The Emerald Storm by Michael J Sullivan
Well, I’m moving steadily through the six novel series called the Riyria Revelations by Michael J Sullivan. The first omnibus of the opening 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 book of immediate interest, The Emerald Storm (April 2010). This starts off with a bang as Esrahaddon, one of the world’s three remaining magicians, is attacked by Merrick Marius — the man who was once a friend to Royce Melborn until they fell out, as always, over a woman. The assassin knows how difficult it is to kill a magician and so uses poison. This pitches Arista, princess and fledgling magician, out into the world on her own, now carrying the little understood burden of saving the world. Sadly, the poison kills Esrahaddon before he can utter more than a few cryptic sentences, reminding us that books like this would be stillborn if people never kept secrets and/or could speak clearly on their deathbeds or foretelling the future when high on jungle leaves.
So where are we in this developing narrative? As you might expect, The Emerald Storm is a ship with an interesting cargo and, as a result of the type of coincidence authors love, our heroes, Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, recognise a key officer from past dealings. He owes them a favour and repays it by allowing them on board. Life would be wonderful if everything worked out so pat. This leaves our heroes trapped with a large amount of water all around them. If anything should go wrong, they will have nowhere to run. Back in the Imperial capital, the Empress is slowly emerging from her acute depression and actually talking with Amilia when no-one’s looking. This is a big step forward. Except now that she’s apparently more biddable, Regent Saldur decides he’s going to marry her off to Regent Ethelred. That will give everything the appearance of much greater legitimacy and exposes the risk to every puppet figurehead. When others take the decisions, the Empress is just a piece of meat. Which leaves us with Arista. Her magic is improving and, using the location spell, she’s worked out the heir, Degan Gaunt, is somewhere in the Imperial palace. Posing as a scrub maid to search while working, all she has to do is find him.
There’s a slight problem with this structure. Any book that features a life before the mast has to spend the time establishing the type of ship, how it’s sailed, the crew and system of discipline, and the general routines. All these change depending on the level of technology in construction, and the available sailing and navigation technology. As readers, we’re all well schooled in the day-to-day routines of moving about on land. Such stories can make good pace with the narrative without having to stop for information about how “ordinary” things are done like pitching a tent, lighting a fire, digging a latrine (or just finding a suitable bush as a screen). I’m not saying this particular narrative thread is written badly but, of necessity, it puts us in a more real-world than fantasy context because we’re dealing with practicalities that James Fenimore Cooper, C S Forester and others have done so well. This is not to deny the interest in discovering who everyone is on the ship and where it’s going with this particular crew and cargo, but in comparison to earlier books in this series, this element is more sedate in its pace. Then we get into the real seafaring traditions with pirates followed by walks through dangerous jungles. The narrative element with Aritsa, Amila and the Empress works rather better.
Overall, this contribution to the series feels like its marking time. The author has to move people around and “discover” more facts — there’s a bit of historical infodumping going on. But there’s a certain lack of urgency about it and, it’s increasingly clear that anyone approaching this without having read the previous three novels, is going to be in trouble. This is not necessarily a criticism. You would expect an author with a long view to take his time in developing the characters and, if people do choose to start a series in the middle, they deserve to be confused. Sadly, The Emerald Storm is a weak link. We could have arrived at the cliffhanger without having to travel all over the map and, for a fantasy, there’s remarkably little magic although some fighting, i.e. some sword and sorcery content and cutlasses to the fore when pirates loom out of the darkness.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.