Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

The first Riyra Omnibus        
Books 1 and 2 of The Riyria Revelations     
Published by Orbit      
ISBN 978-0-3161-8774-9       
November 2011                      
704 Pages 


The Riyria Revelations is a series of books by Michael J. Sullivan originally self-published/published through small press Ridan Publishing (owned by Michael’s wife, Robin), which became nothing short of a sensation, selling thousands of copies in both POD and eBook format from 2008 through early 2011.  What’s even more impressive than the sales of the books were the resultant waves of fans and blogger reviewers heaping praise upon Michael’s fantasy saga. In November 2011, after almost a year of gestation, Orbit Books is publishing Theft of Swords, the first of three omnibus volumes each containing two of the Riyria novels.  Orbit is employing a very smart strategy with these books, a strategy that has proven successful for them in the past – three books in three months. All of this is great information, but what of the book(s) themselves?

Theft of Swords contains The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha, the first two novels in the series.  Both books are just over 300 pages.  In The Crown Conspiracy, readers are introduced to the anti-heroic duo of Royce Melborn, thief, and Hadrian Blackwater, mercenary.  The two call themselves Riyria and are known as a competent duo, working outside the thieves’ guild taking on jobs for nobles who would otherwise not want to get their hands dirty.  Off the bat, Sullivan gives readers fully formed protagonists who are mature and not the typical farmboys of epic fantasy. In fact, the feel I got throughout The Crown Conspiracy was more of a Sword and Sorcery adventure rather than Epic Fantasy. Of course, the comparison many people have made to Royce and Hadrian is to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The relationship between Royce and Hadrian comes across as something that is long-standing, but as of yet, Sullivan has yet to reveal how the two rogues became partners. This is good, and a pattern of storytelling which Sullivan employs throughout The Crown Conspiracy and a method at which he excels.

So, The Crown Conspiracy…  Hadrian and Royce, after our brief introduction to the duo, are hired to steal a sword in order for a noble to win a duel, since his opponent cannot be beaten whilst wielding said sword.  To sweeten the deal, Hadrian and Royce’s employer give the duo step-by-step instructions for where and how to get the sword and one of their highest paydays.  If it seems too good to be true, then it is, but the pair can’t pass up the opportunity to make money on what seems to be such little effort. When they arrive at the spot where the sword is supposed to be, they find the dead body of the King of Melegar. No sooner do our protagonists discover the body than a dwarf spots them, shouting for the royal guards. As accomplished as the duo are at swordplay, they realize how outnumbered they are and give into the guards and are incarcerated.

They aren’t imprisoned very long before Princess Arista (daughter of the murdered king) visits and helps them escape and plan the abduction of her brother, Alric who is now the King since as the successor, he is the next likely target. As a sort-of payment for their escape, Arista tells the duo to bring Alric to find the millennium-old wizard Esrahaddon, who could be a key to unraveling the layered political underpinnings of Melegar and the missing Heir of Novron and the heir’s ties to the Church of Nyphron.  They soon meet a young monk amidst the ruin of his church who makes the group a quartet.

As I said, Royce and Hadrian – though fitting the stock characters of mercenary and thief – come across as deeper characters with a back-history that is only hinted at in the first volume.  The same can be said for the larger story itself.  It seems to be a simple caper, but with each chapter, Sullivan reveals more layers to the plot and provides both answers and questions in that right balance to keep readers, particularly this reader, both guessing and satisfied. 

The second novel in the omnibus, Avempartha, picks up after the events of The Crown Conspiracy and finds Alric on the throne and his sister, Arista sort of waiting to be assigned a new place as an envoy. Though the siblings didn’t have much ‘screen time’ together in The Crown Conspiracy, Sullivan did manage to make their interactions genuine and that connection and relationship – while again brief whilst together – grows in believability in the second volume. 

This time, our protagonist duo is hired by a disheveled young woman, Thrace, to help save her village from a rampaging monster that has already killed most of her family.  Her father is determined to kill the monster, but Thrace knows he has no chance so hires Royce and Hadrian to step into the situation.  Here, another straightforward plot – kill the monster – whose simplicity is a façade for the more intricately layered plot Sullivan reveals throughout the novel.  Initially, the plot of Avempartha reminded me of Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, both for the similarities between the eager-eyed Gareth who asks John the Dragonslayer to kill the dragon in Dragonsbane and Thrace asking Royce & Hadrian for their help, as well as the overall feel of the two villages where much of the action takes place in both narratives.

Another deepening layer of plot which Sullivan reveals in Avempartha is the power of the Church of Nyphron, which isn’t exactly a happy-go-lucky and charitable organization.  Their ‘search’ for the true Heir of Novron comes more to the fore in the second volume and brings the church to the village of Dahlgren, where Thrace has brought Royce and Hadrian in the hopes of stopping the monster, the dragon-wyvern like flying serpent Gilarabrywn.  Situated near the village is the titular tower Avempartha, where the Gilarbrwyn resides during the day and where, thanks to the reappearing wizard Esrahaddon who since being released from his prison in The Crown Conspiracy is being hunted by the Church of Nyphron, informs Royce and Hadrian can find the sword that will bring down the Gilarbrwyn.

Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations, with the two volumes contained in the omnibus, is off to a terrific beginning. He introduces familiar fantasy elements, one might even say cliché fantasy elements (thief & mercenary, murdered king, fantastical races like elves and dwarves, faux-medieval world, ancient citadels, etc), but through calculated, expert revelation, tell a story that has more depth than the outer trappings would lead one to believe.  Sullivan had me turning the pages rapidly and has me eager to read the continuing adventures of Royce and Hadrian, to learn more about their origins, and to see what further depth he’s invested in Elan, the world in which these stories are set.

Orbit was very smart to (1) snap up these books, (2) pair up two books into one omnibus, and (3) publish the three books in three months.  Sullivan’s story fits in great with some of the recent books published by Orbit– I’d recommend the books to people who enjoyed the ‘old-school fantasy’ aspect of Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path and Brent Weeks Night Angel Trilogy. Outside of books published by Orbit, readers who enjoyed the modern sensibilities and characters of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard sequence and/or readers looking for something to remind them of the fun, adventurous romps associated with Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser sword and sorcery tales will find a lot to like in The Riyria Revelations. Sullivan has succeeded (based on interviews I’ve read and heard with him) in his intended goal of telling entertaining stories that are just a blast.  There really is something to be said for such fun, adventurous, entertaining stories and Theft of Swords, the first omnibus installment of The Riyria Revelations goes a long way to saying it very well.


Strong recommendation…


© 2011 Rob H. Bedford

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