Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: "The Crown Tower" by Michael J. Sullivan

What do you do when you end your series with some finality, but your No. 1 reader wants more tales about your character? Michael J. Sullivan takes us back to the beginning in "The Crown Tower" ($16, Orbit).

As Sullivan explains in the introduction to the book, his wife wanted to read more about his hero Hadrian Blackwater, but he felt that any other story he had to tell about Hadrian and his partner Royce Melborn would feel tacked on. Instead, he takes us 12 years into their past, to the moment that they came together thanks to a university professor.

Arcadius, of the University in Sheridan, has purchased Royce's freedom from Manzant prison and asks for a service in return. The professor was also friends with Hadrian's father and calls the warrior to him to fulfill one of his father's final wishes. The result is a near impossible heist and an unlikely alliance between the fierce warrior Hadrian, who is looking for something a bit more noble in life, and the ruthless and amoral Royce, whose response to every problem is a knife to the throat.

As you might expect, it's an uneasy situation. Of course, readers of Sullivan will know at least the basics of the heist, the reason the two were brought together and how things end up, but it's still fascinating to see the interaction between the characters and how their camaraderie develops slowly and unsteadily.

Royce, in particular, I find interesting here. In Sullivan's earlier volumes, he's a dark and sardonic character. Here, at least in the beginning, he's pretty unlikable. He's a killer, plain and simple, with no remorse or regret for what he does. He has as much work in building a bit of sympathy with the reader as with Hadrian.

One of the big dangers of prequels is the inability to create tension and drama because readers who know the later stories kind of know what happened. That's not the case with "The Crown Tower." I found myself caught up in the story, and genuinely concerned for the safety of Royce and Hadrian, even though I knew that they had to survive to give us their later adventures.

The same can be said of the secondary story line of the book, which shows Gwen DeLancy's rise to successful businesswoman and the attempts of her former employer to thwart it. On the one hand, I knew what Medford House had become in the later books. On the other, there were also times that I didn't see how she could possibly succeed.

You don't necessarily have to have read Sullivan's previous volumes to enjoy this one, but there are little cues that readers of that series will pick up on scattered throughout the book that, for me, made it a little more enjoyable knowing what was going on.

The real appeal of "The Crown Tower" remains the same as Sullivan's earlier stories of Royce and Hadrian -- the fact that it's just a rousingly fun adventure tale. There's just a little bit of intrigue and politics here, which played a little larger later in Sullivan's previous books, but for the most part, this story is about a heist, sword fights, wild chases and friendship.

I said it about Sullivan's earlier volumes, and I'll say it again -- this is the kind of story that got me into fantasy in the first place. It's perhaps a bit old-fashioned in these days of gritty and dark fantasy novels, but that's a big part of its charm for me.

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