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Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan: Book Review

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Genre: Epic Fantasy, Magic, Medieval
Author: Michael J. Sullivan
Series: The Riyria Revelations #1-2
Date Published: first published October 6, 2011
Publisher: Orbit
Edition: ebook
ISBN: 0316200719

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There's no ancient evil to defeat or orphan destined for greatness, just unlikely heroes and classic adventure. Royce Melborn, a skilled thief, and his mercenary partner, Hadrian Blackwater, are two enterprising rogues who end up running for their lives when they're framed for the murder of the king. Trapped in a conspiracy that goes beyond the overthrow of a tiny kingdom, their only hope is unraveling an ancient mystery before it's too late.


Review:

I have just recently discovered that after reading Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, playing the world’s first online game Ragnarok and playing lots of role-playing games thereafter, reading A Song of Ice and Fire series, yes in that particular order, my favorite genre in books would be epic fantasy.

I never thought I would be keen in medieval period (or whatever monarch period with knights about) but then most especially with magic. So it seems magic won’t grow old on me— I’ll be forever a kid at heart with magic.

So yes, this is an epic story. While the story involves princes and princesses and a wizard, clergy and cavalry and all you could imagine in an epic story with elves, dwarves and gods, just sans the dragons, the story revolves around two thieves in action. Theft of Swords is the first book of what is calledThe Riyria Revelations series.

In japanese animations, I'm very soft on (handsomely drawn) noblemen turning rogue in the night with a mask but the protagonists here, Hadrian and Royce, aren’t blue-blooded and they have nothing to do with the nobility. Simply put, they are just thieves. But not entirely common. But then perhaps, I’ll be surprised at the end of the series with something, this is just the beginning after all. While they aren’t just common thieves, they’re quite notorious among noblemen who used to be their clients. And they’re quite funny:

Hadrian was never completely comfortable with most of the tasks they did for nobles. They wanted to embarrass a rival, to hurt an ex-lover, or to increase their standing in the strange and twisted world of high-stakes politics. The gentry hired them because they possessed fortunes and could afford to pay for their games. To them, that was what life was—one big chess match with real knights, kings, and pawns. There was no good or evil, no right or wrong. It was all just politics. A game within a game with its own set of rules and no values. Their squabbles, however, did provide a fertile field for them to harvest profits. Not only were the nobles rich and petty, they were also dim-witted. How else could Royce and Hadrian receive payment from the Earl of Chadwick to intercept letters Alenda Lanaklin sent to Degan Gaunt only to turn around and double their profit by stealing them back? They had simply asked Albert to contact Alenda with the news Ballentyne had her letters and an offer to help get them back. Their business was profitable but ugly. Just another game he played in a world where heroes were legends and honor was a myth.

The Author

Michael J. Sullivan is the second independent or self-publishing author that I love, of whom the first is Tarryn Fisher. To be chosen by a publisher has always been an issue in the past. J.K. Rowling, in my opinion, gloats on the fact that she’d been turned down by 11 publishing houses before having her huge success with Bloomsbury and then, Scholastics for Harry Potter. But with modern technology today which allows the publishing of electronic materials and printing is kind of easy, there’s a certain pride of publishing one’s own work and being loved back by readers. Michael J. Sullivan is a success for that matter.

Theft of Swords as published by Hachete Digital is a book that comprises of 2 books originally: The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha. As individual books, they were supposed to be signed by a publishing house but things didn't happen as expected prompting Michael's wife, Robin to self-publish the books at a 6-month interval. It is through her that both books went public. Michael Sullivan is such a lucky man to have a wife like that. Anyway, with the huge success of The Riyria Revelations as a self-published series with 6 books, it is now published by a legit publisher with every two books rolled into one.

The Basics

Theft of Swords is a great read. There's never a dull moment in it. There's magic and most especially logic in the story. Basically the story starts with: after being set up to stealing a sword, 2 guys were accused of killing the king in the setting. In the end, they become the savior of the very one who condemned them to death.

The world of this book, Elan was built with much care by the author. I have to reiterate that this book has logic, everything in the world of Elan makes sense. While the world is built by magical things, somehow the story revolves around politics. It's as if there's politicking in every event here, which is essential. I don't know if there's an underlying nationalistic issue here or the elements were just used to build upon the story.

Don't worry, the book doesn't sound like a nagging leftist. I think rather that the politicking in this book is necessary to make every event here substantial, that the characters justify whatever they are doing. Besides, since the book is set in what is like a magical medieval period, we know who used to be politicians and back then, one of the biggest question is: Who holds real power? For which you will to follow up with: The people and the state? The royal house and their gentry? The Church? So, things like that.

An Approach

For epic fantasy veterans, you will have no problem understanding as to how the world of Elan works especially if you are familiar with the Vikings, The Norse Gods or if you're european, because honestly, I am from the Southeast Asia and am even familiar with post-european beliefs, but I did have problems in the past in understanding such aspect. For those who have watched even a single movie of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the world of Elan is like that. Except for a few (if not many) exceptions like:

  1.  the absence of dragons,
  2. there's only one wizard left who is imprisoned for more than 900 years and is miraculously still alive even though he's still human with the absence of hands,
  3. you won't be 'seeing' much of elves nor dwarves save for a few appearances (as to why?),
  4. the world of Elan is in a developed state and NOT dystopian, only that 
  5. The human politicians are on the process of destroying the peace of Elan.

Wait, I think that number 5 above is much the same with The Lord of the Rings (LoTR), only that Riyria Revelations is probably what happened to the world of Middle-Earth before Sauron almost destroyed it. So Riyria is more like the past for LoTR but for the series, the past is the Empire of Novron. So the curious thing about this series is aside from what's going to happen next, it would be what really happened in the Empire of Novron.

Now that I'm done approaching the epic fantasy veterans, I'm going to reach out for the newbie. When I've read LoTR for the first time, I was plagued by the question like why do elves, dwarves and humans live in one world at the same time? For Harry Potter, how did magic came to be? Which is much the same with our own question of where does DNA come from? For the LoTR, the answer was never given only that they just do. For Harry Potter, there were three Peverell brothers who came to meet with Death and invented the three Deathly Hallows and for which I was never satisfied (it sounded like Deus Ex Machina). For the DNA, scientists are still on the mission for seeking answers.

For Riyria Revelations, you will not have questions like those. The author has the grace to do parallelism (or almost) with both greek and norse mythologies. That will be shown as what I could surmise as the book's preface along with the map (drawing maps is like prerequisite for Epic Fantasy books). And I'm going to explain a bit about it.

The Gods of Elan

There was a god who had three sons and a daughter and his name was Erebus. Erebus is like the all-father god Odin for Norse mythology. His eldest son was Ferrol who created the elves to toil on Elan. Thus, he's the god of the elves. When the second son Drome came, he created the dwarves. Thus, the dwarven god. The elves were the first ones who dwelled in Elan and hence, the dwarves were driven deeper in the land. Below the earth, the dwarves became masters of mining and building. Then came the third son Maribor who created men. There were the elves and the dwarves who live in Elan already, with long lives, and the dwelling place became problematic for the humans with short lives. Men just grew so much in number in a short span of time. So the men asked help from their god Maribor for which he sent down his demigod son, Norvon who won the world and created the Norvon Empire. And then Erebus' youngest came, Muriel, the goddess of nature. One drunken night, Erebus took his daughter and then came their son Uberlin, the god of darkness who created the goblins. The goblins toil beneath the land but there were the dwarves. The dwarves have to go above but there were the elves and men. Hence, more problems with the goblins abound.

British Nobility

My friends often complain that there is so much to take in an epic fantasy world. There are so many kingdoms, each with their own rules. There are so many monarchs, each with their own rank. For this story then, there's also the church with its curia. For those who are not familiar with the British nobility class, here's a rank: Duke > Marquess> Earl > Viscount > Baron. Oftentimes, the duke is referred to as Archduke, the Viscount as Count and Marquess as Marquis. And they’re the underlings of the royal house. That's all there is in my understanding of aristocracy. This book follows after the classic British nobility ranking and that's because it undertakes on a particular kingdom taking on the British nobility. Things will complicate if I talk of these kingdoms.

The book

In the series, the first book tackles on the affairs of men. It's about how the Church sort of like to take the world on their own devices, however they see fit. As to how to do it, put politicians under their governance by marrying them off inside the gentry. But they’re all only a background to the story. What really transpires in this book is the adventure of 2 mercenaries. Rather, they were both independent thieves who were pushed to become the prince’s royal guards because his sister, the princess had put things into her own hands and thus, whoever is the enemy has ruined his plans.

The Characters

Hadrian used to be a warrior, a trained soldier. He has a tall burly frame of a man who could scale towers to run errands (or was it his partner, Royce). He is great not just at wielding his sword but also at aiming his target with an arrow. As to how he came to stealing, that is yet for me to find out in The Riyria Chronicles.

Royce on the other hand is slender, shorter and lithe, a professional thief. He could lose himself in the shadows in the dead of night wherein he could also see clearly and see things from afar. I acknowledge his night vision and eagle-eyes as characteristics of an elf. Might be that Royce is part elf. And he must have come out of LoTR.

I just noticed that Royce gets furious at the mention of elves. My theory is that if he is indeed part elf, it could be that his mother was human while his father was an elf. His father might have been mischievous and raped his mother and so he came into the world. Hadrian said he was orphaned. It might be that Royce’s mother died of childbirth and with the knowledge of him being elven made his rollicking in the streets as a child turn into stealing.

Excerpt from the book for details about Hadrian:

He was tall, rugged in feature and dress but not unkind or threatening in appearance. Wrinkles, which might have come from laughter, tugged at the edges of his eyes. Alenda thought his demeanor was remarkably cheerful, even friendly. She could not help thinking he was handsome, which was not the reaction she had expected to have about anyone she might meet in such a place. He was dressed in dirt-stained leather and wool and was well armed. On his left side, he had a short sword with an unadorned hilt. On his right was a similarly plain, longer, wider sword. Finally, slung on his back was a massive blade, nearly as tall as he was.

Excerpt from the book for details about Royce:

Alenda’s memory of him was easier to recall, because he was the more disturbing of the two. He was smaller than Hadrian and possessed elegant features, dark hair, and dark eyes. He was dressed in layers of black with a knee-length tunic and a long flowing cloak that gathered about him like a shadow. Not a single weapon was visible. Despite his smaller size and apparent unarmed state, Alenda feared this man. His cold eyes, expressionless face, and curt manner had all the warmth of a predator.

More on the story

I did say that this book is about the adventures or rather the misadventures of Hadrian and Royce. The nice thing about this book is that it has a comical note to it. Even when the affairs are serious, they are still laughable which remind me of Zorro’s movies unlike the melodramatic, sullen and morbid tone of A Game of Thrones.

An example of this funny note is this story of a Count who’d challenge anyone who stares too long at his beautiful wife. Lives had been lost in these Challenges of his, even nobles.

I love how the publisher (must be the publisher rather than the author) made use of an excerpt in the story, devices such as in medias res or foreshadowing as opening for the book. It kept me waiting, and therefore, eager to get to that part of the story.

I don’t know why but I have my own understanding that a lot of people (especially men) are quite taken by the classic story of The Princess Bride that even the name Wesley (just not with a T) has appeared in this book. And that’s in referral to a son of a chivalrous knight of archaic dimensions who is brother to a certain loyal and honorable general. He is Wesley who went to sea just like Westley who inadvertently turned into a pirate. For this, I love the author even more.

Not only will you be awaiting action in this book, enjoy the mechanisms of the characters' thievery but you will also get a laugh (in fact, lots of laughs) in the characters' (specifically Hadrian's) thoughts and antics. The Riyria Revelations is one helluva series that you should never miss.

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