Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan – Book Review [Shadowhawk]

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Shadowhawk reviews the first volume in the Riyria Revelations series by Michael J. Sullivan, collecting together the novels The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha.

High fantasy at its best, Michael J. Sullivan creates a very compelling world filled with lovable archetypes and a healthy dose of mystery.” ~The Founding Fields.

Note: The review is broken down into two parts: the first half is for The Crown Conspiracy, the first novel of the series, and the second is for Avempartha, the sequel.

I am quite the fan of the high fantasy setting, with Black Library’s numerous Warhammer Fantasy novels, Tolkien’s Middle Earth novels, Feist’s Midkemian novels and the Dragonlance chronicles novels by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis being my favorites. The thing about high fantasy, or epic fantasy as some would call it, is that it is such a fantastical world filled with elves and dragons and wizards and goblins and gods and eternal struggles between good and bad and what not. The stakes are always high as well and it is no wonder why this sub-genre of speculative fantasy fiction is so popular: it creates an alternate believable world we can identify with and just lose ourselves in.

I first encountered Michael on Twitter sometime in December last year and the premise of his Riyria Revelations novels had me hooked from the get go. The premise, while no different at its core from that of any other high fantasy novel or series, just came across as rather unique to me, and I can’t really explain why. I just liked. Truth be told, that is usually how I do most of my reading. Recommendations do play a part in helping me decide what I want to read but more often that not, it is impulse-buying that makes the choice for me. As to result of this, I have been very rarely disappointed, very rarely. The Crown Conspiracy is a novel that I am very glad I picked up because I absolutely love it.

Something that I am finding has become quite the norm, and a very welcome one at that, is that a lot of the speculative fiction authors lately write fiction that is very approachable and shares styles with so many others, yet remains distinct enough. That was the case with my last fantasy read, Anne Lyle’s Alchemist of Souls and that is the case here with Michael’s The Crown Conspiracy as well.

His world is compelling from the get go and he builds it up very nicely over the course of the novel. There is some info dumping in a few parts but it is sufficiently rare not to distract the reader from the novel and it is handled well enough for my tastes that ultimately I don’t care about it. Usually info-dumping can be rather tedious to read but that is not the case here. It just adds to the overall immersion which only serves to make the novel that much better.

Michael’s style reminds me quite a bit of Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemian novels and therefore reading The Crown Conspiracy was quite the memory trip and a very enjoyable one at that. I hold Raymond’s novels in high esteem and I have never been disappointed with them over the years and for me, Michael makes for a great user of the same style. Their worlds unfold naturally and the settings in and of themselves are very immersive, especially in the first novels where the worlds really need to be given their foundations.

As I said, I love high fantasy and Michael keeps my love for the sub-genre strong. His passion for this novel is evident from early on and while I already knew beforehand of the tremendous effort that went into the writing of the series, it was nice to see all that leap off the pages. The characters are well crafted, the dialogue is very fitting, the pacing is excellent, the mysteries and thrills are compelling and together, the reading experience is quite rewarding.

The novel is about a soldier-turned-thief, Hadrian Blackwater, and his assassin-turned-thief friend, Royce Melborn. Together the two of them form the master thieving duo Riyria, which is elvish for two. The action kicks off from chapter one as we are subtly introduced to the characters and their legendary skills are made evident at the same time, grounding the characters very well in the narrative. Show don’t tell is one of the golden rules of speculative fiction (depending on who you ask as this does have its place and so does its reverse) and Michael uses that to great effect throughout the novel where our protagonists are concerned. We don’t just get other characters talking about Royce and Hadrian’s superior thieving skills, we see it in action as well. We don’t just get conversations about how good a swordsman Hadrian is, we see it happen. And we don’t just “hear” how good a lock-picker Royce is, we actually see it happen, with some interesting commentary I might add. Their skills complement each other quite well and this holds true even where their personalities are concerned because Hadrian is usually friendlier and ready to help those in need of the two while Royce can be quite callous and less forgiving of tolerant. The characterization of the two thieves is consistent throughout the novel and they never act out of character which is always great, especially in an author’s first novel.

The strong characterization holds through for the supporting lead characters as well. Prince Alric Essendon and his sister Arista, their uncle Percy Braga and the monk of Maribor, Myron Lanaklin, are all believable supporting characters who all get to shine in the narrative and don’t just end up playing second fiddle to Royce and Hadrian. They are also realistic within their defined roles and neither steps outside those bounds, although they can all surprise you every now and then which, in the end, keeps the excitement going.

The pacing as I have said is excellent and there are no unbearable lows in the narrative. The action flows very well from chapter-to-chapter and scene-to-scene while the mystery and thrill aspects of the novel are persistent throughout as well. Simply put, there is never a point in the novel where you want to put it down because you are bored.  The unfolding history of the world, the factions and the characters just keep you going on and on and it all adds to the reading experience.

Speaking of dialogue, Michael’s characters talk in a very down-to-earth manner, that is, their dialogue is never grandiose and is very simplistic in style, meaning the reader is able to get into the heads of the characters quite easily. Each character also has his/her distinct voice and there is rarely any overlap. In the end, the dialogue ends up working very well with the characterisation, making The Crown Conspiracy a very atmospheric and immersive novel, one of the very few of its kind.

One of the reasons I enjoyed the novel so much was that it took a very laid-back approach to magic and was never in-your-face about it. Magic in the world of Elan is a very subtle thing, very unlike the magic systems you read about in most high fantasy fiction. I won’t spoil the way the system works but think about Flitwick and dial it up to eleven and you won’t be too wrong.

The only negative thing about The Crown Conspiracy is that it is too short for my liking! Coming off the mammoth 700+ pages (on my iPad) that was Anne Lyle’s Alchemist of Souls, Michael’s novel is only half the size. The novel is so awesome that I wish it was much, much longer. The setting of Elan (the world of Riyria Revelations) is a very dreamy, yet gritty place and the more time you spend in it, the more you are drawn into it. That kind of work is really hard to beat.

Fortunately for me, the second novel in the series was just round the corner and I started on Avempartha as soon as I finished The Crown Conspiracy.

To say that Avempartha is a worthy sequel to its predecessor is something of an understatement. The second novel of the Riyria Revelations series is just as enjoyable, just as immersive and just as amazing as the first, if not better. Choosing which one I liked better of the two is quite the difficult task but I’ll go by instinct and say that Avempartha is the superior novel, for several reasons.

One, Michael starts off the novel by picking up some of the minor plot threads from the previous novel and gently eases the reader back into Elan and into the gritty society that our two lovable but often-at-odds heroes, Hadrian and Royce, operate in. This I thought was an excellent start to the novel since it provided much needed continuity. Finding out what the fallout was from the climax in The Crown Conspiracy was nicely rewarding.

Second, Avempartha just goes to show that Michael has no qualms about killing off his characters which is another rising trend in speculative fiction. While some people would be put-off by this rising tendency, I consider this to be something that is intrinsic and realistic to the fictional worlds that the writers are trying to create and draw us, the readers, into. While I have enjoyed watching the original cast of the original Star Wars trilogy go on for many an adventure for like 30-35 years after Episode IV: A New Hope, it does tend to get a little ridiculous. This was also an issue with the many Star Trek shows. I understand the reasons and all but at some point the immersion just breaks and it all becomes somewhat unsatisfactory. Thankfully, the recent crop of speculative fiction is breaking that trend and I welcome it with open arms. Michael is especially good at ramping up the reader’s emotional attachment to these characters and then killing them off in a manner that initially makes you feel hollow and dispirited inside but then salves that open wound as well. So far, I’ve only seen this kind of style with Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts novels where he has gone on to kill several beloved major and minor characters but done it in a way that still keeps your emotional attachment to them strong. So big cheers to Michael for this.

Third, Michael finally begins to reveal the extent and power of the magic in Elan, doing it in a way that is mystical and breath-taking at the same time. You only need to look at the cover art of the novel to realise the truth of this. Not to mention that we also begin to delve into the details of the ancient Novronian Empire, the great human civilisation that fell some thousands years ago during a period of great turmoil. Avempartha deals extremely well with the fallout of this great event in the “current timeline” and through our two heroes, we very much become explorers and anthropologists who are along for the journey.

The return of some of the minor characters, like Princess Arista Essenson and the ancient wizard Esraheddon, serves to heighten the tension in the novel as the two of them join Royce and Hadrian in unraveling the ancient mysteries. In many ways, it was great to see Arista developing into a major character of the novel compared to the previous one in which she was a crucial plot-character that sets the protagonists on their journey. She becomes more confident and grows into a much more dominant character, which foreshadows what Michael has in store for her in future novels. The same goes for Esraheddon, the last great Cenzar of the Novronian Empire who has begun to reintegrate into a changed world that alien and sometimes unfathomable to him. But he is still a manipulative and devious character who cares only for the big picture and the big goal. If sacrifices have to be made, he will willingly make them. However, he is not callous about these sacrifices because he acknowledges the cost of his grand vision. Quite simply, he accepts what he needs to do and then goes ahead and does it. He reminds me quite a bit of Gandalf from Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings novels and of the druids Bremen and Allanon from Terry Brooks’s Shannara novels. Just as with these well-known wizard-guide-friend characters, Esraheddon is someone you really get to connect with over the course of the novel, and he becomes much more well-rounded than he was in The Crown Conspiracy.

All the mysteries and twists that were introduced in the previous novel suddenly bloom up in Avempartha and given that the novel is quite fast-paced throughout, it made for a very exhilarating read. I just kept tapping the screen, burning through the novel as fast as I could because I just had to know what was going to happen next. Michael is really good at keeping the reader engaged and it is something that he builds up on very well from The Crown Conspiracy. All the revelations in the second novel are just going to keep you hooked from the beginning to the end and once the finishing blow is delivered, you begin to realise that there are greater games and conspiracies afoot than we have been shown. The stakes are getting bigger and bigger and there isn’t going to be any relief from that tension, definitely not until we turn the last page of the sixth novel, Percepliquis.

Speaking of the sixth novel, Michael’s excellent world-building continues as we follow Royce, Hadrian, Arista, Esraheddon and the other characters through Avryn (one of the many regions in the world of Elan). The mysteries and twists I mentioned previously are the medium that the author uses to explain why things are as they are in this world and I quite like the minimalist approach that is being used. There is never too much of it and never too little either, although the balance shifts more towards the latter rather than being even between the two. I would have preferred more of course, but that’s a very minor nitpick point.

Simply put, Avempartha confirms for me that Michael J. Sullivan is a very talented author who know what he is doing and how he is doing it. He is fast becoming one of my favourite authors since his writing charm is so very different from that of authors who have come before him and yet is quite reminiscent of the best of them as well.

I enjoyed this first Riyria Revelations volume quite thoroughly and I while I would usually say that I look forward to more in the future, at the time of writing this review, I have finished the fourth novel in the series and will be starting on the fifth novel, Wintertide, collected in the omnibus Heir of Novron along with the sixth novel Percepliquis, very soon. So all I will say is that people should definitely get this omnibus because it is awesome and has a fantastic cover art that shows Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn.

Quick Note: The cover art for the individual novels was done by Michael himself while the cover art for the omnibuses has been done by Orbit through their own artist.

All in all, I will recommend the Theft of Swords quite highly and will say that everyone should check it out as soon as they can. In terms of overall quality and experience, the omnibus is right up there for me with Rob Sanders’s Legion of the Damned and Anne Lyle’s Alchemist of Souls. Therefore I rate Theft of Swords very highly at 9.5/10 and wish Michael the very best with his future work.

You can find a review of Theft of Swords from Bane of Kings here.

Just as a little teaser, check out this post by Michael about the success of his books.

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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