Review: The Riyria Chronicles

Fantasy has been one of my long-time favorite genres. Eh, probably my favorite one, actually. If I see a book with mysterious hooded figures wielding swords on the front, I generally will at least pick it up and read the synopsis. Such was the case with Theft of Swords, the first installment of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations, a completed fantasy series. It was rapidly followed by Rise of Empire and concluded with Heir of Novron. Each book is actually a compilation of two volumes within the series, originally published as ebooks and later picked up in print, and as I read them collected this way, I shall touch upon them accordingly.

Theft of Swords cover artTheft of Swords is very much a first book in its introduction to the cast of characters… and in its somewhat clunky presentation of exposition. But the snappy banter of protagonists Hadrian and Royce, a pair of mercenary thieves was enough to make me realize this series had something to it. The arc of this story, a framing for murder and subsequent quest to clear their names and free a captive wizard, is an action-packed one, and in spite of the length of the volume, my husband and I read the whole thing aloud, devouring pages as the pace picked up to its satisfying conclusion.

Rise of Empire brings a previously background plot point, the corruption of the Church of Novron to the forefront as war begins and many of the beloved characters face often painful and difficult character growth. One of the female characters, Arista, from the first book, goes through a particularly satisfying arc from spoiled princess to capably wielding her skills until—well, no spoilers here except to say that in mid-trilogy fashion, the tale ends on a note of “how are they all going to make it out of their respective hard places?”

The finale, Heir of Novron, wraps everything up fairly neatly, but also in a satisfying manner. I was at the point where I would come home from work and bury my nose in it for 200 pages at a stretch. By the end, readers care enough about the characters to want everything to turn out happily, and as fantasy is generally pretty good vs. evil, it works. I had predicted some of the twists, but not all of them, which I can respect. The final paragraph was a delightful nod to a folk story that had woven its way through the story (and by the way, it is incredibly frustrating to delight in a detail like that and not have anyone around to share that with. It can be explained, but not succinctly enough to convey why it is so satisfying), and it left me throwing my head back with a laugh at the cleverness.

Is this the most nuanced and heavily world-built of fantasy series out there? No, but that was kind of its charm—the trappings of fantasy with the adrenaline pace of a thriller. Some fantasy forces a reader to figure out what’s going on as the story unfolds, but the straightforward nature of the Riyria Revelations was just what I needed this year.

And I’m a sucker for snappy banter, especially dialogue that feels natural. Hadrian and Royce balance each other out well, a mercenary with a do-go streak and his cynical and dangerous counterpart, and to my delight, several well-developed female characters also form the principal cast, including a princess, a broken girl who would become empress, and a kitchen girl who went on to wield considerable influence in her own right. Occasionally, some of them were in peril, but no more frequently than their male protagonists. I lost count, but I’m pretty sure everyone, male and female, was in some form of captivity during the story, and some of them ended up rescuing themselves. It’s not a feminist text, but it had enough components to keep this feminist reader happy.

While I do love some of the dark, gritty fantasy out there, I really enjoyed the lighter tone of The Riyria Revelations and will probably re-read them sometime down the road when I need some good old-fashioned swashbuckling.

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