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Book Review: The Rose and the Thorn by Michael J. Sullivan

rose and thornFormat:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2013

Pages:  347 (not counting glossary and extras)

Reading Time:  about 5.5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Royce and Hadrian return to Medford after a year’s absence, only to become embroiled in politics, royal assassination attempts, challenges from the local thieves guild, and revenge.

 

In my review of Michael J. Sullivan’s The Crown Tower, I had decided to “kick the can down the road” – or in other words, the determination as to whether I would continue to purchase more Riyria novels would be based on how I felt about The Rose and Thorn. The Crown Tower had enough positive to outweigh the negative for me to order and read The Rose and Thorn. Now that I’ve finished The Rose and Thorn, what is my decision? Read on to discover my choice, and as always, expect some minor spoilers.

 

But first, let’s look at some other reviews around the ‘net. Matt Gilliard of 52 Book Reviews says: “While not as satisfying as the previous effort, The Rose and the Thorn is still packed with all of the things that made Sullivan such a powerhouse in the genre. There are banter and battle in equal measure, a touch of romance, sharply drawn characters, and the wonderful blend of nostalgic sword and sorcery that hearkens back to the books that led many thirty and forty-something readers to the genre in the first place….The plot is nothing groundbreaking, it is Sullivan doing what he does best. High stakes, frequent reversals, and a deeply layered sense of the world in the smallest of schemes. There is no doubt that there are larger forces in play here, and readers of the Riyria Revelations will see the beginnings of larger plot lines and that information, while unnecessary to the main plot line, definitely sweetens the pot for faithful readers. And that’s the real genius in the way that Sullivan has approached this return to the property that brought him so much acclaim. He’s crafted a story that hits all the same notes as the preceding novels while filling in the back stories of beloved characters all while telling these early tales in such a way that is accessible and rewarding for new readers.

Shadowhawk of The Founding Fields opines: “But this time, we see the wider cast of the original series make their appearance. It was fun to see all of them at such an earlier point in their lives, as much as it was seeing the formation of Riyria in the previous novel and this one. Each character adds something different to the overall story. But there was one who really stood. Hilfred, the royal Sergeant who was Arista’s bodyguard in the original series. More than any of the Essendons, he is the star of this novel as far as the story is concerned. The Rose and The Thorn is his origin story, and quite a painful one it is too, knowing what we do from the original novels….However, thing is that there are far too many characters here for Michael to juggle properly and give each his or her due. Michael does well to tell a really intense story that works in the entire cast, and lay the groundwork for the original series, but it all felt like an overload. Particularly because Gwen got the short shrift here. The motivation for everything that Royce does in this novel comes back to Gwen and how she is treated by a noble, but curiously, we get very little of her in the novel. It stands in contrast to the previous novel where she was one of the protagonists.

Finally, Wendell of Book Wraiths states: “And as Mr. Sullivan slowly reveals all these amazing plots, his rare, writing brilliance becomes clear to see, for each of those lovely, individual stories begin to mesh together, creating a single, overarching tale. A yarn that not only encompasses this novel and the Riyria Chronicles but also the Riyria Revelations as well….And somehow while juggling plot lines, Mr. Sullivan also finds time to gift each character with his or her own unique personality. There are no cookie cutter characters in this novel. Each character is well rounded, having their own unique history, problems, hopes, and fears that foreshadow their future selves but does not lock them into a particular role. Indeed, even those characters a longtime reader knows will one day be revealed as “evil” are so life like that you will find yourself hoping that somehow they will see the error of their ways and change before their fate closes around them….Overall, this is a wonderful, entertaining fantasy, worthy of inclusion into the ranks of the best novels of 2013. While some readers call Hadrian and Royce and their adventures simple, uncomplicated fantasy, if this is an example of “simple fantasy” novels then I would label it simply brilliant and ask every writer out there to begin to emulate it. It quite frankly is just that enjoyable to read.

 

So as I sat down to formulate how I should approach this review, I started to think about the unique opportunity I had to review this book as someone who has never read the Riyria Revelations series. Shadowhawk makes an interesting statement at the end of his review: “I must admit that I am quite jealous of anyone who goes into this not having read The Crown Tower or any of the originals. It would be a fascinating viewpoint I think.” It only confirmed to me that I should take that approach (although I did read The Crown Tower), and that my take will be different from almost every other review written about The Rose and the Thorn. I will make some comparisons to The Crown Tower, since it directly proceeded this book.

I’ll start the review with a look at pacing and style. Sullivan keeps things moving at a brisk pace. There’s very little down time spent in describing excruciating details or of pages and pages of character angst and introspection. Sullivan wants to get a certain place by the end of the book and he only has 347 pages to get there, while also needing to develop several new characters and their backstories or personalities. Under those constraints, there’s little time for fluff. This makes for a fast-paced read…in fact, I was surprised by how quickly the story was over.

This pace also has a downside, however. Characterization veers towards the shallow side. Royce and Hadrian actually get a significant reduction in “page time” compared to what they received in The Crown Tower, as the focus shifts to Reuben, the royals, Albert, and Rose, and Gwen’s character has a much reduced role, as Shadowhawk points out. There simply isn’t enough time to devote to multiple viewpoints, motivations, or in depth character studies. However, there is enough detail to get by from the lesser characters, and Reuben and Albert get some significant development considering they are new. Royce finds out that not every problem can be solved by killing people, while Hadrian learns that naivete and showing mercy to an opponent can unravel all his good intentions. Each realizes they have something to learn either from each other, or from their experiences. There is a scene where Royce recalls a former mentor and tries to think of how that mentor would handle a difficult situation. He makes the right play and is surprised at how well the results turn out. Now that is some great character development!

The plot of this book is where Sullivan really shines, and this is where I can differentiate my review from others. Since I didn’t know what would happen in the Riyria Revelations, I didn’t know who would live or die except for Royce and Hadrian. For me, this created an extreme amount of tension in the story, especially when one character central to the plot has their throat slit, one dies in a fire, one is killed in a swordfight, and another is flayed by Royce. By giving other characters like Reuben, Albert, King Amrath, Princess Arista, Top Hat, and others such prominent roles, with Royce and Hadrian taking somewhat of a back seat, I had no idea what would happen to them all. It is a brilliant move that for someone like me, reading in chronological order with no future knowledge of events, made the book very exciting.

Furthermore, this sentiment applies not only to which characters live and die, but also to the direction of the story. Think of Sullivan’s plot threads as strands in a spiderweb. Royce embarks on a revenge mission, Hadian follows Rose and Reuben’s father while at the same time high constable Exeter has a manhunt on for her, royals scatter in multiple directions, a fire breaks out, a conspiracy to kill the royal family is in play, and Reuben makes some difficult choices…there are so many ways that the story could have gone – so many strands in the spiderweb to follow – it was impossible for me to predict what would happen. That means that every twist and turn in the book was, if not totally a surprise, leading to yet another strand of possibilities. This also lent a great deal of excitement to The Rose and the Thorn.

Most of the problems I had with The Crown Tower are non-existent here. There’s no predictions from Rose or intervention from a god-like being that undermine the plot and remove tension; conversations feel more natural and less awkward; and more woman appear in the story in various roles – royals and nobles, a healer – although prostitutes are still the most prominent. I feel that The Rose and Thorn is better than its predecessor in every way. Also, the title of the book makes sense…it comes from a bittersweet moment near the end that encapsulates much of the book’s theme – from out of bad can come good, but the cost incurred is not forgotten.

In conclusion I would say that my reading situation, as detailed above, gave me a more unique, and dare I say, better, reading experience than those reading in publishing order probably found. I read in other reviews (like Matt’s above) that readers who had read Riyria Revelations first, and then read these prequels later, liked seeing the backstories of familiar characters, and were able to recognize the development of subsequent plot lines. However, I think not knowing what would happen in the Riyria Revelations made this book far more exciting for me than it would to those readers. I’m definitely moving ahead with purchasing The Death of Dulgath, as well as the entire Riyria Revelations series, and possibly Sullivan’s Legends of the First Empire series as well. Sullivan has just picked up a major new fan – me!

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May 4, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

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 6 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.

January 8, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment