Nyphron Rising by Michael J Sullivan
Sparta was one of the more interesting cities in Ancient Greece — my apologies for briefly wallowing in the cesspit of my classical education — in that the people deliberately set off to be unaffected, i.e. they were not interested in showiness and style for its own sake. They were only interested in getting the job done in the most efficient way. This culture gave birth to the style we now call laconic, i.e. the modern region of Greece is still called Laconia. In writing terms, it means using the smallest possible number of words to communicate the intended meaning, and so contrasts with more descriptive styles in which blunt messages are expanded by giving a fuller context for action by rounded characters. For example, when a Marquise wrote to Talleyrand passing on the news of her husband’s death and how devastated she felt, he replied, “Alas!” One word certainly gets the job done, but it fails to address anything other than the fact and imply condolences. A few sentences might have felt more sincere. In more modern terms, I suppose Ernest Hemingway would be considered laconic in that his prose is stripped down and his dialogue crisp, yet he delivers depth without having to rely on more expansive craftsmanship.
I start in this way because I’m watching the evolution of Michael J Sullivan, a writer who began with a vaguely laconic first novel. I emphasise the “vaguely” because the best laconic writing is rather elegant. This was more Spartan army style — for almost two centuries, their army was not beaten. It was not pretty to watch them fight, but they got the job done. The second book was a richer and more descriptive novel, but the style lacked a certain consistency. In this review, we’re talking about the six novel series called the Riyria Revelations. The first omnibus of the first two novels was called Theft of Swords and contained The Crown Conspiracy (October 2008) and Avempartha (April 2009). I’m now into Rise of Empire (Orbit Books, 2011) which contains Nyphron Rising (September, 2009) and The Emerald Storm (April 2010). Obviously, the story is moving on and I’m pleased to report the prose style is becoming more consistent and assured. However, the price for this seems to be a more serious tone. Although it would be wrong to describe either of the first two novels as comic, there was an underlying sense of fun about the enterprise. This is altogether more thoughtful and deals with weightier issues, i.e. we are moving out of simple sword and sorcery adventure into a more structured fantasy.
In Nyphron Rising our heroes, Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, are still working for Princess Arista. This time, they’re earning a good living as spies for the kingdom of Melengar but, when the Empire’s army arrives on their doorstep, they take off as guides and bodyguards to Arista. She’s aiming to negotiate a deal with the Nationalists who have launched an attack on the Empire from the south. If she can pull it off, it would be a classic pincer movement, catching the Empire’s army between two forces. Meanwhile, in the heart of the Empire, Regent Saldur randomly appoints Amilia, an abused scullery maid, to care for the Empress Modina. In fact this proves a breakthrough as the battered Empress is slowly brought back to life through the simple expedient of relating to her as a human being.
There are two interesting features in this novel. We start with the political structure which is the usual mediaeval accumulation of city states and small kingdoms threatened by the consolidation of power in an emerging Empire. Needless to say, the newcomer is fascist state, aiming to consolidate power through a national religion, mobilising the people, first to defend against foreigners, and then to conquer the adjacent small units and bring them into the fold. Naturally, the Empress is a puppet figurehead but used to build national identity as the inspirational leader with divine authority. Arista, however, gets caught up in a local drive to create a Republic. This is interesting because she sees beyond the tradition of nobility in charge and rejects the role of Queen when it’s offered to her. That she should understand how to set up a Republic is surprising. Although she’s been touring around the smaller states as Melengar’s ambassador, pow-powing with an endless succession of noble rulers, she’s obviously been picking up pointers on empowerment and democratisation. We also have a better grasp of the way in which the larger criminal organisations operate and why they might co-operate in a fight against the Empire from the street up. Equally, we see a broader framework of shifting allegiances between the old kingdoms as they are threatened by, or assimilated into, the Empire. It’s a bit rudimentary, but the author is now beginning to flesh out his world and provide essential detail to an understanding of how everything fits together.
Second, the characterisation is developing depth. This is really Arista and Hadrian’s book with both of them allowed space to grow in stature. Given Hadrian’s parentage which is now explained in more detail, he has to move from the theoretical to the practical. For some time, he’s been chaffing at the rather more mundane accumulation of money that seems to motivate Royce and hoping for more heroic action. Well, here he gets the chance to shine. It’s equally interesting to see a scullery maid rising through the ranks, initially by accident, but later because of her ability. It’s symptomatic of the Michael J Sullivan’s more general sympathy for the notion of a meritocracy with people being rewarded for demonstrating ability.
Overall, Nyphron Rising is an exciting read with political manoeuvres, rather one-sided battles and the demonstration of some real magic. Without delay, I’m moving on to The Emerald Storm to see how the series develops.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.