Back in the early days of the blog I read the first book of a six book series by an author who had taken the indie route to publishing. The author was Michael J. Sullivan, and the book was The Crown Conspiracy.
The book had been receiving some positive reviews around the fantasy blogging corners of the internet, and I was intrigued enough to check it out. Near the very end of that review, (which feels sorta amateurish looking back), I said that I "look forward to reading more from the Riyria Revelations." In the (roughly) two years since that review, Sullivan has not only finished up his series, but also been picked up by a major publisher, (Orbit) and had the books re-released in an awesomely package three book omnibus set.
Despite these developments, I continued to put off my return to the lands of Avryn. Then, one day, literally out of the blue, the author himself, apparently not willing to let even the most wayward reader off the hook, contacted me and made me an offer I couldn't refuse. The offer: an ebook copy of his first omnibus, Theft of Swords in return for a future encounter that will soon play out on this very blog. (For those of you hoping for a live thumb-wrestling showdown, sorry that's not in the works...yet.)
Anyway, I jumped at the opportunity, and quickly moved Theft of Swords up to the top of the ol' reading heap. I considered just skipping the first half of the book, which I had already read earlier, but upon scouring my brain for old details, decided a re-read would do me a world of good. Turned out to be a good move because some slight changes, tightenings, and alterations had been made for the Orbit publication.
On the grand scale, The Crown Conspiracy remains largely unchanged; two very skilled and professional thieves are contracted to steal famous sword, and wind up being framed for the murder of the king. Though they are captured, jailed and sentenced to death the following morning, our intrepid heroes Royce Mellborn and Hadrian Blackwater, with some aid, escape; only to then kidnap the prince-who-will-become-king and take him off on a wild adventure filled with magic, a wizard, a civil war, and much more. Like I said, still the same plot and premise, but Sullivan made a number of smallish changes that really made the story much more tight, and did a better job of introducing the characters and their personalities at the early stages of the novel.
One of my favorite qualities of Sullivan's work is that each individual novel can be read as a standalone adventure. That being said, there are a number of plot points and story developments that lend themselves to a much more epic story line that appears to be playing itself out across all the novels. After reading Theft of Swords which contains the books The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha I've come to really appreciate Sullivan's self-contained, yet with overlapping plot style. I like the feeling of reading a book and knowing that the events that take place in it will be wrapped up by the end without crazy cliffhangers.
It was nice to know that when I started reading Avempartha I was reading a new story. However, it was interesting to discover just how some of the major plot events from The Crown Conspiracy were still making waves a couple years down the road.
Avempartha also has a much different feel to it than The Crown Conspiracy. In The Crown Conspiracy Sullivan seems to almost deliberately limit the amount of fantasy elements in the novel. Sure, there's some magic, but aside from the classic fantasy races getting some mention, there's really very little else that says "fantasy".
Avempartha is a whole 'nother beast though. In this one Royce and Hadrian travel to a small village on the very edge of the frontier which separates the lands of men from the lands of the elves. Royce and Hadrian have been hired by a young woman from the village to help slay a mighty beast that has been killing the villagers. So right off the bat you've got one of my favorite things about fantasy: beasts. There's more fantasy elements at play though and the village seems to be some sort of lodestone for attention, because while there, Royce and Hadrian meet up with a number of old friends, accomplices, and enemies as the church of Nyphron holds a tournament with a grand prize greater than any contestant could imagine. In addition to drawing the attention of the church, the realms greatest knights, there's also another powerful force that has an interest in what Royce and Hadrian are up to.
Whereas The Crown Conspiracy was tightly focused, Avempartha certainly feels like it sprawls out a lot more. At least it does in terms of world building, character development, and political schemes, but despite all this fleshing out of, well, everything, Sullivan never lets the story lose focus. Avempartha is equally as sharp as its predecessor, all while managing to up the ante considerably. An impressive feat.
In all honesty, there is hardly a negative thing I can say about The Crown Conspiracy, these are not only well written, and well paced books, but they are also a hell of a lot of fun to read. At first, I found myself thinking of Royce and Hadrian as homages to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, but as I read further into the novels, these characters began to feel less like homages or pastiches and more like their own characters. I will say that Royce's character seems to be coming together a lot slower than Hadrian, and there are times when Royce seems pretty one-dimensional. However, by the end of Avempartha, I got the sense there there is a lot of back story to be told for both Royce and Hadrian, and in the telling, the characters will become more well rounded.
If you are looking for a deep character-driven narrative, this might leave some people wanting more. Still, Sullivan is no slouch when it comes to writing characters, and when you combine that with great action and strong plotting, you get a great read.
What it all comes down to is that fact that Theft of Swords is one stellar fantasy read. I can only look back at my earlier reading of The Crown Conspiracy and see that all the qualities that made it good then, are only tighter, sharper and more finely focused now. Avempartha takes all that was great about the series opener, and cranks every aspect up notch to raise the bar even higher. More magic, more political scheming, more swords...plus a fell beast. All this adds up to make a book that should be on every fantasy reader's shelf. Last time out I said I looked forward to reading more of Sullivan's Riyria Revelations series, this time it wont be two years between reads.