Fantasy lovers in the greater Spokane area who can appreciate both the works of the grand master J.R.R. Tolkien and Fritz Leiber's darkly sublime Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories will find much to love in the pages of Michael J. Sullivan's six volume series "The Riyria Revelations."
"The Riyria Revelations" is a sword and sorcery series in the classic tradition. The characters live in a vaguely medieval setting where magic works and humans coexist uneasily with elves, dwarfs and goblins. However, Sullivan subverted expectations somewhat by giving his protagonists more modern sensibilities and writing fast-paced, witty dialogue that gives the books a more contemporary feel.
The heroes of the series are former mercenary Hadrian Blackwater and the infamous cat burglar and former assassin Royce Melborn. Collectively, they are known as Riyria, which is elvish for "two."
At the beginning of the series, Royce and Hadrian are thieves who make a good living pulling off difficult heists for members of their world's ruling class. Over time, they evolve from being lovable rogues who occasionally do good deeds or enact poetic justice on people who deserve it to becoming true heroes in a more conventional sense.
The original editions of the books have gone out of print and hard cover copies that are available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble can fetch staggeringly high prices. Fortunately for lovers of excellent fiction everywhere, they have been released in three affordable omnibus editions by Orbit.
"Theft of Swords" reprints the first two novels. In "The Crown Conspiracy", Royce and Hadrian are framed for a king's murder and find themselves caught up in a complicated plot that will have many repercussions throughout the series. "Avempartha" describes the unconventional heroes' efforts to save a small village from a creature similar to a dragon.
At first, these two novels may seem like they're simply throwbacks to the kinds of all-ages appropriate fantasy that got a lot of people hooked on the genre back in the Seventies and Eighties. There is an ongoing quest for a chosen one who is supposed to eventually save the world, and evil priests and noblemen who will seem familiar to jaded sword and sorcery fans.
Fortunately, there are hidden depths that Sullivan subtly worked into his narrative waiting to be discovered.
Take Sullivan's protagonists, for example. Royce and Hadrian are a little quirky, but they are also similar to characters readers have seen before. Hadrian is an incredibly nice guy who happens to be one of the best swordsmen anybody has ever seen. Royce is cynical and pragmatic to a fault, but he also happens to be one of the best thieves anyone has ever seen.
Initially, the way they play off each other and their somewhat odd weapon choices (Hadrian carries three heavy swords at all times and Royce has an unusual dagger that might be magical) may remind people a little of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. However, they have rich and complicated backstories that are only alluded to briefly in the first book. These guys are more than just their world's equivalent of the cast of Leverage.
Sullivan displays an impressive ability to take things that could just seem like he is recycling common fantasy tropes, such as revealing that Hadrian is the last scion of an ancient order of knights, and give them fresh twists that make them seem new again. He also rewards his readers with surprisingly complex villains and supporting characters that help elevate the work to become something more special.
His villains, for example, often have redeeming traits and are surprisingly three-dimensional. The dwarf Magnus, for example, who kills the king in "The Crown Conspiracy" becomes a reluctant ally in "Avempartha" and is revealed to be more opportunistic than flat-out evil. Another character who was working for the bad guys in the first book is really a mostly decent guy even if Royce doesn't think so.
The Princess Arista goes from being simply a likeable recurring character to a heroine in her own right over the course of "Avempartha." It is hard not to fall in love with her over the course of the second book.
It is also hard not to fall in love with Hadrian and Royce, almost in spite of themselves. Hadrian is a hardened combat veteran who somehow maintained a goofy sense of humor and ability to take a lot of things in stride. He is also remarkably humble most of the time about how awesome he is. His attitude toward life is a refreshing change of pace from all the dark, haunted, brooding protagonists that are popular right now in the fantasy genre.
Royce starts out being one of those ultra-competent jerks who appeal to fans of characters such as Marvel's Wolverine or Michael from Burn Notice. Eventually, it becomes clear why Hadrian likes him so much. Royce has good qualities he tries to keep buried.
"The Riyria Revelations" is an incredibly fun series. Readers in the Spokane area can find all three of the omnibus editions at the Spokane County Library District. The books are also available online and from local retailers such as Auntie's Bookstore.