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Monday, February 6, 2012

The Riyria Revelations - Michael J. Sullivan

Back in 2008 I came across Michael J. Sullivan's self published novel, The Crown Conspiracy, the first installment in The Riyria Revelations.  Relying solely on Amazon reviews back then, I picked it up (and the following 3 novels).  This was fantasy that Gary Gygax might have written -- sword and sorcery, elves and dwarfs, good guys and bad guys.  It was also a huge success, a poster child for the self-publishing movement.  Then Orbit came along, making Sullivan an offer to go the traditional publishing route.  He accepted, delaying Percepliquis, the final volume in the series, for nearly a year as Orbit edited and repackaged the six book series as three omnibus editions (Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire, Heir of Novron.  In January, the final omnibus was finally released to great excitement among fans of the series.

Riyria begins and ends with Royce and Hadrian, Sullivan's take on the Fafhrd and Grey Mouse paradigm. Royce is a small thief of exceptional skill, with a dark past and darker disposition. Hadrian is his best and only friend, a master swordsman with a heart of gold.  The first omnibus begins with the intrepid duo on their way to steal a set of incriminating documents from a nobleman.  Easily accomplished, the pair are soon back in their tavern of choice, interviewing for a new job to infiltrate the King of Melanger's castle.

What starts as a simple snatch and go, winds up with them framed for the death of the King and imprisoned.  Now at the center of national politics, Royce and Hadrian escape the noose with help from Princess Arista, whose only request is that they take her brother, the new king, with them.  To protect his life and clear their name, the pair will have to confront the greatest wizard who ever lived and a power hungry church bent on domination.

If that sounds like build-a-fantasy-plot-version-1a, it's by design.  Sullivan starts the series on familiar ground, couching things in a way that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who's cracked open a fantasy book.  Likewise, for a younger first time reader of the genre, it's a natural entry point.  It's an action adventure with none of the excessive world building or intricate plots that often deter the uninitiated.  Sullivan has long touted that the series was written as one piece simultaneously, with each book building on the preceding one in terms of complexity.  I can largely confirm it with the understanding that the vast majority of that stems from improved plotting and better drawn characters, not a deeper subtext.

Those familiar with my reviews know that I tend to get into some detail about a book's thematics, guessing at the author's intent.  In the case of Sullivan's series, that's more difficult.  His theme is adventure, and his undertones escapism.  Sure, there's some small offerings to racism and classism, and tolerance and human relationships, but by and large there's a willful denial of commentary.  That will leave some readers cold, but taken as a whole Riyria is an enjoyable distraction with moments that reach for something beyond.

Initially, I wrote another 1500 words to review this series, spending time on each book and providing the highs and lows.  Most of that ended up as rambling incoherence.  Trying to encapsulate six books and some 2,000 pages into a single review is no easy task. I started looking around at all the reviews written about the series (they are legion) and realized I agree with almost all of them -- even the terribly negative ones. In fact, reading this review, it might be guessed that I didn't enjoy the series all that much. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Riyria is polarizing and I don't think it has very much to do with its quality, or lack there of.  There are stylistic and artistic speed bumps that will turn people off and on to varying degrees.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that Riyria may not be a series than can be objectively described as good or bad.  For those weaned on fantasy of the 1980's, Sullivan's work can be transportamagatative (thanks Mark Lawrence) transportive and it certainly was for me despite any of the perfectly legitimate niggles that can be levied against it.

In the interest of providing a quick guide to who might enjoy the series, I put together the following:

These are the facts:
  • the prose is utilitarian
  • the world is not that unique
  • the plot is straightforward in the early going, eyebrow cocking at times, and rather complex later
  • the characters are wooden to start, requiring some patience, but develop beautifully as things move along
  • the world building is extensive, and requires some awkward info dumping
  • the entire series is a fucking blast to read
The conclusion I reached is that The Riyria Revelations is an if-then series.  If you like ____, then you'll like these books.  If you don't, then you won't.  Let's try it.

Things that will make you not like Riyria:
If you don't like anachronisms and world-building that doesn't take into account urban geography and social engineering, then you may not like Riyria.
If you don't like elves and dwarfs, finding them derivative and out dated, then you may not like Riyria.
If you don't like puppies and potpourri, you may not like Riyria. (I jest.)
If you like your fantasy to make you think for days about existential meaning, you won't like Riyria... at all.
If the use of archaic syntax in an inaccurate and inconsistent manner for a few pages bothers you, then you won't like Riyria.
If you like your magic system to have hard rules and logic, then you won't like Riyria
If you like the last book to be the best book, then you may not like Riyria1.
Things that will make you like Riyria:
If you liked The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, but find on re-read that they are too young adult, then you'll like Riyria2
If you like a series that becomes generally more advanced, more adult, and more complex with each volume, then you'll really like Riyria.  
If you like thiefing, and sword fighting, and learning magic, and political intrigue, and villains who are justified in their own sick way, then you'll really like Riyria
If you like a good story, and a knock for story telling, then you'll really like Riyria
If you like character above all else, you'll like Riyria.  
and finally...
In the words of Southwest Airlines, wanna get away?  Then read Riyria, you'll like it.  I'm also happy to answer any questions anyone might have about the series, and whether it's for them.

1: I thought this warranted further explanation. Percepliquis, the final book in the series, concludes all the story lines in a neat bow.  It's well done, and answers every question the reader could possibly have about why things happened, how they happened, and who did them.  Unfortunately, for me, the most climactic moment in the series takes place in Wintertide, the penultimate novel.  I was left unworried for any of the characters in the final volume until a big reveal at the very end.  It's not a bad novel, but Wintertide eclipses it in every way -- take that for what it's worth.

2: What I mean by that is while Riyria is straightforward and light, it is far more detailed and comprehensively written than some of the 80's teenage fantasy. Sullivan fleshes out his characters and takes his time building things to a natural conclusion.

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At February 6, 2012 at 4:13 PM , Blogger Bryce L. said...

You know, I can't disagree with anything you've said.

At February 6, 2012 at 5:30 PM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Thanks, Justin. This is a nicely done overview of the series that helps make up my mind whether or not I should jump into the series.

Well done!

At February 6, 2012 at 7:16 PM , Blogger Elfy said...

I've just purchased Theft of Swords, and from everything I've heard I think I'm going to enjoy.

At February 6, 2012 at 7:17 PM , Blogger Ryan said...

Thanks for the overview of the series sir! I've only read The Crown Conspiracy, and would like to carry on. I'm not completely convinced the series is for me though, I was about 50/50 on the if/then portion of this post. Guess I'll have to read and find out.

At February 6, 2012 at 7:20 PM , Blogger Justin said...

You know what man, me too and I still had a great time reading it. And that's the message I hope is imparted. It's not perfect, by any means, but there's just something happy about it. Or rather something about it that makes me happy.

At February 7, 2012 at 8:11 AM , Blogger Chris said...

I've only read the first two books, but I heartily concur with your review.

A fun, lighthearted read that might not be overly challenging, but that shouldn't stop people from enjoying it anyway.

At February 16, 2012 at 4:11 PM , Anonymous My Awful Reviews said...

I think I agree with you so far. I'm over halfway through the first book in the omnibus, and there are definitely some strange plot elements (why didn't they kill Esrahaddon instead of imprison him for 1000 years, for example). I'm hoping that each volume improves, because if I had to base the review of the entire series on this one book, then it wouldn't look so pretty.

At February 19, 2012 at 11:50 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

My Awful Reviews....they don't kill Esrahaddon because he can find the heir (if one exists).

At March 19, 2012 at 12:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anybody have any recomendations for
Other books like these? I loved the series

At March 19, 2012 at 12:39 PM , Blogger Justin said...

Brent Weeks's NIGHT ANGEL TRILOGY, Jon Sprunk's SHADOW TRILOGY, Douglas Hulick's AMONG THIEVES, David Tallerman's GIANT THIEF, Daniel Polansky's LOW TOWN

At March 19, 2012 at 1:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks! I've been browsing the Internet for days trying to settle on something. Anything! I guess you know when you loved a series when your too bummed out afterward to move on.


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