Friday, 25 November 2011

‘Theft of Swords’ – Michael J. Sullivan (Orbit)

If you spend time on various forums online then you will have heard of Michael J. Sullivan long before now, there’s no way that you couldn’t have done. Go on; think of a genre fiction forum. Thought of one? Yep, Michael J. Sullivan has well and truly been discussed there (and on whatever forum you were thinking of suggesting next). There is a very good reason for all this discussion; namely that Sullivan has become more than a little bit of a publishing sensation with his ‘Riyria Revelations’ series, selling absolute bucket loads of electronic copies in particular. I haven’t seen a single bad review, for any of the books, but it’s taken until now for me to pick one of them up (I don’t have an eBook reader and I inexplicably never got round to reading the hard copy of ‘The Crown Conspiracy’ that I was sent, that’s my life at the moment).

It took Orbit’s acquiring of the series (they’re releasing two book omnibus editions over a period of three months, starting last month with ‘Theft of Swords’) to get me on board and my recent trip to Malta pretty much sealed it as I was looking for something fairly chunky to get my teeth into. As it happened, I couldn’t get anywhere near ‘Theft of Swords’ as my wife swiped the book and wouldn’t let me read it until we got back home. I’ve finished it now though and you can expect to see more about Sullivan’s books on this blog. I couldn’t get enough of ‘Theft of Swords’ and there is no way that I won’t be following this series through to its conclusion.

If you need something doing that’s a little ‘shady’ then you could do a lot worse than hire Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater to get it done for you. Royce will steal whatever you want stolen (if it’s nailed down then he’ll steal the nails too) and Hadrian has his back with his almost supernatural skills with a sword. They’re good at what they do, almost too good in fact as their reputation leads them to be set up as the fall guys in a plot to murder the king. Finding the real killer is only the first step in a journey for Royce and Hadrian; journeys that will see them enter into uneasy alliances with the nobility (given the number of nobles that they’ve stolen from, I’m not surprised they’re uneasy...), and uncover hidden history long forgotten, as well as trying to balance fiscal gain with doing the right thing...

When I was little, a lot of the old ‘Flash Gordon’ pulp serials were re-run for Saturday morning television (‘Zorro’ as well come to think of it). We’re talking life and death cliff hangers featuring larger than life heroes and evil moustache twirling villains going at each other with swords. Absolutely brilliant stuff that I couldn’t get enough of when I was six or seven years old.
Fast forward to 2011 and I’m faced with a similar setup in Sullivan’s work; light hearted swashbuckling tales that suffer from a couple of issues but never fail to entertain.

‘Theft of Swords’ contains the first two books in the ‘Riyria Revelations’ series; ‘The Crown Conspiracy’ and ‘Avempartha’. I couldn’t help but find myself wishing that I’d read each book in its individual format. When two books are published in one edition, you’ve got a pretty good idea about who is going to make it through book one. It’s very clearly a publishing decision and not Sullivan’s fault at all, but a little bit of the tension bled out for me here. Balancing this out though is the work that Sullivan clearly does to set things up for the next four books. Both ‘The Crown Conspiracy’ and ‘Avempartha’ are relatively self contained books, and can be read on their own (thanks to clever use of the ‘a couple of years later’ approach), but it’s a measure of Sullivan’s commitment to this series that he’s setting up future events at the same time. Admittedly this is more the case in ‘Avempartha’ than the ‘Crown Conspiracy’ but all credit to Sullivan for essentially writing a book that’s two things all at once. I like that.

Once you really get into it, ‘Theft of Swords’ is chock full of the kind of swashbuckling action that makes for a thoroughly entertaining read. Whether our heroes are stuck in a crumbling tower or facing off against an unseen monster in dark woods, Sullivan makes us fully aware of what’s at stake and gives us a rousing journey through the conclusion. We’re talking about the kind of situations that had me seriously considering missing a few stops on the tube so I wouldn’t have to wait and see what happens. I would say though that Sullivan’s writing, in these instances and a couple of others, left me in two minds about how effective it was. Sullivan opts for plain speaking which does press home just how urgent things can be. At times though, I felt his plain speaking was a little too plain and didn’t really do a great job at fleshing out the background that these scenes took place against.

I guess what you could say here is that the story isn’t really about the background as such, not yet anyway (and like I said, hints are dropped that likely won’t come to fruition until later books in the series). ‘Theft of Swords’ is more about the characters and here, Sullivan gives us a cast that I couldn’t help but root for.
You might feel like you’ve met Hadrian and Royce in many other fantasy novels; I certainly felt that way but the jury is out for a little longer at least. Sullivan is up front about playing to familiar tropes but a couple of the surprises that he includes in the plot suggest that he’s not averse to turning things on their head when he feels that the plot would benefit. My feeling is that we can expect some of that from one of the two leading characters. Things are certainly left vague enough, at the end of ‘Avempartha’, to suggest that interesting possibilities lie ahead.

In the meantime, Sullivan plays ‘Theft of Swords’ as the fantasy equivalent of a ‘buddy movie’ and you get the impression that you are listening in on an old friendship established over some years. Hadrian and Royce know each others little foibles and aren’t afraid to mix these with a little levity here and there; the end result being another reason to get behind these two men as they seek to extricate themselves from the machinations of those in power.

‘Theft of Swords’ is a book of dark mysteries waiting to be solved by a lock pick and a strong sword arm. That’s the promise and Sullivan delivers on that, I can’t wait to read more.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten


Scott said...

Esrahaddon FTW. Just sayin'

So glad you liked it brother. It's a fantastic series, and Sullivan is a really humble guy about the whole thing.

Graeme Flory said...

I really didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did, what a great find :o)
I'll be starting on the next book this week.

Anonymous said...

I can’t wait to read this!
Ever since I read Stovers “Heroes die”(ok even before that there was gene wolfe) i kept on reading gritty fantasy with gritty characters with a “slight flaw in their characters” (:)bridge of birds) – bakker, lynch, abercrombie, Erikson, hunt, campbell, mieville, vandermeer, bullington, i can’t wait to read this books!