The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the Riyria Chronicles prequel series.
“This book is everything I could have and wanted to ask for in a prequel.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
I’m a big fan of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series. They are (somewhat) traditional fantasy and they feature an unlikely duo of Royce and Hadrian and are often about impossibly quests, and I love them. Right from the first book, The Crown Conspiracy, and all through to the the sixth and final book, Percepliquis, this series was a joy to read. These books reignited my love for such novels and I’ve gone on to read a lot of fantasy novels since because of these novels. So all in all, pretty good experience all around. In the middle of last year or thereabouts, Michael then announced that he had accepted a deal with his new publisher Orbit (who published the 6 Riyria Revelations novels as 2-book omnibuses) to write two prequel novels that would take readers back to the days when Royce and Hadrian first met, as well as their first adventures. This was exciting news for me and I’ve been waiting to read these books ever since.
On that account, and based on how much I like Michael’s novels already, The Crown Tower was pretty much everything I wanted out of it. And it even does some surprising things I wasn’t expecting, which were a real nice surprise, and helped to build up the foundations of the characters (and the setting) that we saw in the Revelations novels.
First and foremost, I agree with friend and fellow reviewer Mihir when he says that Michael writes excellent buddy fantasy novels. Its true. The most stark, defining feature of the earlier novels was the relationship between Royce and Hadrian. They are as unlikely a pair as you can get: one a former street-thief and the other an accomplished swordsman and former gladiatorial champion. We never exactly learn the details of what events brought them together but we did get some tantalising glimpses, which is what Michael builds on in The Crown Tower. This novel definitely takes things further and the banter between the two of them, especially when they are forcibly brought together by Professor Arcadius, was A-grade dialogue. “Royce is such a damn jerk”, I remember thinking, and “Hadrian is so hopelessly naive”, was another thought that went through my head.
Royce and Hadrian, as we see them here, are very different to the Royce and Hadrian that we’ve seen before, and this is apparent from the get go. The familiarity and comfort that the two of them have in the Riyria Revelations is completely missing here since they dislike each other from the first time they meet and it continues throughout to the final pages, until the two finally begin to trust each other. Or at least, think that there just might be some merit in the other. This new spin on their relationship was very much a big highlight of the novel for me and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Second, we finally, finally get to see Gwen’s origins. We see how she gets to Melengar and how she carves out a life for herself in the city’s worst streets and quarters. From before, we already know that she used to be a waitress at a (pseudo-brothel and) tavern before she herself become a madame of her own brothel and started to make a name for herself. In The Crown Tower, Michael explores how it all happened, and just what exactly got her motivated to change things around and take charge of her life and live by her own strengths and weaknesses rather than depending on someone else.
You wouldn’t exactly expect it of such a narrative, but welcomingly enough, Gwen’s story here is a story about empowerment. I’ve heard a lot of criticism of late about how characters who work in brothels are such cliches and propagate the worst such “lazy world-building” elements, etc. Sure, characters such as these are obvious narrative elements, especially for male characters and what not, but I think a lot can be said for the quality of such narratives. Gwen’s character progression in the novel is predictable, but it is also a good example of character progression because it shows her as genuinely changing from when we first see her to when we see her last. And her story is just as compelling as the main narrative involving the future-duo of Royce and Hadrian as the two of them set about to rob the leader of the Novronian Church in his own home. I’ll say that I enjoyed Gwen’s arc a lot and I wish that I’d gotten to see much more of her. She was a very mysterious character in the previous novels, with that mystery being a large part of her charm as a character, so it was fantastic to see how she came to be who she is.
Of course, this is very much a heist novel at heart, and so it is inevitable that we will get to see the whole setup and execution of the robbery. In this case, like I said above, Professor Arcadius charges the duo to go rob the private vault of the Patriarch, the supreme spiritual leader of the Novronian Church. This robbery necessitates Royce and Hadrian to scale the sheer walls of a tower (the titular Crown Tower), break in, get past a small army of guards, and then escape. In that context, Hadrian’s “training” was often quite hilarious, since it put him out of his element and because Royce has such a bloody caustic tongue on him. And this continues through to the actual robbery itself, and then the “return robbery”, the lead-up to which was an absolutely hilarious moment. I would have loved to see Royce and Hadrian’s expressions when Arcadius told them about that!
Prequel stories are always a dicey thing, no matter what the writer’s intentions are. There is always the danger that the whole mystery of characters we’ve seen already and have grown to love would just be laid bare in full and that this magic, this charm would be lost. This was certainly something that I considered when picking up The Crown Tower. The main question I asked myself was if Michael would be able to deliver on the promise and the potential of this book. I’m quite happy to report that the novel does not disappoint in any way, for the most part.
Michael is able to tell a really interesting story here about characters who’ve already had six novels and a prequel short story about them. The entire premise, which we are familiar with on a meta-level, is dealt with in an intelligent and engaging manner, and Michael’s writing held my interest all the way through to the end. The Crown Tower is every bit as good as my two absolute favourite Riyria Revelations novels: Avempartha and Percepliquis.
Sure, there are some pacing problems with the book, and it takes a while to get going, but by the time that the novel is hitting its stride, these problems disappear. And The Crown Tower becomes quite a thrilling read by the end, with a very violent and bloody climax that plays to the strengths of each of its characters and gives each of them a fantastic outing.