Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Theft of Swords is the first omnibus in Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations, containing books one and two of six novels, namely: The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha. The books follow the story of a pair of thieves, Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater. Royce is the true thief – small, wiry and fast. He’s quick witted, sly and knows his way around a knife. Hadrian is a former soldier – he’s the muscle in Riyria, but by no means lacking in brains. If Royce knows a thing or two about knives, Hadrian knows everything there is to know about swords and fighting any number of foes. Together, they’re known as Riyria – a name famous across the world of Elan.

The Crown Conspiracy follows Riyria as they take on a job that seems too good to be true; a little too neat and tidy. They’re right. It’s not long before they’re framed for the murder of the king and sentenced to death. But through a seemingly unlikely bout of good fortune, they find themselves instead on a quest, involving a wizard, a monk and the heir to the throne.

Reading my above description of The Crown Conspiracy suggests that this is a stereotypical, swords and sworcery, thieves-prowling-in-hooded-cloaks type fantasy, full of old tropes and a clunky, almost-hackneyed plot.

It is.

And yet…

Something about Sullivan’s writing style made me chew through this book in a few hours. It’s exciting, funny, and surprisingly well developed. Yes, the plot is very basic and nothing out of the ordinary, but Sullivan always layers a sense that something much bigger is on the horizon. The world is fraying at the edges, and this typical fantasy quest-plot is used almost deliberately as a device to show us this world. To show us that this is barely scratching the surface.

It also helps that in Royce and Hadrian, Sullivan has created a fantastic duo. The whole novel is filled with strong characters who come into their own much later in the series (I’ve since finished the Riyria Revelations) but this one is all about meeting Riyria themselves for the first time, and seeing how they work. They’re the perfect partnership – both as thieves and as characters for us to enjoy. Hilarious, touching and devious – this pair are the heart and soul of this book, as they should be.

The second novel in this omnibus, Avempartha, takes a different route from The Crown Conspiracy. Where The Crown Conspiracy followed Riyria on a quest across the world of Elan, Avempartha takes a much smaller setting and yet begins to open up elements of the world. We see hints at political structures, magic and other races. There are character revelations galore here and already by the end of Theft of Swords, Sullivan has started to open up the bigger picture for the series. There is no waiting for answers here – Sullivan knows exactly where he’s going and isn’t afraid to take the reader there.

I really enjoyed Theft of Swords. It is at times very typical fantasy – but Michael Sullivan knows where he’s going at all times. Each book in the series has its own major plotline, but everything builds towards a complete series arc, and this is evident from the off.

Plus, it’s just a damned entertaining story – and there’s nothing wrong with that.


Note: If you’re still unsure of trying out Theft of Swords, Michael has a short story set in the world of Riyria available for free on his website. It’s called The Viscount and the Witch, and provides a nice and fun taster of what to expect from Royce and Hadrian. Link here.

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