Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Theft of Swords

By Michael J. Sullivan
Pages: 704 pages
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: 23/11/11
ISBN: 0316187747


Michael J. Sullivan has a story that every aspiring writer would love to tell. It’s not about trolls or princesses, vanquishing evil or finding treasure (at least not in the literal sense), but it is a tale of perseverance and personal triumph, of overcoming obstacles that prove impossible for so many others. See, Sullivan’s most interesting story isn’t that of Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn, the protagonists of Theft of Swords, which consists of Sullivan’s first two self-published novels, The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha, and the eponymous pair behind The Riyria Revelations, it’s the story behind his success, of his rocky and self-driven path to publication, first under his own publishing label (ostensibly a self-published writer) and selling several thousand eBooks a month to signing a full-fledged publishing deal with a major New York City publisher (and potentially leaving tens- or hundreds-of-thousands of dollars on the table.) Michael J. Sullivan is a self-made success story and it shows in Theft of Swords’ utter disregard for the current trends that are sweeping the Fantasy genre (and are so important in the minds of the major publishers.)

In this post-GRRM (George R.R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire) world, popular Epic Fantasy is dominated by so-called ‘gritty’ writers like Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch or R. Scott Bakker. Even the ‘good guys,’ like Brandon Sanderson, author of The Alloy of Law are known for attempting to subvert the tropes of the genre by taking common building blocks and flipping them on their heads in a way that’s supposed to upend the reader’s expectations. Theft of Swords, on the other hand, is a delightful throwback to the Fantasy of the ‘80s and ‘90s that took the concepts and thematic structures first popularized by Tolkien and helped solidify the genre’s place in popular geek culture. These days it’s cool to hate on Terry Brooks, David Eddings and Raymond E. Feist, but Theft of Swords proves that the building blocks used by those authors are still effective today when wielded by a careful author.

There’s little in Theft of Swords that long-time fans of the genre won’t recognize: the main protagonists are a shifty thief and a battle-hardened soldier-turned-mercenary, both of who have secret-filled pasts; elves hide in forests and dwarfs are curmudgeonly stoneworkers; the several kingdoms of man all struggle to balance peace while under the watchful eyes of the (probably evil) church. Such familiar elements are sure to turn off readers who are sick of seeing Fantasy authors dip their pens too often into the same inkwell, but for readers looking for a kick of nostalgia or a fun barnburner of a novel there’s a lot to love.

Foremost amongst those are Royce and Hadrian, the two ‘heroes’ of the series who are both immensely likeable and have a well-drawn chemistry between them. Together they form a thieving band called ‘Riyria’ (just one of Sullivan’s many hard-to-pronounce words, he’s no Tolkien in the language department), who make a living by accepting nefarious and impossible jobs that no other thieves will touch. This, of course, is the key component to kicking off their various adventures and suspension of belief in the reader is absolutely necessary. The beginning of both volumes feature the thieving duo accepting jobs that make no sense from a pragmatic angle of self-preservation (which are two paramount traits of both Royce and Hadrian). Of course, they accept them regardless of believability and adventure ensues. Riyria has a reputation to maintain and Sullivan does an admirable job of making the reader believe that Royce and Hadrian deserve the praise and have the ability to accomplish some of the feats attributed to them. Sure, they’re both too good at their given roles and often come out of scraps with more than a small measure of convenient luck, but by the end of the novel Sullivan has dropped enough hints that promise to explain the two thief’s preternatural abilities that it’s easy to buy into.

Dialogue between the two is always fun, if somewhat safe and predictable in its camaraderie:

“That’s amazing. I was telling Alenda sometimes problems occur during a job, but I had no idea I was telling the truth. We should have charged her extra,” Albert interjected.

“It crossed my mind,” Royce replied, “but you know Hadrian. Still, we’ve made a nice profit on both sides of this one.”

“But wait, you didn’t explain how you got the rope off the side of the tower if my releases didn’t work.”

Royce sighed. “Don’t ask.”

“Why not?” The smith looked from one to the other. “Is it a secret?”

“They want to know, Royce,” Hadrian said with a wide grin.

Royce frowned. “He shot it off.”

“He did what?” Albert asked, sitting up so abruptly his feet hit the floor with a clap.

“Hadrian used another arrow to cut the rope at the roofline.”

“But that’s impossible,” Albert declared. “No man can shoot the width of a rope at—what was it?—two hundred feet maybe, in total darkness!”

“There was a moon,” Royce said, correcting him. “Let’s not make more out of this than it already is. You forget I have to work with him. Besides, it’s not like he did it in a single shot.”

“How many arrows?” Emerald inquired.

“What’s that, sweetie?” Hadrian asked, wiping foam from his mouth with his sleeve.

“How many arrows did it take for you to cut the rope, silly?”

“Be honest,” Royce told him.

Hadrian scowled. “Four.”

“Four?” Albert said. “It was much more impressive when I imagined it as one lone shot, but still—”

It can all be a little buddy-cop, but ultimately it helps the reader connect with the pair and believe in their relationship. Like any good duo, Royce and Hadrian play off of each other’s faults and weaknesses while sharing enough similarities (mainly in their ambitions and respect for each other’s shrouded pasts) that there’s a nice balance. They’re easily recognizable for the tropes they play off of, but Sullivan writes the pair so naturally that they step just to the side of being flat cardboard characters. There’s little in terms of character progression through the two novels, but given the structure of the series, the length of the novels and some of the events at the end of Avempartha, Sullivan earns himself some slack; things need to pick up in the subsequent novels. The supporting cast around Hadrian and Royce are somewhat bland and do less to differentiate themselves than the thieves, but they play their roles well enough to keep the plot moving forward.

The world is simple and easily recognized and Sullivan injects just enough world building to provide Hadrian and Royce a playground without overwhelming readers with endless infodumps and needless explorations of social structures, currency and the like that often bog down other Epic Fantasies. Through the two volumes of Theft of Swords, Sullivan does a fine job of doling out the necessary information to his readers and expertly pulling back the curtain on the millennium old war between the Elves and Man.

Sullivan’s prose is plain and unobtrusive, a point the author touches upon in an interview provided at the back of the collection:

The idea is to make the story pop off the page and make the writing disappear. Neither awkward prose nor eloquent phrases should distract the reader from immersion in the action and the world unfolding before them. I have needed on many occasions to rewrite passages that were too pretty, too sophisticated, for fear the reader would notice them and pause to reflect. I have other works that do this. For the Riyria Revelations I wanted to keep it simple. The result, I have discovered—much to my delight—is a book that reads like a movie in the reader’s mind. As you can tell, a lot of my references have been from television and movies, and I think that also sets the tone and pace in these books. I’m not so much trying to create another Lord of the Rings so much as a good old-fashioned Errol Flynn movie or sixties Western.

He’s unapologetic about the simpleness of the prose, and for good reason: much of Sullivan’s success as a self-published author is backed by the fact that his novels are easily accessible to readers of all ages and interest levels. Many are turned off by the door-stopper nature of the majority of novels in the Epic Fantasy genre and Sullivan’s slim, quick reads are the perfect type of novel to gain attention through word-of-mouth among fans, and most especially, lapsed fans who don’t feel that they have the time to read 800+ page monstrosities. Most admirably, Sullivan is committed to writing self-contained stories in each volume, something that has long since become a rarity within the genre. Each novel consists of an adventure that has a properly defined beginning, middle and end but also contributes to an overall narrative spanning the entirety of the six volumes. It’s a wonderful way to tell a story and Sullivan utilizes the technique well.

The ‘novel’ actually being comprised of two novels does pose a bit of a predicament when the first volume ends, the second begins and the the pace crashes to a stumbling halt about half-way through the door-stopper; when read as single novels, it’s a natural process, but given the illusion of one book, it might be somewhat disconcerting for those readers expecting something akin to other novels of such length (Jordan, Goodkind or Sanderson, for instance), to find the somewhat abrupt shift in the middle pages. Despite the novels both being somewhat short, Theft of Swords is a thick book, something that may be somewhat counter-intuitive to appealing to the aforementioned type of reader that first helped Sullivan find success in the eBook market. Still, these are both issues of publication and Sullivan can’t really be held accountable. As it stands, paying the cost of one novel for two rollicking adventures is a great deal for readers.

Michael J. Sullivan’s success as a self-published author is a story to be admired by aspiring writers the world over, but don’t neglect to recognize the stories that helped him become beloved to so many fans of Fantasy. One doesn’t read Sullivan for subversive context, labyrinthine prose or gritty realism but for blazing pace, fun encounters, lovable characters and a commitment to telling full stories in a single volume and fans of Terry Brooks, David Eddings and even Brandon Sanderson will find a lot to love about The Riyria Revelations. Theft of Swords is an ode to adventurous ‘90s Fantasy and it’s hard not to enjoy your time alongside Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn, the two nefarious and charming thieves who, like their author, overcome so much adversity to get hold the ultimate prize.

  • Rob B November 30, 2011 at 6:38 am

    Nice review, Aidan. I suspected you might like the book. I enjoyed it quite a bit myself and think Orbit is handling him really well.

  • E. M. Edwards November 30, 2011 at 9:24 am

    As I mentioned here:

    I think this review is relevant to the discussion going on here, especially the bits about being simple and in the author’s own words “a book that reads like a movie.” I’m personally not impressed or won over by any of these claims. If I want to watch a film, I’ll watch one. If I want to read a book, I’d like my book to read like a book, not a movie.

    But then I don’t have a whole lot of nostalgia for fantasy from the 1980s. Much of it was indeed, crap. Simple, boring, and surprisingly unimaginative. Serial westerns with damsels and dragons parachuted in – and not penned to high (if any at all) standards. Like a lot of bad TV and yes, crap movies from earlier eras, we can be fearfully and retroactively conservative in our tastes when it comes to “escapist fiction.” It’s one thing to embrace simplicity when you’re 13 but less endearing when you’re older. Cormac McCarthy writes short, plain speaking novels – but you’d have to be an idiot to mistake them for simple.

    I’ve not read Sullivan’s work but to be honest, I’d be less likely to after reading your review. Everything suggests bland, derivative, and boring. It might not be, but to me you and the author have both damned with plain praise.

    “What a writer has to do is write what hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at what they have done.” —Ernest Hemingway

    If you’re not doing something novel, or to some degree far better than those who have already done it before you, why bother? Unless of course, you’re being paid well to churn out serial westerns…

  • The Mad Hatter November 30, 2011 at 10:38 am

    In defense of Theft of Swords it doesn’t remind me of 80’s Fantasy such as Brooks or Eddings as much as it does of much older Sword and Sorcery stories such as Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar series, which goes back to stories first published in the 60’s and 70’s.

  • Douglas Hulick November 30, 2011 at 11:21 am

    While I don’t think every attempt at fiction needs to necessarily try to swing for the fences, I can also appreciate the desire to get more than just a good story from a piece. A lot will depend in the reader & their desires, either long-term or in the moment. By that same token, though, writers may have different goals for different works as well, wanting to strike a resonant chord with one, maybe a lighter tone with another. Just as readers sometimes like to change up from one story or genre type to another, so some writers like to work at different levels in different projects. You don’t have to like every work or the goal behind it, but that doesn’t invalidate the effort.

    Sullivan seems highly aware of what he was trying to accomplish (and not accomplish) in this book. That this was a conscious effort makes all the difference to me. Were he to say, “I was writing to put Melville to shame” and then knocked out a high-adventure piece, I’d have more issues in terms of literary pretension, etc. But he’s not trying to hide anything or throw out false claims of gravity; he knew what he wanted to write and he wrote it–apparently well enough that many other people agree. I can’t fault the man for that.

    All this being said, I have to admit that before reading this review, I was thinking of checking out this work. However, given the summary above, I think I will probably move on to something else instead. This is not a criticism of the review or the work; rather it’s me, as a reader, knowing I am not interested in most fantasy uber-heroes any more. But again, just because it’s not to my taste doesn’t mean the book or the effort put into it is worthless or “crap.” I’m not so in love with my own tastes that I pretend to make them a litmus test for anyone but myself.

  • E. M. Edwards November 30, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Good points all Douglas.

    It wasn’t my intention to excoriate either simple writing or Sullivan’s. As I mentioned, I haven’t read the latter and the former can certainly work.

    Still, I’m perplexed by a need to make a book less than it could be or to read it as something that it isn’t. And I don’t think a book can ever read like a film. It might read like a screenplay but then I’d argue it’s not exactly a book. Also, if it’s just more of the same, unless that same has something to add to the dialogue going on in the genre, what is left to recommend?

    Calling some books crap and readers simple is an automatic challenge I suppose for people to take sides – but my use of both terms here was more a continuation of the interesting discussion of the topic going on at Damien G. Walter’s blog.

    I’m with you regarding the review. Not a bad review, but it doesn’t make me want to pick up the book(s) in question. Perhaps then a very good review, as by the sound of it, this is not the series for me.

  • Shawn Speakman December 1, 2011 at 8:44 am

    It’s cool to hate. No doubt about it. :)

  • […] Read my full review of Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan. […]

  • Matej Sakoman December 31, 2011 at 4:45 am

    I can’t wait to read this! :)
    Ever since I read Stovers “Heroes die”( ok even before that there was gene wolfe) i kept on reading gritty fantasy with gritty characters with a “slight flaw in their characters” (:-)bridge of birds) – bakker, lynch, abercrombie, Erikson, hunt, campbell, mieville, vandermeer, bullington, i can’t wait to read this books! :)