Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Review: "Theft of Swords" by Michael J. Sullivan

“Theft of Swords” ($14.99, Orbit) collects the first two of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series. Five of the six books, which were written for Sullivan’s dyslexic daughter and his own enjoyment, were published through independent and small presses before being picked up by Orbit, which released the books as a trilogy featuring two each.

In “The Crown Conspiracy,” the first of the two books collected in “Theft of Swords,” we meet our heroes, a pair of dashing and likeable rogues by the names of Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater. We meet them in a most interesting scene that immediately lets the reader in on the kind of heroes they are. Highwaymen attempt to hold them up and, of course, fail, but the two thieves, who call themselves the Riyria, leave their would-be attackers a bit red-faced with some tips about how to do it better next time. It’s a great scene that instantly endears the reader to the duo.

The introduction out of the way, Royce and Hadrian are offered a job on short notice. A nobleman approaches them and offers a huge sum of money for them to steal a sword. He has offended another noble who is a legendary swordsman with a legendary blade. He’s lost only one duel, and that was without the sword. In order to have a chance, the client needs the Riyria to get the sword. Against their better judgment, they take the deal, but when they arrive in the castle, they find not a sword, but the body of the murdered king and a cry of murder going up as they stand before it. They’re apprehended and imprisoned for the murder, putting them on an unlikely path to clear their name and find the real killer.

In the second book “Avempartha,” Royce and Hadrian are led to a small village on the border between human and elven lands by an intriguing story from a young woman of the town. A dragon-like magical creature is terrorizing the town, stealing villagers from their homes in the night. The only thing that can kill the creature is an elven sword engraved with its name that is locked in a seemingly impenetrable tower in the middle of a raging river. The wizard Esrahaddon, freed from imprisonment by the thieves in the first book, needs Royce to get into the tower and get the sword to save the village. The wizard, though, has his own reasons for seeking entrance.

Sullivan’s tale is a little different from most of the books that I’ve read in the fantasy genre lately. He bucks the trend toward gritty realism and graphic violence and moves the genre back toward its heroic roots. It reminded me much of some of the books that I grew up on – some of the books that made me a fan of the genre. Though there are some gray areas and mysteries, for the most part, we’re fairly sure of who the bad guys and the good guys are, and there are clear-cut heroes to cheer on. It helps that the heroes are among the more likeable you’ll come across. Hadrian is the noble member of the pair, a trained and impressive fighter who can’t resist a good sob story and takes jobs because they’re the right thing to do rather than for the pay. Royce is the self-serving thief and businessman of the pair, willing to take on any job if the money is right – at least on the surface. Beneath, he’s a lot more like his partner than he’d like to admit.

I have to admit that I enjoyed “The Crown Conspiracy” more than “Avempartha.” For me, the personalities involved and the interplay between the characters in the first book were far more interesting than the quest to defeat the magical monster in the second. That said, I enjoyed both books greatly, and from what I understand about the rest of the series, everything weaves together nimbly into the overarching story. Sullivan wrote all six books before the first one was released, and used that to plant hints and surprises throughout.

“Theft of Swords” is the kind of story that the fantasy genre was largely founded on. It’s a fast-moving adventure tale full of swashbuckling, gallantry, intrigue and magic. More importantly, though, it’s fantastic fun.

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