Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan
When you set off to write a fantasy, there are a number of rules everyone expects you to follow. There must be a mediaeval world and, in the majority of cases, some form of workable magic, often with elves, trolls and other supernatural folk lurking in the shadows. The political structure will usually follow the European model of relatively small kingdoms and principalities so there’s plenty of opportunity for strife between the various kings and princes. Trade will be mentioned but will rarely be discussed in any detail except to mention where castles might be needed to guard trade routes and collect a small toll every time anyone passes through. The only news on the economic front will usually be some vague reference to how hard it is to collect the taxes. For the most part, readers don’t want to get bogged down in the minutiae of how these small states pay their way. All they want is action, preferably with people waving swords around and casting the odd spell. For these purposes, there’s a slight difference of opinion. Some authors prefer to gather all the interested parties into the royal court and then have a gaggle of scheming nobles duke it out until the good guy(s) or, occasionally, gal(s), prevail. The others go for a more peripatetic approach with the hero(es) traipsing around the countryside. This has the virtue of allowing us to get a better view of the life of the common people as we variously dive into local taverns and meet up with the underworld — it’s perhaps not surprising how often the heroes are criminals or mercenaries or both. They tend to be more our kind of people. We can feel more comfortable lifting a noggin with a hedge knight than a champagne flute with Lancelot.
All of which brings us to Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan. For those of you not familiar with this author, he has emerged from the obscurity of being one of the unpublished by self-publishing five of his first six novels. His own journey is an interesting contribution to the ongoing debate about the future role of traditional publishing houses. In this instance, having established his name as a brand, he’s been able to sell both American rights to Hachette and foreign rights into a growing number of markets. More power to him and other authors who can establish their credibility through the internet. Except this may be signalling a trend for publishing houses to become even more risk-averse when asked to take up unpublished authors. They may prefer to wait until the cream of the self-published crop rises to the top of the Amazon Bestsellers list and then cherry pick the talent. This gives them a profit stream without the need to invest in building the names of the new talent.
So what’s Theft of Swords about? This is the first of three omnibus volumes as the publishers bring their marketing and distribution expertise to bear on spreading the word about this author. The aim is to rerelease the first six books as pairs. Overall, the series is called Riyria Revelations. This book contains The Crown Conspiracy (October 2008) and Avempartha (April 2009) so it gives reviewers like me a good opportunity to assess this “new” author. I immediately find myself in a parallel world to the short stories and novels by Fritz Leiber featuring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. In this reworking of the trope, we have Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater. Respectively, they are thief and muscle, albeit the latter is skillful with the sword and most other weapons that come to hand. They work as a freelance criminal duo and, though modest to a fault, are considered top professionals. Consequently, the rich and powerful pay them to undertake a range of activities from simple theft to assassination.
In The Crown Conspiracy, the first theft goes off reasonably well but the second commission lands them in enough trouble to carry us through to the end of the book. However you look at this work, it’s a rather Spartan piece of prose, delivering a plot at breakneck speed with minimal exposition and surprisingly little description. That’s both good and bad. As a reading experience, it zips along but, with the exception of a little historical background delivered by a monk with an eidetic memory, there’s very little context for the action. We land in medias res and emerge at the end with a rough idea of what’s going on but a lot of unanswered questions. Under normal circumstances, I would find this rather trivial, particularly because the twists and turns of the plot are all rather contrived. To be honest, it’s not very original. But it’s rescued by an underlying sense of fun. While it lacks the wit of Leiber, there’s enough humour on display to encourage us into Avempartha.
Immediately, the intention is signalled as we stand outside the Gray Mouse Tavern and finally learn that Riyria, the business name adopted by the duo, is elvish for “two”. Not that this detail is important in the overall scheme of things, but it’s symptomatic of the lack of explanatory detail in the first volume. Now, there’s a sudden flood of information about Royce’s earlier life as Duster before we set off to Dahlgren (courtesy of Delany who always used to know there was magic in names) to break into a tower called Avempartha where, according to the magician they rescued in the first book, there’s a sword that can kill a rather dangerous beast. Except, of course, the beast may be rather more intelligent than we might initially want to believe. While our heroes are off to find the wizard, the wheels of the conspiracy to restore the Empire are turning with reasonable smoothness and Arista, the young King’s sister, is in the thick of it all, sent out as an Ambassador to represent the kingdom when key people gather for a “contest”. That this contest turns out to be in Dahlgren where the rather dangerous beast is on the loose, is just one of those strange coincidences that adds to life’s rich pattern.
In this second book, Michael Sullivan has chosen to write something more than a plot skeleton and the prose has a pleasing richness. Perhaps, more importantly, the broader intention of the Church’s conspiracy is becoming clear, as is the motivation of our maimed mage (some alliteration when dealing with magicians is always a good thing). Even the dwarf assassin and trap builder from the first volume turns out to be a not too unreliable person to have around. When you take the two books together, this is obviously the start of a very good story. Although the level of inventiveness was unimpressive in The Crown Conspiracy, we can see much more authorial effort expended in Avempartha. The level of detail has improved significantly and the implications of the relationships between the humans, dwarves and elves has a great deal of potential. Theft of Swords has triggered my curiosity bump and I’m genuinely interested to see where Michael Sullivan takes us next. So, if you have not already done so, this pair of books is well worth picking up as a single package. The remaining volumes are Rise of Empire and Heir of Novron and, assuming Sullivan maintains the momentum, equally worth pursuing.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.