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Fantasy Review: ‘The Crown Tower’ by Michael J Sullivan

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. (more…)

Sci-Fi Review: ‘Hollow World by Michael J Sullivan

This is a break away from fantasy for the author, but not very far. It’s technically science fiction – a guy builds a time machine in his Detroit garage, and after a diagnosis of terminal cancer he decides he has nothing to lose by trying it out. He sets things up for a jump two hundred years into the future, where, if he’s really lucky and survives the jump at all, there may be a cure. But – oops, slight miscalculation, and here we are two thousand years on. There’s a certain amount of arm-waving about quantum this and that, but the sciencey bits are not what this is all about. To be honest, it felt a lot like a portal story, where an ordinary joe from the present day finds himself in – well, alternate universe, past, future, whatever. So I’d say it’s as much fantasy as science fiction.

The future the author draws for the reader is an interesting one. Humans have abandoned the surface of the planet altogether after a series of ecological disasters destabilised everything, and now live in the Hollow World of the title, giant caverns using advanced technology to recreate a pseudo-earth environment. Given the ability to create pretty much everything they need, people fill their days with art, or entertainment, travelling through portals or – well, whatever they want to do. They are also immortal, and virtually everyone is build to a universal genderless pattern, the only way to distinguish one individual from another being a chip embedded in one shoulder. Again, there’s a certain amount of arm-waving over the science, but it worked perfectly well for me.

If the science isn’t a big part of the story, the author brings his traditional strengths to bear – compelling characters and an action-packed roller-coaster of a ride that leaves you on the edge of your seat. There are murders and mysterious people who are trying to kill our hero, a renegade setting himself up as a cult leader, a conspiracy and finally a big world-ending threat that has to be tackled head on because the clock is ticking… There were moments when I had to put the book down momentarily to remind myself to breathe.

As for the characters, there’s only one who matters – Pax, the genderless future-person, one of millions of identical people, who nevertheless turns out to be very much an individual. You wouldn’t think it possible for a clone (and that’s essentially what he is) to be differentiated from his/her/its compatriots, but Pax is one of those characters who just leaps off the page, larger than life and quite unforgettable. Because he’s neither male nor female, almost everything he does, or rather the way he does it, calls into question our own attitudes to the two genders. Just writing this paragraph underlines the difficulty – I’ve resorted to called Pax ‘he’ by default, and he Pax isn’t either he or she. It’s a testament to Mr Sullivan’s writing skill that he (definitely a he! even without the famous moustache, now sadly consigned to history) side-steps the issue so deftly. I don’t think he ever uses a gendered pronoun for any of the Hollow World residents. I’ll admit to not being too sure about Pax to start with (we do like to put everyone in boxes, and you just can’t with Pax), but by the mid-point Pax was definitely my favourite character.

The rest of the characters, even our time travelling hero himself, Ellis, seem a bit grey and dull by comparison. His pal Warren is something of a caricature, his wife Peggy never gets a chance to shine, and few of the Hollow World residents stand out (Sol, maybe, and the AI vox Alva, with an honourable mention for the Geomancers – I loved their yay! a crisis! attitude). It’s not at all that they’re poorly drawn (they’re mostly great characters and in other circumstances I’d be raving about them), they only seem slightly flat by comparison with Pax, who is the true hero star of the show.

The real joy of ‘Hollow World’ is the many themes that weave through every page of it. Themes like gender, the purpose of religion, what God is, traditionalism versus modernism, immortality, individualism, the nature of insanity, the meaning of love and a thousand more. It may sound churlish to complain, because too much SFF writing these days is lightweight, but in some ways there are almost too many layers of meaning here, too many themes crammed in. Then there were points where a character would declaim at some length about a certain philosophy, which is perhaps an unsubtle approach. But the author never beats us over the head with his own take on it. He simply allows his characters to express their own point of view and leaves it up to the reader to make up his/her (aargh!) mind.

This is a clever and thought-provoking story, with loads of interesting ideas, some adrenalin-pumping action and plenty of humour. It took a little while to get going (the real world is always duller than an imaginary one), and some of Warren’s diatribes sagged a bit, but overall an entertaining read with Pax being one of my favourite characters of the year. A good four stars.

Series Review: ‘The Riyria Revelations’ by Michael J Sullivan

This is a review of the entire series, originally published as six books: ‘The Crown Conspiracy’, ‘Avempartha’, ‘Nyphron Rising’, ‘The Emerald Storm’, ‘Wintertide’ and ‘Percepliquis’.  Now republished in three volumes as: ‘Theft of Swords’, ‘Rise of Empire’ and ‘Heir of Novron’. There is also a free short story prequel: ‘The Viscount and the Witch’. The author is now writing a series of novel-length prequels.

Many spoilers below – don’t read on if you haven’t read the whole series.

I have something of a love/hate relationship with Michael J Sullivan (not at a personal level, I hasten to add, I’ve never met the man). His Riyria series was one of my earliest introductions to self-published ebooks, and taught me that you definitely don’t have to be with a mainstream publisher to be any good. Not great literature, but easy to read, entertaining and riotously funny – what’s not to like? I was steadily working my way through the six-book series, which got better and better, when it was picked up by a big name house, and publication of the final book of the series was delayed. I was pacing myself with this delay in mind, and, having read the first four books, I decided it was time to buy the fifth, only to find – nothing. All the ebooks had been pulled, ready for the big re-release. Damn. Should have paid more attention. So annoying.

But then the author released a free short prequel (which was nice), and since he writes the best blog I’ve ever come across, with a self-effacing manner and a truly wonderful sense of humour, I forgive him. For those who had bought all five previously published books, he made sure that they could get the sixth in matching format, which is totally cool. He’s very good at connecting with his readers and participating in online discussion groups, and sometimes that veers into over-enthusiastic self-promotion, but that’s just part of the digital age, I suppose.

The Riyria series has been billed as a return to traditional fantasy, adult books but without swearing or graphic sex, with each book readable on its own while nevertheless having an overarching story. So how well does it measure up? Well, there’s certainly no swearing or sex, but there is some violence (that’s unavoidable in this type of story), and there is an attempted rape in ‘Avempartha’, plenty of implied sex and plenty of whores, too. So adult reading, yes, but it works well as young adult too. And while you could, I suppose, read any of the books on their own, they make most sense read together in the proper sequence.

The traditional fantasy aspect is a problem for me, because almost invariably it means a pseudo-medieval setting with all the usual baggage – kings, knights, castles, tournaments, mud-bespattered and stupid peasants grubbing round in the dirt, ragged urchins in the towns picking pockets, a few wizards, elves, goblins and dwarves in the background, and women reduced to a handful of minor roles – princess, whore, serving wench and (if she’s lucky) warrior babe. Sullivan has bought into this wholesale, and I suppose I shouldn’t compain, since so many other authors do the same. Tolkien set the standard here, after all. But it is tired and clichéd and (frankly) lazy.

In a few ways, Sullivan has added his own touches. For most of the series elves are sad half-breeds, enslaved and badly treated and eventually exterminated, and the only dwarf is a total scumbag. And there are some fabulous magical places – Gutaria, the enchanted wizard prison, Avempartha, the exquisite elven tower, and Drumindor, the dwarf-built tower on a volcano. Some of the fringes of the created world, like Dagastan and Calis, are well-drawn, too. But the legendary lost city of Percepliquis was a disappointment to me.

The magic system is unoriginal, too. A wizard waves his hands in the air and harnesses natural forces to achieve his spells, and there seems to be no limit to this. That’s about it. Fortunately, the story never devolves to the level of wizards hurling thunderbolts at each other, which would have been tediously uninteresting. Magic is used sparingly, and is generally a surprise when it appears.

The characters all fall into stereotyped roles – warrior, princess, thief, whore and so on – and in the early books they had little depth, but over time the main characters developed more rounded personalities. Royce, in particular, is a complex and fascinating character, and I think it was essential to see him at his rawest and worst, immediately after Gwen’s death, to realise just how far he had come over the course of the story and understand just how low he could fall, left to himself. We were repeatedly told how dangerous he was, but that was the moment when we actually saw it. Hadrian is a much simpler person, with a touching faith in the innate goodness of people. Very likeable, and the two make a great team. The joking between them is one of the highlights of the books (far too much fantasy is overly serious). I loved the way they worked together seamlessly (climbing out of the well back to back, for instance, or instinctively watching each other’s backs while meeting the Diamond on the bridge at Colnora). But I also liked their very different personalities: when they meet the Diamond at the inn, Royce remains motionless, alert, while Hadrian ambles round the room eating walnuts.

The other characters work less well. I loved Myron’s innocence, but I simply didn’t believe he could know so little of the world after all his reading and living at an abbey frequented by travellers, and I found him unconvincing as a philosopher guiding Royce through his darker moments. The rest are fairly one dimensional, even after six books: Alric the whiny aristocrat, Mauvin the warrior, Degan the prat, Magnus the grumpy stonesmith, Archie the fool and so on. That doesn’t make them uninteresting, it just means they aren’t emotionally engaging.

I have to mention the four main female characters: Arista, Thrace/Modina, Amilia and Gwen. I didn’t notice it the first time through, but rereading the first four books while waiting for the release of the last two has highlighted for me just how depressingly caricatured and helpless they were. Maybe it’s because in the interim I read several books where women were just as competent and realistic as their male counterparts, but this time through it just jumped out at me. Gwen is the classic good-hearted whore. She was an independent woman who ran several successful businesses, but ultimately her role was to be loved by a man, and be the mother of his daughter. Oh, and to make prophecies so that the plot could progress. And Amilia never really progressed beyond downtrodden servant, and love interest for a man. She certainly never developed any self-confidence.

Thrace/Modina made the leap from peasant girl to empress, but to be honest, I never really found it totally convincing. In ‘Avempartha’ she is sent off by Esrahaddon to find Royce and Hadrian, where she promptly falls victim to a potential rapist and has to be rescued. She then spends most of the book being silly, doing stupid things, running round shouting ‘Daddy, Daddy!’, getting captured and having to be rescued. She has a moment of lucidity when she takes the sword hilt, but actually killing the beastie seems to be more by accident than design. She spends the whole of ‘Nyphron Rising’ in a state of catatonia. She is only marginally better in ‘Emerald Storm’ and ‘Wintertide’, and now she’s suicidal too. It’s only the arrival of Mince with Esrahaddon’s cloak that knocks her out of her depression. Was it Mince’s words which did the trick, or the magic cloak? No idea, but I prefer to think it was the cloak, since surely only magic could explain her otherwise miraculous transformation into serene (and sane) empress.

Then there was Arista. Now, in one sense I liked how she turned out. Her final incarnation, as a regular human being rather than a haughty princess, was nicely believable. But the way she got there was to be manipulated, captured, rescued, dragged around the countryside, captured again, rescued again, and finally (just in case we suspected she was acting independently for once) to carry out Esrahaddon’s last instructions. Oh, and then she became love interest and motivation for a man. Even though she was a powerful wizardess in her own right by then, at the final confrontation it was men with swords (and twirly knife things) who fought for the survival of mankind, while she stood on the sidelines wailing ‘Oh Hadrian!’, and waiting to be called upon to bring Royce back to life.

Now it may seem churlish to grumble about this. It’s no more than almost every other fantasy writer does, after all, and it was Tolkien, bless him, who started the rot by making Arwen no more than Aragorn’s reward, and even Eowyn only became the kickass warrior babe in despair after falling for the unattainable hero. And yes, Modina made a great empress and Arista was pretty useful in a crisis. I just wish they hadn’t been so helpless along the way. Of course the men had their moments of being manipulated and having to be rescued, too, but they still came across as independent people, and as often as not they got themselves out of trouble. Only very rarely were they there mainly to act as motivation and love interest (Sir Breckton, maybe).

There’s one last character I should mention: Nimbus. The whole Kile story was flagged up so many times that I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t and it was a lovely moment. I’m not a fan of gods taking an active role in fantasy, they’re just too powerful, but this was a beautifully elegant way to say, yes, there are gods in this world, but their interference can be a good thing. Very subtly done.

The six books all had plots which, while part of the overarching framework, were still workable as stand-alone reads, and the author pulled this off pretty well, I think. The individual plots were fairly flimsy affairs, on the whole, and some of them were actually quite silly, but they worked as entertaining capers. But when you get to ‘Percepliquis’, the final book, it becomes possible to see the story as a whole, and here the author’s talent shines through. It takes a great deal of skill to write six books which weave together into a satisfying and united whole, without loose ends or forced motivations or sleight of hand, and Sullivan not only achieves this brilliantly, he also manages to leave open the central mystery (the identity of the true Heir of Novron) until the last possible moment. This is an impressive feat.

‘Percepliquis’ itself is, in many ways, the archetypal fantasy story: the quest to find a magical gizmo to save the world. The ten questers were a fairly motley crew, and some of them seemed to be there just to make up the numbers. I have to say, for a lost city, Percepliquis was remarkably easy to find, but then Sullivan has never been one to spin out a story, thankfully. The highlight of the journey was the tetchiness infecting virtually all the participants. Royce and Magnus are grumpy by nature, Alric and Arista had an outbreak of sibling rivalry, and Degan was an ass, as he has been from the start. And even the even-tempered Hadrian bopped Degan on the nose (a wonderful moment). Only Myron rose unflappably above the sniping. I liked the author’s skilful pacing over the journey (and the whole book, really). The moments of high drama are masterfully interspersed with thoughtful passages, comic relief, gentle romance, simple description and, sometimes, despair. Beautifully done. And the challenge at the end is absolutely perfect.

The sixth book is full of twists and big reveals, and I have to confess to guessing most of them ahead of time. I didn’t anticipate that Novron was an elf (but it makes perfect sense), and I definitely didn’t suspect Arcadius of killing Gwen, but I marked Royce as (possibly) the heir the moment Mercy was revealed as an heir, I worked out the Patriarch’s anagram and I knew Thranic would turn up. And as one piece after another fell into place, and the overall picture came into focus, it became clear just how cleverly plotted the story was.

Looking back at the complete series, Sullivan himself has said that he thinks the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and I would agree with that. Each book revealed a little of the picture, but only when the whole of it is visible is it possible to see how everything works together – the elves, Novron, the Nyphron church, Esrahaddon, the Patriarch, Royce, Gwen, Hadrian, Arcadius, the whole enchilada. It’s like one of those ingenious three dimensional puzzles that looks impossible until you push and twist just right, and everything falls into place. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to read the books just as entertaining stories and not worry about the big picture, but it’s a lot more fun to try to work it out for yourself. And the final book is just mystery heaped upon secret wrapped in enigma.

Reviewing some of the earlier books, I was moderately critical of Sullivan’s writing. There were typos and clunky dialogue and poor grammar and Americanisms, none of which matter much unless you notice them, but I did. On rereading, I noticed them less, and it also became clear how much the writing improved over the course of the series. He’ll probably never have the poetic flow of (say) Rothfuss, or the over-the-top gloriousness of (say) Martin, but he has a style of his own, which works fine for this type of story. In ‘Percepliquis’ the writing was so much more confident that it pulled off all the complexities of the finale – the deeper notes, the romantic interludes, the archaic language, the poems, the dreams – with barely a jarring note.

Sullivan has given his readers something special: a story which works at multiple different levels. He has achieved his aim to produce clean traditional fantasy which is enjoyable and entertaining, while also providing a more complex puzzle for those who want it. The two main characters and their relationship, and particularly Royce and his distorted view of the world, provide a deeper layer of interest. Some memorable highlights from the whole series: Gutaria, Avempartha, Drumindor; Royce and Hadrian climbing out of the well, standing back to back on the bridge meeting the Diamond at Colnora, meeting the Diamond (again) at the inn; Alric charging the gates of Medford, Alric rescuing Arista, Lenare spitting Luis Guy; Myron mystified by his sister, Hadrian bopping Degan, Royce using Gilly to escape from the tomb. And the unforgettable: Royce going ballistic after Gwen’s death. And a special mention for best performance by an inanimate object: Esrahaddon’s cloak.

But I think Sullivan has achieved something more. He was one of the first to turn to self-publishing and actually make it profitable, by tirelessly working to promote his books and, of course, by having worthwhile material to sell. He then successfully transferred back to traditional publishing, thereby proving that the two systems can peacefully co-exist and support each other. He is one of the new breed of author, who has reached out directly to his audience and built a personal connection, and he’s still doing that despite the new publishing deal. Of course, all of this attracts a certain amount of venom from some quarters – the pro-indie set who hate him for selling out, and the anti-indie set who hate him for making a success of going it alone. I hope he won’t let that bother him. I hope he continues to write at this level, that he continues to be the same down-to-earth, self-effacing person, that he continues to be successful. But even if he doesn’t write another thing, he has left a worthy legacy behind him: six books which make one terrific story, and an inspiration for all aspiring writers. [Originally posted elsewhere February 2012]

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