliquis itself. We finally get to learn some of the things in detail about the Novronian Empire and the quest to find the relic is one that helps both some of the adventurers come to terms with their heritage and their destiny. The crumbling edifice of Percepliquis offers a stark contrast to Aquesta and I have to say that I quite imagined myself alongside the heroes and seeing the sights myself.
Tragedy continues to abound of course, and Michael is no stranger to killing off characters when he needs to. Villains and heroes die in equal measure and while these deaths are sometimes uncomfortably abrupt and make for some inconvenient suspension of disbelief, they at least show that the setting is not a happy-go-lucky place where the good guys always win without losses. I would quite liken Michael’s handling of this to the Dragonlance Chronicle novels involving Tanis Half-Elven, Flint Fireforge, Sturm and the the others.
As I said earlier, Percepliquis is a novel in which no one, almost no one at any rate, is who they appear to be. This is the big twist in the novel. Prepare to have your perceptions challenged because, as the saying goes in the far future of the war-torn Warhammer 40,000 galaxy, “everything you have ever been told is a lie”. A great maxim for Michael’s surprise twist at the end of the novel.
Pretty much everything is wrapped by the end of the novel and almost all the characters get the closure they deserve. One of the niggling criticisms about the ending is that it is somewhat confusing since the author mixes up events in the future with events in the immediate present where the characters are concerned. It makes for rather disjointed reading. However, at least for me, it did nothing to lessen the punch of the main climax and I’m glad of it because I love the climactic battle.
All in all, I have to say that the two novels together as the omnibus Heir of Novron are just plain awesome. No two ways about it. Throughout the series, Michael takes the reader on a very special journey by starting you out slow and then taking you on a thrilling ride through the world of Elan and showing us something unique at almost every turn. You never get to pause and take a note of how a simple fantasy story involving two thieves and a prince in a world of no elves (no elves!) transforms into a story about the restoration of an ancient empire, a story of epic proportions where the stakes are the lives of everyone in the world. It all just comes about naturally.
For the entire experience, I recommend Heir of Novron to every single reader of fantasy novels out there and rate this omnibus at 9.5/10, a rating that it deserves for giving an all-round top-notch experience. Enjoy!