Book Review: The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan

crown towerFormat:  Oversized paperback, 1st Edition, 2013

Pages:  368 (not including 46 pages of glossary, extras, and a preview of The Rose and the Thorn

Reading Time: about 8 hours

 

For a few years now I have been eyeing Michael J. Sullivan’s Theft of Swords, volume 1 in his Riyria Revelations series, as a possible series to add to the queue. Although many of his reviews were positive on Amazon and Goodreads, it was the negative reviews that scared me away. Complaints about one dimensional characters, worn out tropes, a simplistic and predictable plot, and conversations that drive the story in place of telling a story, are found aplenty. As a result, I did not consider reading Sullivan’s books despite owning a library of works including Flanagan, Eddings, and Dragonlance novels that could be criticized in a similar way. When additionally considering the “pay for reviews” scheme that I talked about in a previous post, I was skeptical of the positive reviews I was reading. I’m not accusing Sullivan of paying for positive reviews, but in light of the scheme and the fact that Sullivan was initially self-published, it was a concern. Sullivan, however, utilized focus groups on Goodreads to hone his stories, so he had already built up a following that was enthusiastic about his novels.

It wasn’t until I was looking for books to add to the queue by perusing authors on Fantasy Literature’s site that I came across their page on Sullivan, and I saw a review of The Crown Tower, which is Volume 1 of the Riyria Chronicles. That review convinced me that I should take a chance on this book. Although the author and many readers were recommending reading Sullivan’s books in published order, I ignored that recommendation and determined that I would read the books in chronological order, starting with The Crown Tower. I wanted to form an opinion of the series from the beginning, so that I wouldn’t have knowledge of what comes later, in an attempt to maintain tension. My opinion of The Crown Tower would be the determining factor towards any future purchases of Sullivan’s work. So on to my review, and as always, a few minor spoilers are included…

I won’t provide a synopsis here – the review over at Fantasy Literature does a great job of explaining the plot. There are two main characters that drive the narrative: Hadrian, a soldier returning home from war, and Gwen, a fortune-telling prostitute. The first thing I immediately liked about The Crown Tower was Sullivan’s writing style. It is fast moving with just enough detail to get the job done. I never felt like the story was bogging down in the details, and I burned through the book in a few days. When I did have to put it down it was with disappointment, as I was very engaged in the story. The early mystery of the barge ride and the hooded man was captivating, and a later scene featuring Royce and Hadrian in an inn was also excellent. I almost enjoyed Gwen’s story more than Hadrian’s…watching Gwen outsmart her opponents by cultivating favorable relationships was some excellent plot writing. Gwen is smart, strong-willed, and caring, all excellent qualities. I felt that each character did exhibit flaws – Hadrian is naive, Gwen is filled with self-doubt, and Royce has a laundry list of internal problems. And despite some plot predictability – like a supporting character that is claimed to be dead yet I was 100% sure he wasn’t – there were also a couple of plot twists that I didn’t see coming.

However, there are several problems with his book. Most of the criticisms are spot on. The plot at times meanders, but the worst part is it’s all a little too convenient. When Royce and Hadrian are forced to work together, their benefactor hopes that it will all work out in the end. That hope is dependent on convenient timing and assistance of a god-like figure; the latter’s inclusion is totally unnecessary and is a plot device that suggests it can (and will) be used by the author any time it is needed. It also makes their benefactor look wise and all-knowing as a result of nothing more than chance. Such plot devices really undermine the author’s ability to tell a well-written story that can stand on its own merits and not rely on such contrivances. Another problem is “telegraphing”: due to a character having psychic abilities, combined with the fact that the novel is a prequel, together those two factors tend to rob the story of much of its tension. No one is going to die here that was previously featured in the Riyria Revelations series, and since we know the characters will be arriving at Gwen’s doorstep because as a psychic she’s “seen” it, it’s simply a matter of Royce and Hadrian getting from Point A to Point B without any fear of loss or life-ending danger. This is why I wanted to read the Riyria stories chronologically – to help maintain tension by not knowing what happens later.

Also, the dialog between the main characters is a bit clumsy at times. During those moments that dialog feels forced and unnatural. At times it reminds me of Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, with humor that comes off as “I guess you had to be there” to appreciate it. Whether that’s by design, as Royce and Hadrian are polar opposites and thus their conversations are awkward, or it occurs unintentionally, it kills the flow of the story in some places. However, I did not feel that the dialog was driving the story as some other critical readers suggested.

Almost all of the women featured in the story are prostitutes, which is troubling. That’s not to say that prostitution couldn’t exist in Sullivan’s society; it is, after all, known as”the world’s oldest profession” in our own civilization. Rather, it’s simply that there are no women prominently featured in the story that assume any other role. The only woman who does appear as something other than a prostitute makes an appearance at the beginning of the story and is gone by Chapter 5, and a farmer’s wife appears briefly at the very end of the story. There are simply no strong female characters that aren’t prostitutes.

Hadrian’s motives and direction are a bit all over the place. I get that he’s done with fighting a war and he doesn’t know what to do with himself, but it’s a bit frustrating watching him try to figure out things that are obvious to the reader. As to Royce’s motives…well, let’s just say that one of the reasons that the author didn’t want the books read in chronological order is that he thought that readers might want Royce to die in this book based on the way he treats people. That actually does a disservice to readers and to Sullivan’s own story, because characters should change over the course of the tale. In fact, many readers want to see a deeply flawed character rise up and become something more – that is the environment in which novels are written today, due to the influences of George Martin, Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie and other dark fantasy writers. Finally, there isn’t much world building here. There are some allusions to events in a previous age, and the Crown Tower itself is a relic of that period, but we don’t really get a good feel for what’s going on in the world, and what has happened in the past, other than a few brief mentions.

Despite these numerous flaws, I still found the book entertaining. I do appreciate that it is not a “coming of age” story…even though the main characters are fairly young, they’ve had their share of worldly experiences. I enjoyed the concept of Royce and Hadrian absorbing attributes from each other and changing over the course of the story, and Gwen’s story was well-written. At first I thought that Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser had influenced Sullivan’s Hadrian and Royce, but in this article Sullivan sets the record straight – there is no connection because Sullivan has never read Leiber.

I didn’t feel that the glossary in the back of the book was necessary, as it’s pretty easy to keep people and places straight. I did like the author’s Q&A session in the extras, they provided great insight into Sullivan’s process. One thing I greatly admire about Sullivan is his commitment to writing and finishing his stories, and continuing this over a period of many years, “honing” his craft. I also admire the amount of advice and help he dedicates to aspiring authors with suggestions on writing and self-publishing. I decided to order the sequel, The Rose and the Thorn, to “kick the can down the road” and use that book as the deciding factor for determining whether or not I will read The Riyria Revelations series. I recommend this book to fans of Sullivan, and to those who enjoy a light-hearted, fast-paced action-adventure that uses familiar tropes, and doesn’t contain pages and pages of meticulous detail and expansive world-building.

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