Review: Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Royce the thief and Hadrian the swordsman are known as Ririya — for the right price, and given enough time, they can steal pretty much anything.

They are also the last people you would expect to be suddenly in the middle of a massive political and religious war, but that is what happens in “Theft of Swords,” the first of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations omnibi, which compiles the first two books of his epic fantasy series. Rather than overstuffed mythology or dark-and-gritty realism, Sullivan crafts a tale with most of the fantasy tropes which somehow manages to feel fresh, fun and complicated.

In “The Crown Conspiracy, a foppish noble hires Royce and Hadrian to steal a legendary dueling sword… but when they get to the place where it’s hidden, they don’t find a sword. They find the king’s corpse instead. In a matter of minutes, the two find themselves framed for the king’s murder, and the enraged Prince Alric orders them gruesomely executed the very next day. Fortunately for the pair, Princess Arista knows that someone else killed her father, and she fears that soon the same person will assassinate her brother.

So she is willing to free them, with the stipulation that they kidnap Alric for his own safety, and take him to someone named Esrahaddon. Given the choice between death and babysitting a bratty new king, Royce and Hadrian decide to drag the king on a road trip, but they quickly discover that they are being hunted. And they also learn that this conspiracy to seize the crown has a lot more elements than a simple assassination…

In “Avempartha,” Royce and Hadrian are approached by Thrace, a young girl from the village of Dahlgren, which is being ravaged by an unseen monster. They end up coming with her, because she was sent by a “Mr Haddon,” aka the long-imprisoned wizard Esrahaddon. When the thieves arrive in Dahlgren, they find a broken community haunted by the deaths of loved ones, and constantly threatened by nightly attacks.

Even better, Esrahaddon reveals that the monster is an unkillable magical weapon. The only way to destroy it is a magic sword INSIDE the tower. Which is on a cliff. Surrounded by a very deep river. With no way in. But more complications arise when the Novron Church sends representatives to oversee a strange contest — the person who successfully slays the Gilarabrywn will be considered the Heir of Novron.

Most high fantasy these days falls into two basic categories:
– Derivative of Tolkien, where the author chokes the story on excessive worldbuilding that the story doesn’t actually need.
– Derivative of Martin, where the author bogs down the story on grim, dark grittiness until it’s no longer entertaining.

And what makes “Theft of Swords” so charming is that it isn’t like either of these. Sullivan embraces a lot of fantasy tropes and cliches (elves, dwarves, wizards, Europeanish medievalish culture), but the story he spins out of them is oddly refreshing. He weaves out a genuinely epic story, based on centuries of fictional history and complex international politics, but the story itself stays a pretty intimate affair. And he imbues it with a sense of history, as Esrahaddon laments that a land that once thrived on culture, technology and magic has fallen into stolid ignorance and primitivism. It gives the feeling of a once-great civilization that has decayed, and its history is mostly forgotten.

It’s also pretty fun to read — Sullivan’s prose is nimble and quick-moving, with lots of clever dialogue (“It’s my first day.” “And already I am trapped in a timeless prison. I shudder to think what might have happened if you had a whole week”), wild battles (especially against the Gilarabrywn), schemes from religious and political figures, and the brewing sense that a wider war involving the elves is about to bloom. And despite the seriousness of the situation, he weaves in some quirky humor (a dramatic heroic confrontation between a knight and the Gilarabrywn… ends with the knight getting anticlimactically flattened).

Hadrian and Royce have a touch of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser about them, but these are very distinct characters on their own — one a dark, mysterious thief with a rather cruel outlook and a murky past, and the other a soft-hearted mercenary who totes around three swords and has an ancient fighting style. They’re confident, smart and spend their free time hanging out with the beautiful local madam (whom Royce clearly carries a torch for), a rough bartender, and an assortment of rogues and weirdos.

And the supporting characters are equally interesting — Alric starts out as a bratty prince, but slowly matures into a good king as he realizes what must be done to save his country. The timid monk Myron provides plenty of comic relief (“They are even prettier than horses”) but also a poignancy and innocence, and there’s also the mysterious handless wizard Esrahaddon and the strong-willed, magic-using princess Arista.

“Theft of Swords” is a solid, thoroughly enjoyable pair of high fantasy novels, which manage to tell entertaining adventure yarns even as they set the stage for a much bigger, more epic conflict. One of the most entertaining, fresh and cleverly-written fantasy series in years.

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