There’s a fundamental shift in “Rise of Empire” ($14.99, Orbit), the second volume (or, if you want to get technical, the third and fourth books) of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations.
The first, “Theft of Swords,” was a fun romp with his pair of rogue heroes, the noble Hadrian Blackwater and the less-than-noble Royce Melborn. In “Rise of Empire,” things get a little more serious and involved. But that’s also a good thing.
As the book starts, the royal empire has taken control of most everything. The church has put the puppet empress Modina – known to our heroes as the village girl Thrace who hired them to save her village from a dragon-like creature in the first book – on the throne. Only Melengar and a band of Nationalists stand between the empire and complete domination.
In a desperate move, King Alric of Melengar decides to send an envoy to the Nationalists, proposing an alliance to try to beat back the empire. After her failure to convince any kingdom to join Melengar in her role as ambassador, Alric’s sister Arista is replaced for the meeting, but, believing she’s the best option, she hatches a plan to convince Royce and Hadrian to accompany her to meet and negotiate with the Nationalist leader Degan Gaunt.
Though Royce suspects that Arista’s mission is not on the up-and-up, he has his own reasons for accepting it. He’s troubled by information that the ancient wizard Esrahaddon shared with him, and this mission might be the only way for him to confirm whether or not it’s true.
As you turn the pages of “Rise of Empire,” you really start to see all of the threads come together. In “Theft of Swords,” which contained the first two books of Sullivan’s cycle, the stories seemed quite often to be separate, barely related adventures. Here, we begin to see some pieces set up in those books fall into place. The story gets a bit more complex, and a little bit of the idealistic sheen of the first volume gets rubbed off. There are some pretty dark and vicious moments, particularly toward the end of the fourth book, “The Emerald Storm.”
We also get to explore more of Sullivan’s world and, definitely, learn more about the characters. The trip to Calis, with its savage jungle-dwellers and brutal goblin hordes – a bit different from your typical mindless fantasy goblins, I might add – is fascinating. And through the journey, we learn a great deal more about Royce and, particularly, Hadrian, their motivations and what made them who they are.
It doesn’t hurt, either, that Sullivan delivers a couple of well-executed twists in the stories. I can’t discuss them much for fear of giving something away, but I do appreciate the work that went into crafting them.
As much as I enjoyed “Theft of Swords,” “Rise of Empire” is even better, bringing new dimensions to the story. Here’s hoping that the trend holds for the third and final volume in the series.