Saturday, February 18, 2012

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Michael Sullivan is one of a growing number of writers who found an alternate route to being picked by a major publisher (in this case Orbit). He self published his 6 book series The Riyria Revelations and after success online Orbit took a chance on him. They bought the series and put it out in 3 omnibuses, each containing 2 books. The first of these is Theft of Swords, which collects The Crown Conspiracy and its sequel Avempartha.

The Crown Conspiracy is to be honest rather cliched, it's almost as if the author read Diana Wynne Jones Tough Guide to Fantasyland and used it as the template for writing their own book.
Ruritainian type pre industrial world, check.
Warrior hero with a hidden past and a heart of gold, check.
Sarcastic thief type sidekick, also hiding a dark secret, check.
Naive young prince who needs to be shown the common side of life before realising how best to rule his kingdom, check.
Pretty, spunky young princess, check.
Sheltered cleric, whose wide eyed wonderment at the world around him provides comic relief, check.
Eccentric old wizard with far more power and information than at first believed, check.
A group of well connected villains, one of whom is a blademaster, check. Actually all the villains were missing were black hats, the occasional evil laugh and thin moustaches to twirl.
Now having said all that I actually enjoyed The Crown Conspiracy, yes it was cheesey and yes it relied heavily on cliches and walked some pretty well trodden territory, but it hung together remarkably well and was highly enjoyable to read. Michael Sullivan makes a few debut novelist mistakes, but he showed potential and left the reader wanting more, although The Crown Conspiracy is quite self contained. I like old fashioned adventure novels and that's exactly what The Crown Conspiracy is and at no stage does it pretend or attempt to be anything else.

Avempartha is a little different, I get the impression it was written some time after The Crown Conspiracy, it is less self contained and very clearly part of a larger ongoing series. Michael Sullivan has also improved as a writer and has come to know his characters, especially the two principals of Hadrian and Royce, better. The writing flows more and there are less things that pulled me out of the story.

Whereas The Crown Conspiracy was an old fashioned matinee adventure, with a few mentions of magic, a dwarf and an elf thrown in to remind readers this was a fantasy, Avempartha is surer of what it is. There are two stories which later converge and connect, but the biggest one of them concerns Hadrian and Royce agreeing to protect a village from a Beowulf style monster. I have no idea if Michael Sullivan really based this on the old English legend, or whether I'm just thinking that because I'd recently read John Gardner's Grendel, and it was fresh in my mind, but there did seem to me to be a lot in common with these two tales. Admittedly the beast plagueing Dahlgren; a rather dragonish creature called a Gilarabrywn, isn't like Grendel, but it acts in a similar manner.

Readers were treated to reveals about Hadrian and Royce, and the author wrong footed me when he unexpectedly killed off a character I thought may have made it to the end of this book at least.

Although people groan when they hear that The Riyria Revelations feature dwarves and elves, Sullivan has taken steps to make them differ somewhat from those written about by Tolkien and his imitators. Readers don't see many examples of either species in Theft of Swords. The snarky, but talented dwarf Magnus largely takes the role of comic relief in Avempartha, that was filled by cleric Myron in The Crown Conspiracy (I missed Myron in Avempartha, his observation that children really appear like small, drunk people was both startlingly accurate and laugh out loud funny, I hope he has a larger role in future adventures), and gives the impression that Sullivan's dwarves are somewhat more street smart and more mercantile than the dwarves Tolkien, Feist and Brooks wrote about. The elves in Theft of Swords are an underclass, they're reduced to begging or performing menial tasks to keep themselves alive, in some places they're enslaved and having elven blood is nothing to be proud of, but rather something anyone unfortunate enough to be in that position will do their level best to hide.

In terms of language use Sullivan does have a tendency to drop modern slang into his dialogue and it brings me out of the narrative briefly, so I hope that goes away in the future. I also hope he doesn't use anything resembling 'ye olde English' again. I was willing to overlook dotty old wizard Esrahaddon's mangling of it, because he's eccentric to start with and he's been imprisoned for many centuries, but the Gilarabyrwyn made the same mistakes, might be an idea to drop it now.

Despite it's failings, and my criticisms, I do like The Riyria Revelations and want to see what Michael Sullivan does with Hadrian, Royce and Princess Arista in future volumes. In this day and age when fantasists seem determined to outgritty each other and see who can come up with the most morally bankrupt anti hero, it's rather refreshing to read a story where the good guys aren't afraid to be good and the bad guys are genuinely bad, that has no pretensions about what it is and isn't afraid to present itself as exactly that.

One little note of amusement to me personally. There's a castle in this book called Essendon castle. I'm not sure where the author got the name from, maybe he made it up, but down here in Australia, or more specifically where I live in Melbourne, we have a suburb called Essendon and it's also the name of a successful and popular Australian Rules Football team that were originally based in the suburb. It makes me chuckle every time I read it.


  1. I have to admit, I loved that there were dwarves and elves in this series. And I have to admit I wanted more of the elves after Avempartha. :)

    But I really got into this series so easily, and loved where the journey took us, even if there are some cliches that I love dearly. :)

    Wonderful review!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Melissa. I look forward to seeing what else Michael has in store for Royce and Hadrian and hope to clear some reading time to read their further adventures in Rise of Empire and Heir to Novron.

  3. I do hope you enjoy them. I think the stories get better and better as you go. :) I've read them all already, and enjoyed each in it's own way, and more than previous one.

  4. I think I will, Melissa. I've read the back cover blurb and a few pages at the start of Rise of Empire and I have liked that, I'm a bit of a sucker for thief type protagonists. I also want to see more elves. Sullivan's elves are different from the way many other authors depict them.

  5. I was very intreged with Michaels Elves after Avempartha and wanted more on them badly. lol. Sounds like these books are for you too. :) Glad to hear.