The Riyria Revelations – Michael J. Sullivan

Back in 2008 I came across Michael J. Sullivan’s self published novel, The Crown Conspiracy, the first installment in The Riyria Revelations.  Relying solely on Amazon reviews back then, I picked it up (and the following 3 novels).  This was fantasy that Gary Gygax might have written — sword and sorcery, elves and dwarfs, good guys and bad guys.  It was also a huge success, a poster child for the self-publishing movement.  Then Orbit came along, making Sullivan an offer to go the traditional publishing route.  He accepted, delaying Percepliquis, the final volume in the series, for nearly a year as Orbit edited and repackaged the six book series as three omnibus editions (Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire, Heir of Novron.  In January, the final omnibus was finally released to great excitement among fans of the series.

Riyria begins and ends with Royce and Hadrian, Sullivan’s take on the Fafhrd and Grey Mouse paradigm. Royce is a small thief of exceptional skill, with a dark past and darker disposition. Hadrian is his best and only friend, a master swordsman with a heart of gold.  The first omnibus begins with the intrepid duo on their way to steal a set of incriminating documents from a nobleman.  Easily accomplished, the pair are soon back in their tavern of choice, interviewing for a new job to infiltrate the King of Melanger’s castle.

What starts as a simple snatch and go, winds up with them framed for the death of the King and imprisoned.  Now at the center of national politics, Royce and Hadrian escape the noose with help from Princess Arista, whose only request is that they take her brother, the new king, with them.  To protect his life and clear their name, the pair will have to confront the greatest wizard who ever lived and a power hungry church bent on domination.

If that sounds like build-a-fantasy-plot-version-1a, it’s by design.  Sullivan starts the series on familiar ground, couching things in a way that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s cracked open a fantasy book.  Likewise, for a younger first time reader of the genre, it’s a natural entry point.  It’s an action adventure with none of the excessive world building or intricate plots that often deter the uninitiated.  Sullivan has long touted that the series was written as one piece simultaneously, with each book building on the preceding one in terms of complexity.  I can largely confirm it with the understanding that the vast majority of that stems from improved plotting and better drawn characters, not a deeper subtext.

Those familiar with my reviews know that I tend to get into some detail about a book’s thematics, guessing at the author’s intent.  In the case of Sullivan’s series, that’s more difficult.  His theme is adventure, and his undertones escapism.  Sure, there’s some small offerings to racism and classism, and tolerance and human relationships, but by and large there’s a willful denial of commentary.  That will leave some readers cold, but taken as a whole Riyria is an enjoyable distraction with moments that reach for something beyond.

Initially, I wrote another 1500 words to review this series, spending time on each book and providing the highs and lows.  Most of that ended up as rambling incoherence.  Trying to encapsulate six books and some 2,000 pages into a single review is no easy task. I started looking around at all the reviews written about the series (they are legion) and realized I agree with almost all of them — even the terribly negative ones. In fact, reading this review, it might be guessed that I didn’t enjoy the series all that much. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Riyria is polarizing and I don’t think it has very much to do with its quality, or lack there of.  There are stylistic and artistic speed bumps that will turn people off and on to varying degrees.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that Riyria may not be a series than can be objectively described as good or bad.  For those weaned on fantasy of the 1980′s, Sullivan’s work can be transportamagatative (thanks Mark Lawrence) transportive and it certainly was for me despite any of the perfectly legitimate niggles that can be levied against it.

In the interest of providing a quick guide to who might enjoy the series, I put together the following:

These are the facts:

  • the prose is utilitarian
  • the world is not that unique
  • the plot is straightforward in the early going, eyebrow cocking at times, and rather complex later
  • the characters are wooden to start, requiring some patience, but develop beautifully as things move along
  • the world building is extensive, and requires some awkward info dumping
  • the entire series is a fucking blast to read

The conclusion I reached is that The Riyria Revelations is an if-then series.  If you like ____, then you’ll like these books.  If you don’t, then you won’t.  Let’s try it.

Things that will make you not like Riyria:

  • If you don’t like anachronisms and world-building that doesn’t take into account urban geography and social engineering, then you may not like Riyria.
  • If you don’t like elves and dwarfs, finding them derivative and out dated, then you may not like Riyria.
  • If you don’t like puppies and potpourri, you may not like Riyria. (I jest.)
  • If you like your fantasy to make you think for days about existential meaning, you won’t like Riyria… at all.
  • If the use of archaic syntax in an inaccurate and inconsistent manner for a few pages bothers you, then you won’t like Riyria.
  • If you like your magic system to have hard rules and logic, then you won’t like Riyria.
  • If you like the last book to be the best book, then you may not like Riyria1.

Things that will make you like Riyria:

  • If you liked The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, but find on re-read that they are too young adult, then you’ll like Riyria2.
  • If you like a series that becomes generally more advanced, more adult, and more complex with each volume, then you’ll really like Riyria.
  • If you like thiefing, and sword fighting, and learning magic, and political intrigue, and villains who are justified in their own sick way, then you’ll really like Riyria.
  • If you like a good story, and a knock for story telling, then you’ll really like Riyria.
  • If you like character above all else, you’ll like Riyria.
  • and finally…

In the words of Southwest Airlines, wanna get away?  Then read Riyria, you’ll like it.  I’m also happy to answer any questions anyone might have about the series, and whether it’s for them.

1: I thought this warranted further explanation. Percepliquis, the final book in the series, concludes all the story lines in a neat bow.  It’s well done, and answers every question the reader could possibly have about why things happened, how they happened, and who did them.  Unfortunately, for me, the most climactic moment in the series takes place in Wintertide, the penultimate novel.  I was left unworried for any of the characters in the final volume until a big reveal at the very end.  It’s not a bad novel, but Wintertide eclipses it in every way — take that for what it’s worth.

2: What I mean by that is while Riyria is straightforward and light, it is far more detailed and comprehensively written than some of the 80′s teenage fantasy. Sullivan fleshes out his characters and takes his time building things to a natural conclusion.

Justin Landon

Justin Landon is the Overlord of Staffer's Book Review. When he's not writing things of dubious value to the world, he's at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.

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  • Bryce L. February 6, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    You know, I can't disagree with anything you've said.

  • Paul Weimer February 6, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    Thanks, Justin. This is a nicely done overview of the series that helps make up my mind whether or not I should jump into the series.

    Well done!

  • Elfy February 6, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    I've just purchased Theft of Swords, and from everything I've heard I think I'm going to enjoy.

  • Ryan February 6, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    Thanks for the overview of the series sir! I've only read The Crown Conspiracy, and would like to carry on. I'm not completely convinced the series is for me though, I was about 50/50 on the if/then portion of this post. Guess I'll have to read and find out.

    • Justin February 6, 2012 at 11:20 pm

      You know what man, me too and I still had a great time reading it. And that's the message I hope is imparted. It's not perfect, by any means, but there's just something happy about it. Or rather something about it that makes me happy.

  • Chris February 7, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    I've only read the first two books, but I heartily concur with your review.

    A fun, lighthearted read that might not be overly challenging, but that shouldn't stop people from enjoying it anyway.

  • My Awful Reviews February 16, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    I think I agree with you so far. I'm over halfway through the first book in the omnibus, and there are definitely some strange plot elements (why didn't they kill Esrahaddon instead of imprison him for 1000 years, for example). I'm hoping that each volume improves, because if I had to base the review of the entire series on this one book, then it wouldn't look so pretty.

  • Anonymous February 20, 2012 at 3:50 am

    My Awful Reviews….they don't kill Esrahaddon because he can find the heir (if one exists).

  • Anonymous March 19, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    Does anybody have any recomendations for
    Other books like these? I loved the series

    • Justin March 19, 2012 at 3:39 pm

      Brent Weeks's NIGHT ANGEL TRILOGY, Jon Sprunk's SHADOW TRILOGY, Douglas Hulick's AMONG THIEVES, David Tallerman's GIANT THIEF, Daniel Polansky's LOW TOWN

    • Anonymous March 19, 2012 at 4:43 pm

      Thanks! I've been browsing the Internet for days trying to settle on something. Anything! I guess you know when you loved a series when your too bummed out afterward to move on.

  • [...] self published and went on to be a big hit both before and after Orbit purchased the rights. I reviewed it earlier this year. I have to admit I was hoping Sullivan’s next work would take him away from Riyria, but we [...]

  • Vince February 13, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    I just finished Riyria myself and find your review spot on. I really enjoyed the story I actually liked the confidence and skill that the heroes had. I’m not a fan of struggles I enjoy reading books where the main character perseveres over whatever obstacles they encounter.

    However the sad part is that the story is done. And now I need to dig into another series. I would really appreciate if someone could recommend a similar series where the protagonist is a true hero. I really liked the (Royce) swift thief touch to it as well.

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