Customer Review

261 of 306 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fun, but lacks depth., November 20, 2011
This review is from: Theft of Swords, Vol. 1(Riyria Revelations) (Paperback)
Hadrian and Royce are partners in crime, a mercenary and thief who make a living working for the various nobles who rule over the lands of Avryn but spend most of their time feuding with one another. One particular job ends with Hadrian and Royce being arrested and charged with regicide. Determined to prove their innocence and take revenge on those who framed them, they set out on a quest that could change the fate of Avryn and the whole world.

Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria Revelations series is already a proven success, with both small press and self-published editions of the books selling well. Orbit have picked up the series and recast the original six books as three omnibuses, bringing them to a wider audience. Whilst this laudably rewards the author's success, it also raises the stakes: standing out from the crowd in self-publishing is one thing, but how does Sullivan's work stack up compared to the current fantasy heavyweights?

The answer is...okay, actually. Sullivan's ambition with this series was to create a series that in a way beat against the current trend for adult, edgy, violent and explicit fantasy novels in favour of something more straightforward or 'classic'. Something that evoked the spirit of say Eddings or Brooks without being as dire. Sullivan lists Harry Potter as an inspiration, particularly the way it welded together accessibility and a classic structure with darker elements (such as major character deaths), and that's certainly a reasonable ambition.

Theft of Swords (which combines the first two novels in the series, The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha) is a fast-paced, straightforward read with a fast-moving plot and easy-to-read writing. Sullivan's risk in aping the simpler form of fantasy fiction is that he might skirt towards blandness, and this is certainly a problem in the book. He has a fairly blank prose style which is effortless to read, but also somewhat forgettable. His skills with characterisation are somewhat stronger, but still not as great as might be wished. Particularly odd is that his central characters of Hadrian and Royce are not very well-developed at all, and many of the secondary characters are more interesting and better-drawn. The central duo do get a bit more fleshed out towards the end of the second half of the book and we also get a possible reason for why Sullivan had to hold back on certain revelations about them, but it is a bit of a challenge to read a book where the two heroes are so (apparently) shallow.

Other issues can be found in the worldbuilding, particularly the existence of apparently substantial kingdoms with walled cities in them that are only about 20 miles wide. Sullivan aims for some consistency here - a couple of hundred soldiers forms a large army in this world, presumably because populations are correspondingly tiny - but it's still a bit odd. On the racial front, things are fairly traditional: dwarves are geniuses for stonecarving whilst elves are long-lived, pointy-eared types. The only dwarf we meet is a grubby villain, whilst the elves are (in this first book anyway) kept firmly off-screen and are the enemies of humanity, but these are minor (and not particularly unprecedented) twists to the established formula. Naturally, the main storyline also revolves around prophecies, chosen ones whose arrival will signify the end of the world and so on, and it won't take a genius to guess who the chosen one is going to be.

The principle problem with the book is its very predictability. At first, reading an epic fantasy without blood spraying over people's faces every five seconds or two mandatory graphic (and usually badly-written) sex scenes per book is a refreshing change of pace, and feels like a valid direction to take at this time. However, the book's embracing of classic tropes without doing much (or, at times, anything) to subvert or challenge them eventually gets dull. Brandon Sanderson, for example, is also writing classic epic fantasy but remembers to put in plenty of interesting twists: a post-magic-apocalypse setting, a Wild West angle and, of course, lots of original magic systems. These flourishes are absent from Sullivan's debut work.

Theft of Swords (***) is an easy, relaxing read but also one that lacks depth or originality. It's fun enough to warrant reading on (and the series rep has it improving massively as it continues), but I do wonder if publishing these stories as 650-page omnibuses rather than their original 320-page, bite-sized chunks was a mistake. A fun popcorn read, but ultimately not much more.
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Tracked by 2 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 12, 2011 7:33:13 PM PST
I was going to leave a review, but I agree with you so completely I have little to add. I just finished the fifth book and for the most part, this all still holds true. But the series is fun and I intend to finish it.

Posted on Mar 13, 2012 1:25:31 PM PDT
Wulfstan says:
I see we mostly agree on this book. Great review!

Posted on Jul 23, 2012 11:46:27 PM PDT
What do you mean by "popcorn read"?

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 25, 2012 6:16:24 PM PDT
J. R Weaver says:
Well, Bigfoot, you may not be aware of this (living away from civilization and running through the cotton fields, etc), but there is a foodstuff called popcorn. It's a light, airy, fairly insubstantial treat that, while tasting good (especially when covered in globs of fake butter), has no lasting nutritional value and doesn't really fill you up the way a good steak (or Abercrombie/Martin/Cook novel) does.

Hope that helps.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 29, 2012 5:51:51 PM PDT
Erich says:
Hmm...very nicely put as you dance around derogatory comments. I think this book was good stuff. "Popcorn," maybe. But that said, compelling characters and an interesting story. Perfect? Far from it, but I"ll continue my diatribe against that George Martin guy who created a great story and ran it into the ground if you ask me. I haven't read all the books yet (I'm on 2), and for my money I'm waiting for Kvothe and Rothfuss. But not bad, not bad at all. I'll read 'em all.

Posted on Dec 23, 2012 1:47:48 PM PST
Dingfelder says:
This review suggests to me that maybe the book is for a younger audience. We wouldn't, after all, have a book directed at young adults with graphic sex scenes. Even the familiarity of the classic tropes manifesting themselves in ordinary ways suggests the comforting repetition of children's stories. Thanks for the heads up. I'm still interested in giving the book a try, but I will adjust my expectations accordingly.

Posted on Jul 6, 2013 5:50:46 PM PDT
I confess, I'm sometimes confused when people call a book a "popcorn read" (I use the term "bubble gum," myself) as a derogatory thing.

I hate, hate, hate fantasy stories that see the characters getting dragged over the coals, over and over again, with everything going wrong and their world collapsing until in the end, they manage to squeak out a tiny, pyrrhic victory over the forces of evil. Far, far too many books I liked otherwise have fallen into that trap. Hobb's Assassin books. The Night Angel Trilogy. Even Harry Potter, actually.

I get the popcorn-steak analogy. But the thing is, sometimes I'm not hungry enough for a steak, and all I want is popcorn. A nice, light, tasty snack that I don't necessarily expect to fill me up or give me what I need to stay alive, but which I really enjoy while I'm eating it. And even wish for more of, when it's gone.

I suppose I[m in the minority, but if I want tragedy after tragedy en route to a minor victory which never really provides catharsis equivalent to how low I felt, I'll read the newspaper, not a fantasy novel.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2013 5:29:46 AM PDT
BC1130 says:
Amen to that!

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2013 5:56:11 AM PDT
A. Whitehead says:
To make it clear, a popcorn read is nothing to be ashamed or, nor is it derogatory overall. It just means that it's an enjoyable-but-disposable book, one you can read and enjoy but hardly one that's going to be defining literary experience (though it may be for, say, a younger reader looking to get into fantasy). It's the literary equivalent of a good, solid action movie and there's nothing wrong with one of those.

Posted on Apr 16, 2014 8:41:19 PM PDT
Here's the thing, though. If the book gets you to read the whole thing, then it's a good book in my opinion. I've sloughed through supposedly top-shelf authors who have written "epic" fantasy only to put them down because they're too preachy, or bog down, or lose their focus after awhile (I'm looking at you Jordan and Martin). When I read, I want to be entertained. I don't need to have a dictionary or and pronunciation guide in the back of my book for it to be a good fantasy book.

Your review was good and I appreciate it. I concur with a lot of what you said to a degree. I think we need to stop having Martin clones and gritty fantasy stuff and get back to what made fantasy "fantasy" in the first place.
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