Prequels are difficult. Fans already know everything that happens down the line, so it’s hard to create enough tension and uncertainty (It’s a battle! Will they survive??? Um, sure they will. Oh.). The characters are established, but there has to be enough information for new readers to follow along without boring the fans witless. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Mr Sullivan pulls it off magnificently. I loved this book to pieces, almost more than the original books (The Riyria Revelations), if that isn’t too sacrilegious. It’s a fun, easy to read, exciting romp, with the bonus of characters that have already had the benefit of several books to become beautifully well-rounded.
The plot, in brief: our heroes, Royce the cold-blooded assassin/thief, and Hadrian the highly trained soldier weary of killing, are brought together by eccentric academic Arcadius for one seemingly impossible job. They have to steal a journal from the top of the Crown Tower, home of the main religious leader, and bring it to Arcadius to read. And the sticking point is that, even though Royce can do the job single-handed, they both have to go.
The meat of the story lies in their mutual dislike and disrespect, and how they gradually learn to overcome both and reach a somewhat more amicable working relationship. This part of the book, as they undertake their impossible mission, sniping at each other every step of the way, is full of dramatic adventures, with an unexpected twist at every turn, but it is also sharply funny, and I loved every single minute of it. We get point of view chapters from both Hadrian and Royce, which adds to the tension, as we see clearly just how deeply they each dislike the other. It’s very cleverly done.
There is also a parallel story featuring Gwen, a downtrodden prostitute at the town of Medford. After one of the other girls is killed by a client who then simply pays off the brothel owner and the law, Gwen decides to set up her own brothel, with better working conditions. I’ve always liked Gwen, but she was a background character in the Revelations trilogy, albeit an important one, and I wished I knew more about her. Finding out something about her history and her ‘gift’ was interesting. However, at first I wondered just how exciting it was going to be reading about how she sets up her new business. Gwen goes shopping. Gwen deals with a smoking chimney. Gwen gets some carpentry done. Gwen applies for a permit. Hmm. But Gwen is a smart and resourceful lady, and I loved her clever ways of getting things done. I enjoyed finding out more about her gift, as well, and even though it sometimes felt a bit too convenient for the plot, there were some nicely chilling moments. In the end, the two parallel and seemingly disconnected stories (Royce/Hadrian and Gwen) collided in the most satisfying way imaginable, and even after that there’s a neat little twist at the end, which was fun.
I recently read the author’s venture into science fiction, ‘Hollow World’, which is a very different animal. There’s the same pacy action and array of fascinating characters, but there are also a thousand different ideas jumping up and down for attention, making it a deeply thought-provoking work. ‘The Crown Tower’ is pure entertainment and not ideas-driven, although there are some sharp asides tossed out along the way for those who notice them to savour, but what both share is the author’s trademark attention to detail in plot and character which make him such a joy to read. This is a perfectly judged story which works fine for newcomers, but also supplies some delightful moments for fans of the main series too. Mr Sullivan is a master story-teller writing at the top of his game. I enjoyed this so much I can’t possibly give it anything less than five stars.