The story of Michael Sullivan’s “Riyria Revelations” series is one of those amazing tales that illustrates how e-books are shaking up our publishing model. Sullivan self-published his series of six fantasy novels as e-books; they sold so well that he later acquired a six-figure deal to re-publish the books. Theft of Swords is actually the first two Riyria novels, The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha, repackaged as the first volume in a trilogy.
The heroes of the Riyria Revelations are Hadrian, a swordsman, and Royce, a thief. When Theft of Swords opens, these two friends have been working together for a while as a shadowy operation called “Riyria.” They have an intimidating reputation as a team that can accomplish even the most dangerous and difficult tasks. This life suits the pragmatic Royce, but the honorable Hadrian occasionally feels conflicted about their morally ambiguous jobs. At the beginning of The Crown Conspiracy, Hadrian agrees to take a seemingly benevolent assignment — one that isn’t quite what the client claimed. In Avempartha, however, it’s Royce who unexpectedly urges his partner to accept a poorly-paid job on behalf of a distressed country teenager named Thrace.
I can see why the Riyria Revelations were such strong e-book sellers. Theft of Swords is a rollicking throwback fantasy, full of swordfights, kingdoms in peril, mysterious wizards, and wicked plots that our heroes must foil. It’s familiar ground, but Sullivan’s fast-moving book trods it entertainingly. Royce and Hadrian are a terrific pair of protagonists. They squabble, they insult each other, and they have deeply different attitudes towards life, but no matter what they’re doing you can always sense the core of a strong friendship. Spending time in their company as they solve puzzles, rescue royalty, and battle monsters is just plain fun.
However, I often wished that Sullivan had had a more assertive editor looking over his work. The writing is clear but not always graceful. Descriptions of places and weather conditions tend to go on for far too long. The dialogue is mostly snappy, with a good fantasy-adventure vibe, but it sometimes sounds a bit too colloquial-American. Furthermore, the characters tend to suffer from bouts of Awkward Exposition Syndrome, a disorder that causes them to recite numerous facts that are known to everyone in the room. In the novel’s first chapter, for example, evil nobleman Archibald “Archie” Ballentyne delivers a long monologue about his lands, villages, knights, and hobbies (namely, wearing fancy clothes) right before attempting to blackmail a Marquis into giving Archie his daughter’s hand in marriage. The Marquis, in turn, indignantly explains that all Archie wants is his daughter’s strategically useful dowry lands. Even in a fantasy world, I have a hard time believing that people would spend that much time carefully explaining things that everyone they’re talking to already knows.
Fortunately, the action-packed story and charismatic characters keep the book entertaining even when the writing veers on clunky. If you’re looking for the next George RR Martin or N.K. Jemisin, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a fun fantasy beach read, Theft of Swords is a good bet. There are times when all you want is to read about two best friends stealing treasure and beating up bad guys together. If you’re in that mood, this book delivers.
Rating: Library Loan