Rise of Empire by Michael J. Sullivan – Book Review [Shadowhawk]

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Shadowhawk reviews the second volume in the Riyria Revelations series by Michael J. Sullivan, collecting together the novels Nyphron Rising and The Emerald Storm.

“Michael J. Sullivan adds more layers of depth and nuance to the world of Elan and finally begins to show just why the series is called Riyria Revelations and not something else. A fitting continuation to Theft of Swords.” ~The Founding Fields

Note: The review is broken down into two parts: the first half is for Nyphron Rising, the third novel of the series, and the second is for The Emerald Storm, the fourth.

Note: There will also be some minor spoilers.

I started reading Rise of Empire as soon as I put down Theft of Swords, more so because I had become so invested in the characters of Hadrian and Royce that I just could not wait to get back to them at a later date. To say that the experience was gratifying is an understatement. The second omnibus in the series is just as enjoyable a read as the first and there is ample evidence in it that shows how much the author grew in the writing of it, even though The Crown Conspiracy wasn’t published until all six novels in the series had been written.

Nyphron Rising picks up nearly a year from where Avempartha left off and things are definitely not looking good for the good guys since the Nyphron Church has begun to solidify the newly-recreated Novronian Empire. Wars and rebellions abound since not everything has gone according to plan for the Church and the good guys are hard-pressed to deal with its new-found power. Enter Arista once again as her brother’s ambassador who has been made responsible for securing alliances for Melengar against the power of the corrupt Church and its new empire. And where Arista is, Royce and Hadrian are not far behind, especially as they are now in service to the her brother, the King.

This, I think, is the best novel in the series so far, and it certainly rivals Avempartha for the my-favourite slot. In true high fantasy and questing heroes style, Michael takes the reader on quite a journey through the Avryn region as we begin to explore just what makes our protagonists tick, especially Hadrian and Royce. By now, some of their past history is not that much of a surprise to the reader since Michael has been dropping ample hints along the way, but the unveiling of these revelations about Riyria are still done in a way that makes you grin a lot, and rewards you for figuring things out early. There are so many ways that the author could have gone with it and at some points I definitely expected him to do things a certain way but I’m glad that he stuck to what he had been offering us already and didn’t cheapen the effect.

The excellent characterisation of Royce and Hadrian continues in Nyphron Rising and we see the two of them grow even more now as they are forced to come to terms with their past. Royce’s adventures in Colnora and Hadrian’s life in Hintindar are some of the highlights of their background and the revealing of these highlights is also a highlight of the novel itself. They aren’t just thieves, they are more than that and this is shown in spades. This goes back to how natural his writing is, plain and simple. Again, there is nothing grandiose about the flow of his narrative and if ever the reader feels like the author is throwing a curve-ball, the resolution is always just round the corner. He makes you wait to find out things but he doesn’t reveal them too early or too late.

Balance. It is all about the balance.

Also, the dialogue for the two of them is spot-on once again. These two are always in character and its nice to see that continuity reflected throughout the novel, especially in their friendly banter. Even the normally taciturn Royce cracks a few jokes now and then. Perfect stuff.

I definitely enjoyed learning more about Arista’s past and her attempts at learning true magic, what the wizard Esraheddon calls the Art. As I mentioned in my review of Theft of Swords, magic in Elan is a very instinctive and natural process with subtleties not usually seen in the variety of magic systems that are common in fantasy fiction. And Arista’s education, or, as some would say her re-education, is a unique experience for me in terms of reading. To draw comparisons elsewhere again, I’m very much reminded of the magic education of Pug of Crydee from his early days, one of the major protagonists of Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemia novels. Pug is one of my favourite fantasy characters of all time, and while I don’t see Arista as quite being on that level yet, she is growing on me for sure. Its interesting to see her grow from being just a princess to something more, an icon, if you will.

Thrace, or Empress Modina as she is now known, makes a comeback after having been one of the minor yet important characters in Avempartha. With the Church of Nyphron having declared her as the successor of the lost kings of the Novronian Empire, she now rules the New Empire, but all is not as it seems and Michael definitely makes her situation come across as unique. Thrace is an interesting character: headstrong, bold, caring, soft-spoken, emotional. But Modina is completely different: mute and unaware of her surroundings. The way the narrative of the unfolds, you find yourself pitying this simple farm girl who is thrust into a role she does not care for or is aware of. Her story in Nyphron Rising is a very tragic story and so far in the series, the most tragic yet. Kudos to Michael for making me care for such a side-character so much.

With a new novel, there are bound to be some new characters and some old characters who return and as usual, Michael excels at making them all believable and likable at the same time. Modina’s secretary Amilia, Bishop Saldur, Alric Essendon, Mauvin Pickering, they are all really fun characters to read about. I still dislike Saldur extremely strongly but you cannot help but admire the scheming Regent who has been placed in charge of helping run the New Empire. Alric makes a small cameo but is true to form as a frustrated ruler although Mauvin was a big surprise. I would have expected him to be more driven at this point but sadly that is not the case. Alongside Thrace, he is one of the other characters whose tales have taken a turn for the tragic.

All in all, Michael continues with his excellent pacing, delivering a really strong plot. The build-ups and the reveals are handled nicely and the atmosphere that is persistent throughout the novel is one of danger with death and betrayal at every corner. I had originally thought that it would be hard to excel Avempartha but Nyphron Rising certainly continues with the trend and delivers on the promise from its predecessor. And speaking of death, one thing that Michael has shown throughout the first three novels is that he is not hesitant or reluctant about killing off any of the characters when necessary. The deaths are often brutal and shocking and also happen in a flash, serving to disorient the reader very well for those precious moments. The intensity of the plot is perfect and Nyphron Rising is definitely the star of the series so far.

My only criticism for the novel is that while it is supposed to be a stand-alone (not counting the fact that it is part of an omnibus of two novels), it is not that easy to get into for a new readers. Coming off having read the previous omnibus, I think there are a little too many references to past events, especially in the beginning. So new readers beware. My advice would be to read Theft of Swords before you pick up Rise of Empire.

Definitely a must read however and one that I can heartily recommend to all the fans of the series.

 Moving on, The Emerald Storm was kind of a let-down for me personally. Compared to its predecessors, the fourth novel in the series is not one that I enjoyed much. And that has to do with the plot more than anything else and the actual narrative itself.

In this novel, we are treated to what can only be called adventure on the high seas of Elan since our two thieves now travel on an enemy ship seeking to disrupt some nefarious scheme of the Nyphron Church and its agents. The scenes on the ship Emerald Storm are quite well done in that Michael truly allows the reader to experience life on a ship and gets suitably technical to add to the atmosphere but somehow it all felt very filler to me. Things happened because they happened not because there were particular reasons and rooted character motivations to happen, if you get my meaning.

Later on, when we are trudging through the jungles in and about Dagastan, it was all ramped up, adding to a certain boredom. The Emerald Storm is the biggest installment yet in the series, although marginally so, and it felt like I was reading a bigger novel too. Few of the newly-introduced characters were all that interesting to begin with and none of them really endeared themselves to me. I somehow feel that the Royce/Hadrian part of the novel is there out of some extreme necessity because it just needs to be there rather than it being relevant to the larger tale that has been unfolding across the previous three novels.

That said, Michael’s dialogue is still fairly consistent and the dialogue is the only redeeming feature of this part of the novel. This is quite disappointing since I highly enjoyed Nyphron Rising and was expecting a rather cracker of a novel but I guess it wasn’t to be.

The other half of the novel, dealing with Arista’s mission to rescue the true heir of the old Empire all by her lonesome, was interesting. I think that a few more character-building scenes could have been added to her personal arc to make her more complete but she works fine as she is. The Arista here is an even more confident one than seen previously and definitely much more in command of her powers. And of course, Michael very aptly raises the point of just how much power is truly enough, which made for a very satisfying read.

Connected in with Arista is Modina once again and Amilia and more than anyone else, I think its the former farm-girl who experiences the most character growth rather than the kitchen worker raised far above her station. I am definitely liking Modina’s character more and more and want to see her take the centerstage all good and proper. Michael has worked in just the right amount of insanity and lucidity into her and she is a joy to read in The Emerald Storm.

The dialogues for this second major arc is even more superb and appropriate than the first and it definitely helps to lift the novel from its somewhat dreary scenes with Royce and Hadrian’s ship journey. If only the rest had been as good!

The pacing was off for these reasons and the novel flip-flops a little too much between boredom and excitement and the revelations about Riyria continue apace as we learn even more about the duo’s back-story, with Hadrian being especially in the spotlight here. But it was all a little too cliche, as if Michael was playing up just how amazing Hadrian really is, although by know we know that he is pretty damn awesome already and don’t really need more proof of that. Again, too much of the “this-is-filler-content” feeling for me.

So to close off, I still recommend Rise of Empire to all the fans of the series and to any new readers, I still say you should pick up THeft of Swords before this one. Overall, the series so far tells of a very rich setting populated by a great cast of characters and some really good drama and tension. Riyria Revelations is not a series you should be missing out on, especially if you like a humble approach to high fantasy.

As for the ratings, I give Rise of Empire a strong 8.5/10.

All in all, I’m hoping that Wintertide really picks up the slack from The Emerald Storm. I have Heir of Novron (it collects together Wintertide and Percepliquis) all loaded up on my iPad and ready to read and I’m going to give it a go pretty soon in fact.

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.

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