The Crown Conspiracy by Michael J. Sullivan
The Crown Conspiracy follows two men: Royce Melborn, a skilled theif, and Hadrian Blackwater, a skilled fighter and swordsman. Together they make up an elite, and highly regarded specialist team, taking on dangerous and often discreet assignments for the conspiring nobility in the lands of Avryn. While on one such assignment, they become the unlucky scapegoats in an elaborate plot to murder the king. Thinking they were on a mission to steal a famous sword, they instead wind up taking the blame for the King's murder, are jailed, and sentenced to be drawn and quartered at dawn. This all goes down in the first few chapters...
The premise of the book may sound a little bit cheesy...Theives! Mercenaries! Capers! Hi-Jinx! Yeah, certain stereotypes come to mind, but that is certainly not the case here. Sullivan instead employs these tried and true narratives of the genre, strips away the cliches, and presents the heroes, Royce and Hadrian as skilled, yet regular men who use their abilities to make it in the world of Avryn.
Sullivan seemed to buck a lot of the current fantasy trends, like super stealthy magic wielding assassins, and dark, gritty characters, or sprawling multi-volumed epics with massive casts of characters and instead produced a focused tightly written stand-alone that tells a captivating tale. Yes, The Crown Conspiracy is the first book in a six book set called the Riyria Revelations, but each book is apparently written so that each stands alone, and is a complete story in and of itself. That being said, I can see how certain elements from this book may play roles in other novels of the series, but there were no cliffhanger endings or plot threads left unfinished by the end.
To some fans of the gritty fantasy juggernauts that sag the book shelves The Crown Conspiracy might sound sorta..."fantasy-lite" and sure, it lacks such "qualities" such as sex, profanity and hardcore violence, but despite not having all those things, and despite weighing in at a slim 306 pages, this book is very much a great fantasy novel. Sullivan's plotting is certainly solid, and the pacing is great. The story unfolds with amazing ease, and moves along without any slogs, or stutters.
By far the most endearing aspect of the book for me was the situations Royce and Hadrian often found themselves in. I loved that lives, fates, futures and fortunes often hung on their decisions and actions. More often than not, the options at hand were not great, and while I usually agreed with their way of thinking, I often found myself thinking something along the lines of: "Oh boy, freeing that wizard doesn't seem like a good idea, but, what the hell else were they gonna do?" Sullivan's ability to present believable dilemmas, that had realistic, though not always ideal or perfect outcomes was refreshing and a great quality of the book.
More and more often lately I find myself shying away from giant, brick sized epic fantasy novels, so it was extremely refreshing to find a series that is seemingly epic in scope, yet tightly focused, with enjoyable characters, strong plotting, and delivered in slim, easily digested package. The Crown Conspiracy fit my current fantasy tastes quite well, and I look forward to reading more from the Riyria Revelations.