The Rose and The Thorn by Michael J. Sullivan – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk takes a look at the second novel in the Riyria Chronicles prequel series to Michael J. Sullivan’s bestselling Riyria Revelations series.
“A good, fast read but not quite as satisfying as its predecessor.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
When last year (or late 2012) Michael J. Sullivan announced that he was going to be writing a couple of prequels to his hit Riyria Revelations series, I was a happy camper. The original six novels were a pretty damn good reader when put together and they still stand as some of the best epic fantasy that I’ve read, albeit something a bit more simplistic than I’m used to. But that doesn’t impact my fun in any way. Reading The Crown Tower last year, the first of the prequels, validated my high expectations because it followed in the spirit of the original novels and was just as good a read as any of the originals. Which in itself is pretty important, I think, given the general public conception about prequel novels (or movies).
The Rose and The Thorn follows on from the events of The Crown Tower, with almost a year having passed in between. All the characters are in quite a different place now than they were at the end of the previous novel. Royce and Hadrian are still working on cementing their friendship. Gwen now operates a prosperous and high-class brothel. Their lives are still intertwined because Royce stills bears the undercurrents of his love for Gwen, and all because she was the first person to truly show him any kind of kindness, without reservation, without asking for anything in return.
However, they aren’t the only characters in the novel, because this time we get to see the Essendon royal family too. We see King Amrath, Queen Ann and their friends. We see Arista as a quiet, sometimes unruly and studious child. We see Alric as a rebellious youth, getting in mischief with the Pickering boys. We see Percy Braga, brother-in-law to the Queen and Bishop Saldur, the two villains of the Riyria Revelations novels. And more. In the previous novel the focus was always on Royce, Hadrian, Gwen and the people closest to them. But this time, we see the wider cast of the original series make their appearance. It was fun to see all of them at such an earlier point in their lives, as much as it was seeing the formation of Riyria in the previous novel and this one. Each character adds something different to the overall story. But there was one who really stood. Hilfred, the royal Sergeant who was Arista’s bodyguard in the original series. More than any of the Essendons, he is the star of this novel as far as the story is concerned. The Rose and The Thorn is his origin story, and quite a painful one it is too, knowing what we do from the original novels.
In a bit of a surprise, one of the earliest chapters of the novel includes Michael’s short story The Viscount and The Witch, which marks the entry of Viscount Albert Winslow into the lives of our two heroes. I read the short story itself back in 2012, and it was free for a long time, courtesy of Michael who would email it to any reader who asked for it. I doubt it is available now (I haven’t checked), but it was a fun story and it is doubly fun to see it included in the prequel series in this way. It is a very natural subplot to the entire series and it always gave me a thrill to see how Albert reacts to the various challenges that are thrown at him, whether it is making his reentry into noble society through the auspices of Royce and Hadrian or his reactions to something horrific that Royce does at the end of the novel. He keeps things interesting and just as in the original novels, his is an understated character who deserves more recognition.
However, thing is that there are far too many characters here for Michael to juggle properly and give each his or her due. Michael does well to tell a really intense story that works in the entire cast, and lay the groundwork for the original series, but it all felt like an overload. Particularly because Gwen got the short shrift here. The motivation for everything that Royce does in this novel comes back to Gwen and how she is treated by a noble, but curiously, we get very little of her in the novel. It stands in contrast to the previous novel where she was one of the protagonists. And more than that, with everything that goes on, the core story itself is a little thin. Had this novel been perhaps broken down into two, then things would have been better, because then each character would have gotten to breathe. I wanted to see more of the relationship between Royce and Hadrian, or seeing more of the Essendon kids, who go on to become very major characters in the original series.
Still, a big plus is that the trademark humour that defined Royce and Hadrian’s relationship in the original series and the first prequel novel is in full effect here. Had we gotten to see a deeper look into their relationship then this really would have been a hit novel, but I am fine with what I did get to see. Many of the events in this novel are quite violent and even horrific. People are murdered left and right, whether as part of treacherous conspiracies or because of revenge driven by love. In such an atmosphere, some lightening of the mood was very welcome, and I applaud Michael in how well he worked it all in.
Additionally, the pacing of the novel is always on point. Like all of its predecessors, The Rose and The Thorn too is a quick and easy read. With so many novels having already been written about these characters, my familiarity with them is quite high, so that was a big factor as well. And I must admit that I am quite jealous of anyone who goes into this not having read The Crown Tower or any of the originals. It would be a fascinating viewpoint I think. But knowing all that I do from the other novels, it was fun to see some things signposted so clearly. It made for a rewarding reading experience, and that is all that I really care about.
Michael has hinted that he might write a third prequel novel, and I would like to see it, because there is a big gap between the events of the nascent Riyria Chonicles series and the original Riyria Revelations series, and it is a period that was rarely touched upon. But, he is writing a series set in the dim past of the world, when the Novron Empire was at the height of its power, so I’m looking forward to that too.
More Riyria Chonicles: The Crown Tower.