Book Review: The Death of Dulgath by Michael J. Sullivan

death of dulgath

Format:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2015

Pages:  392 (not counting author notes and preview material at the end of the book)

Reading Time:  about 10 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Royce and Hadrian take a consulting job on how best to perform an assassination (in order to prevent one), but like any good mystery, things are not as they might seem.

 

To this point I’ve really enjoyed reading the Riyria Chronicles, the prequels to the Riyria Revelations series, especially the previous book The Rose and the Thorn. As the thickest book in the series so far, and being the longest read, would that trend continue? Read on to find out, with some minor spoilers appearing, but first it’s time to host a couple of guest reviews from around the Internet…

 

Sarah of Bookworm Blues says: “The mystery of Death of Dulgath was rather straightforward, and didn’t overwhelm me overly much. What I truly enjoyed about this novel was the growth, the developing relationship between Royce and Hadrian, and the history of various cultures and peoples that Sullivan liberally splashed throughout the novel. Royce and Hadrian are obviously at their early years as a partnership, and Sullivan has a lot of fun showing just how trying and rewarding that early relationship truly was. He had me laughing quite a bit at certain moments, and feeling deep, powerful emotions at others. These two characters are so real they practically leap off the page. The world itself grows quite a bit as Royce and Hadrian end up traveling elsewhere on a job. Elsewhere ends up being a rather interesting place, with a medieval feeling culture that has quite a few surprises thrown in to keep things interesting. With a powerful religious influence, and an elevated lady who is absolutely her own woman. Thrown in with this are some fantastic dollops of magic and very ancient history. It’s quite ambitious when you consider just how much Sullivan packed into this novel, but it never lost its fun vibe or intense emotions. It’s hard not to love this novel. It really is a lot of fun, but it’s also quite educational and informative, and gives me a new perspective regarding some aspects of the rest of Sullivan’s novels set in this world. However, what always impresses me with Sullivan’s work is just how real it all is…He managed to make this book fun, and quite compelling at the same time. There are plenty of twists and turns, a good number of surprises, and a lot of pleasant intensity, but Death of Dulgath shines because I can tell that the author really loved what he was doing, and I felt that in the book.

Total Inability To Connect states: “The novel itself is, frankly, exactly what we’ve come to know from Riyria novels – somewhat complicated plots that the duo have to unravel, intense action scenes that showcase the strengths and weaknesses of the pair, interpersonal relationship conflicts between Royce, Hadrian, and the people around them. There are, however, some glaring differences between this novel and the previous two in the Riyria Chronicles series. The first, and biggest, difference being that this novel contains a MASSIVE spoiler for the Riyria Revelations trilogy. The kind of spoiler that completely takes the ‘oomph’ out of one of the main storylines in the entire series…The writing as the Revelations series goes on improves with each book, and I felt that reading the prequel books first put the reader in the right mindset for the series, and made the writing quality of the first book a bit more of a moot point, as the focus would be on the story and characters. However, that plan of attack is completely tossed out by Death of Dulgath, as it all but ensures that you must read the Riyria Revelations trilogy first, unless you want it to be spoiled by the revelation (sorry) in this novel…Sullivan handled many parts of this particular story very well – Royce and Hadrian’s interactions in this novel were quite interesting, still in the ‘feeling out’ process of knowing each other a little bit, and some more background was revealed about the pair of them. It also featured Royce and Hadrian in some of their weakest and most vulnerable states at any time in the series as a whole – both physically and emotionally. Both had their internal working stripped bare at times, exposing them, leaving them vulnerable and weak, and forcing them to overcome those lapses in strength…The writing in the books is what we’ve come to expect from later Sullivan – crisp and without excess, incredibly approachable for people of all reading levels, not lacking in sophistication but also not wowing you with the prose and structure. Sullivan makes his living as a storyteller, one with very easy-to-read works that appeal to a large audience, and he certainly has that part of things down. It works with Royce and Hadrian, and he is able to drop lore bombs, have impactful scenes, intense battles, and plot twists and turns, but without encumbering the reader…Unfortunately, I personally found The Death of Dulgath to be his most predictable work – I am fully self-aware that, as a reader, I am not always the most intelligent or active person when it comes to deciphering plot twists, diagnosing the story elements, or using my skill in soothsaying to predict upcoming events or endings. However, in this book I found myself easily predicting upcoming events, including the ‘main’ story twists.

 

Sullivan’s prose continues to be very approachable and smooth, getting better with each outing as Total Inability To Connect states above. In fact, the section of the review that states “crisp and without excess, incredibly approachable for people of all reading levels, not lacking in sophistication but also not wowing you with the prose and structure. Sullivan makes his living as a storyteller, one with very easy-to-read works that appeal to a large audience”…all of that is incredible insightful and right on the money as to how I felt about Sullivan’s writing here. After having recently read several average or disappointing efforts in my TBR pile, I was looking for something to “raise the bar”, so to speak. The Death of Dulgath comes close to satisfying that requirement, though it is not without flaws. Still, it was an enjoyable read that I gladly welcomed.

I was disappointed to find out about the “MASSIVE spoiler” in that review. I thought I was being clever by reading the prequels first, only to find out that this prequel ends up spoiling what comes later…c’mon Sullivan, it should be the other way around! Will this remove some of the mystery of the Riyria Revelations? I hope not, but sounds like that is very possible. I’m pretty sure I already know what that spoiler is, so it will be interesting to find out what the impact on me will be as a work through the original series.

The characters presented here are the strongest element in a mostly successful story. Royce and Hadrian continue to forge a strong partnership…so much so, that there are scenes in the story where each is dismayed that the other might have died. We know that isn’t the case, because, well, Riyria Revelations, but it’s still fun to watch the relationship develop. We get to learn a bit more about Royce’s backstory, as well as how he and Hadrian have become more comfortable together despite their different outlooks. I enjoyed the introduction of two strong female characters in Scarlet Dodge and Lady Dulgath…as I have mentioned in the past, Sullivan’s reliance on prostitutes as his main female characters has been a detriment. Here, however, are a couple of wonderful exceptions. Scarlet Dodge, a former criminal that is now living the placid life of a villager, and Lady Dulgath, who is eccentric and mysterious, are both welcome additions to the story. The other characters don’t stand out quite as much and are a bit predictable.

Which leads to one of the main problems with the book: the plot just isn’t very compelling. Mysteries are fine themes, and can offer some unexpected twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. Sullivan does that here to an extent, but thanks to some telegraphing – whether intentional or unintentional, I’m not sure – it’s not hard to figure out where the story is going. In addition, it takes the book a bit of time to build up some momentum as the groundwork for the mystery is established. The reviewers above use the words “straightforward”, “didn’t overwhelm” and “easily predicting”, and I would agree with that. The Death of Dulgath directly contrasts what I experienced in reading The Rose and the Thorn, where multiple possibilities really kept me guessing about what direction the plot would take.

Otherwise, the book had me turning pages, and I can’t really say I was ever bored, so Sullivan did a fine job of holding my interest in spite of what I wrote above. The action sequences are well done, there are some underlying currents that set the royalty and church on opposite sides, and magic is more prevalent than it has been in previous outings. There are some nods to the distant past (tying in to Sullivan’s Age of Myth series I’m sure), and other questions are raised, especially regarding Royce’s heritage and how he got interred in the salt mines, with only a brief explanation of how he escaped. I will say that so far the books are slanted heavily in favor of Royce when it comes to character growth. What I mean by that is with each story, Royce appears to be changing…swiftly in some ways (such as when Gwen is around) and slower in others, but there’s still progress found in stretching the character’s boundaries. Hadrian, on the other hand, seems mired in naivete and misguided intentions. While there is some growth found in his grudging acceptance of performing unlawful acts when needed, his personality doesn’t seem to be allowing room for him to change and really become more than he was at the beginning of the first book.

In conclusion, The Death of Dulgath is a fine story. Not quite up to the standards Sullivan set with the previous book, but still better than other material I have read lately. It is really the developing relationship between Royce and Hadrian that holds the story together and ultimately makes it satisfying. At some point I will get to the original series, but with the release of The Death of Winter’s Daughter last year, which is the next book in the Riyria Chronicles, it seems that the Riyria Revelations while have to wait a little bit longer…

Book Review: The Crimson Vault by Will Wight

crimson vault

Format:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2013

Pages:  380

Reading time:  about 9.5 hours

One sentence synopsis: As the Incarnations of the Territories begin to break free, and war breaks out between Enosh and Damasca, Simon and his friends find their allegiances shifting as they struggle to determine who their enemy truly is.

I was pretty impressed by Will Wight’s House of Blades – so much so that I purchased The Crimson Vault and City of Light in order to continue following the story. The Crimson Vault is the middle book in the series…does it suffer from middle book syndrome (existing only to bridge the gap between the first and third books), or does it exceed the first story (a tall order)? Read on to find out, and I’ve actually managed to keep spoilers to a minimum this time. First, however, we turn to some other reviews online. I was a bit concerned as I had trouble finding reviews from sites other than Goodreads or Amazon, which can be a bad sign, but I was finally able to settle on a couple thoughtful reviews.

 

Benjamin Espen of With Both Hands states: “There really are few comic book villains or heroes in the Traveler’s Gate trilogy. Almost everyone has a reasonable motivation somewhere along the line. Simon, son of Kalman, is moderately introspective, but neither talkative nor gifted in seeing into other men’s souls. Thus, Simon does not often stop to inquire why the people he is bludgeoning or stabbing would do the things that they do. Fortunately for us, there are a number of other characters in the book more interested in these things, and more adept at drawing them out, so we get to see a remarkable amount of moral complexity. We also see conniving, backstabbing, greed for power, and pride in ample measures. Then there are miscommunications, judgments made from partial information, and motives that while otherwise just, simply work at cross-purposes with what someone else wants. When evil is done, it is not uncommonly because inflamed passions, or personality defects combined with a surfeit of power, run away with someone…Every Territory is like that: an embodiment of a virtue that has gone so far in a quest for perfection that you literally cannot see any of the other virtues from where you find yourself…All of the Territories tend to just embody their respective virtues turned up to 11. This excess of virtue is bad enough on its own, but when you mix them all up together without anything to put them in order, bad things happen.

Wizard’s Blog says: “Compared with the first book in the series, this one has a lot more point of view characters. I think this is an improvement, because one of my complaints about the first book was not understanding some of the main characters because we spent very little time with them, but it does make it harder to keep track of what’s going on… I do still feel like the author should have spent some more time with some of the main characters so that the choices they make seem less arbitrary – with Alin in particular I feel like I’ve been told what he’s done and why he did it rather than experiencing it with him and empathising with his choices…It does have a plot arc, but (unsurprisingly for the middle book in a trilogy) it leaves a lot of things for the third book to resolve. Overall it’s better than the first one but not perfect.

 

The Crimson Vault is a much different book than House of Blades. At first they seem similar, as something bad happens in the beginning and then the rest of the story centers around the fallout from that event. The plot of House of Blades could be boiled down to “young man trains to become a hero then goes on a mission of revenge”. Conversely, The Crimson Vault focuses on a large scale battle, shifting allegiances, and as Benjamin calls it, “moral complexity”. The plot is much more chaotic than the straight and narrow line its predecessor walks, and although some plot points are revealed, they don’t really have the same impact of those in the first book, which were more intricate – those “a-ha!” moments, and had me drawing comparisons to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. The Crimson Vault didn’t really have the same effect.

Though Simon is still the focus, more time is spent on developing the other main characters, Alin and Leah, which is of much benefit to the story. Leah’s development in particular was one of great interest to me. The “succession”, or those siblings of Leah’s who want to take her father’s place, has taken a toll on her and pushed her towards a destiny she never saw coming. I was also able to empathize more with her character as she struggled between that destiny and the empathy she felt from her time spent in Simon’s village. She seems particularly focused on “the greater good”, where some must die in order to save multitudes. Simon and Alin don’t quite grasp or agree with this concept. It is a perfect contrast between the outlook of the ruling class and the working/villager class.

The Crimson Vault suffers from the same issue that I felt afflicted House of Blades: it simply isn’t long enough. Although it is 100 pages longer than the first book, some of the scenes in The Crimson Vault suffer due to brevity, in particular the large scale battle I mentioned above. There is no page time devoted to the actual siege of Enosh by the Damascan army; the layout of Leah’s war camp is not described well, and the battle with the Incarnation had me wondering where everyone was in relation to each other – what were the soldiers doing? How did some people just disappear from the battlefield? Were some characters simply bystanders? A lot of detail that would have been very helpful to “paint a picture” or “set the scene” is missing. As a result, I felt greatly detached from what is perhaps the most important sequence in the story. Finally, although I admire Wight’s effort to try something fairly groundbreaking, I felt that the sheer amount of changes and chaos, combined with the lack of detail mentioned above, gave the story a feeling of being “all over the place” and lacking focus.

There are a few other problems, such as how Simon was able to use a very dangerous artifact for so long without becoming an Incarnation himself, and although Wight’s writing has improved in this second book, there’s some modern phrasing used that is distracting and out of place…it felt more like I was reading subtext in a Final Fantasy video game than a fantasy novel. Which in turn reminds of another problem, the “leveling up” of the characters, particularly Simon…it’s almost like I’m reading about a video game being played as Simon and Alin get more and more abilities and items as they gain experience. And speaking of Alin, his character was inconsistent with regard to the portrayal of abilities in House of Blades. In that story, he seemed to have almost endless reserves of power when battling the Overlord. Yet here, he seems barely able to get past less (or equal) opposition, and in a couple of cases is forced to retreat. It felt like he was actually weaker when he should have been stronger.

In conclusion, I feel a bit isolated in saying that I actually enjoyed House of Blades more. That does not seem to be the case for most other reviewers, who on Goodreads and Amazon proclaim that they liked The Crimson Vault better. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that this sequel is a bad story, and I enjoyed the improved characterization of Leah and Alin…the plot just didn’t grip me and have the same payoffs at the end that the first book did, which is typical of “middle book syndrome”. I’m still quite interested in finding out how things will turn out in the final book of the series, City of Light.