The Riyria fantasy series was recommended to me by several members of the Classic SF discussion group, so I took a look at the series structure and soon became rather confused. The first six volumes, under the general heading of The Riyria Revelations, were self-published during the 2008-2011 period. These were so successful that the author secured a publisher for the next seven (so far) stories, which appeared under the series title The Riyria Chronicles from 2013 and counting. However, instead of forming a sequel, they consist of one long prequel to the Revelations, featuring the same two principal characters. Next up comes The Legends of the First Empire, a planned six-book series (published from 2016) set in the same world but thousands of years before the events in Revelations and Chronicles. Finally (so far) The Rise and the Fall is expected to emerge from 2020 onwards (three books planned to date), and chronologically will fit in between Legends and Chronicles. Sullivan is clearly an author who believes in getting the most out of his world-building efforts!
The author is relaxed about the order in which the series are read, reckoning it works just as well either way, so I followed my usual preference of sticking to the internal chronology rather than publishing dates.
The first book of the Chronicles series is The Crown Tower, so that's where I began.
As I understand it (those familiar with these works will no doubt correct me if I am mistaken) all of the Riyria books are focused on the adventures of their two contrasting young heroes: Hadrian Blackwater, a soldier of considerable fighting ability, and Royce Melborn, a skilled thief and ruthless assassin. The Crown Tower deals with the circumstances in which the two meet and (following a decidedly awkward start) gradually develop a partnership. Their world of Elan provides a fairly typical medieval-class background, the main distinctive feature by comparison with other such fantasies being the lack of anything magical apart from the ability of a few people to read the fates of anyone rash enough to ask; this is regarded as witchcraft and generally disapproved of. (More magic does feature in later books, while the fortune-telling sinks into the background.)
The story follows two individuals in separate threads: one is Hadrian (Royce also arrives in this thread) and the other is Gwen, a young girl forced into prostitution who gradually reveals some formidable strengths. The chapters alternate, the threads only coming together at the very end of this volume.
The descriptive passages and characterisation are both very good, but the book makes quite a slow start and while it engaged my attention, it didn't initially hook me. Once the story started motoring I was drawn in and thoroughly enjoyed the ride, so bought some more.
The Rose and the Thorn is the sequel to The Crown Tower, picking up the story of Hadrian and Royce after a gap of about a year: they have recovered from their tribulations in the first novel and are slowly getting use to each other's very different personalities and priorities. A brief exchange between Hadrian and Royce provides an amusing flavour of their relationship.
Hadrian: "…that's what people do. They help each other. If you saw a man lying in the road with an arrow in him, you'd stop, wouldn't you?"
"Of course," Royce replied, "anyone would. A wounded man is easy pickings, unless you could see from your saddle that someone else has already taken his purse."
"What? No! No-one would rob a wounded man and leave him to die."
Royce nodded. "Well no. You're right. If he has a purse and you take it, it's best to slit his throat afterward. Too many people live through arrow wounds. You taught me that. No sense risking that he might come after you."
Gwen and her ladies of Medford House are now an integral part of the story rather than occupying a separate thread. A new character rather unwillingly joins the two heroes early in the book; Viscount Albert Winslow, a bankrupt alcoholic member of the nobility who proves most useful in aiding the various scams which the morally dubious pair now live on.
As in the first book, there is another plot thread featuring a different character, this time a poor stable boy called Reuben Hilfred who works at the castle at Medford and becomes involved with the royal family, especially after discovering a devious plot to kill them. These two plot threads run in parallel, alternating throughout the book, with the characters in both threads occupying the same place at the same time but never meeting – an intriguing literary tactic. The novel has a satisfactory ending but there is clearly more to come. The second novel confirms the quality of the story-telling: not quite as good as in Bujold's Chalion series, but then, what is?
The Death of Dulgath is the third of The Riyria Chronicles. This time there is one single plot thread. Royce and Hadrian travel to the remote and little-known land of Dulgath with a curious commission: somebody keeps trying to kill the young Countess of Dulgath, and it is the task of the two adventurers to test their security to ensure that she is as well-protected as possible. When they get there, they find a very strange land: one of peace and plenty, where it never rains in daytime, the crops never fail, and pestilence is unheard of. There is an old legend concerning a demon who was recruited to protect the land, and Royce and Hadrian have their practical scepticism put to the test as the plot develops in unexpected ways.
One theme concerns religion: the old imperial church is trying to make a come-back by gaining influence over the various rulers scattered across the land, while the King is leading the resistance to this. Plots and betrayals follow, with the main focus being who controls Dulgath. Disaster threatens our two heroes unless they can work out what is happening, and sacrifices are necessary before the end.
The Disappearance of Winter's Daughter is the fourth of The Riyria Chronicles, following on (in internal chronology terms) not long after the third. There is an unusual start; a duchess is attacked in the first chapter, while Royce and Hadrian experience a surprising ending to a bounty-hunting mission in the next. That raises some intriguing questions, which are not followed up (as yet) as our two heroes are given another mission: to find out what had happened to the duchess.
The city of Rochelle, where the duchess lives, is a fascinating place which is as individual as the characters. Much is made of its multicultural nature, although harmony between the four races is notable for its absence; the lesser races, or Pitifuls, are developing a resistance movement. In parallel with this, the church is still plotting to extend its influence.
I mentioned earlier that more magic appears in the later stories, and that is particularly true of this volume in which some spectacularly heavy-duty sorcery forms the climax of the tale. I have mixed feelings about this; the fun in these stories is focused on the developing relationship between the two heroes and the way in which they extricate themselves from dire straits in order to emerge (more or less) triumphant. Magic doesn't really add anything to that.
As well as the frequently humorous interaction between the two main characters, the writing is full of in-passing observations which add to the enjoyment of the tale. For example:
"Trying to keep up, Hadrian nearly plowed into a mother holding the hands of two children, but halted at the brink. All three looked up at him and smiled. He smiled back, concluding a silent but clear conversation that included understanding, forgiveness and a bit of humor."
I am beginning to be aware that the author likes to leave plot threads dangling in one book, to pick them up again in a subsequent one. This happens here, but I wouldn't like to spoil the fun by saying more.
After this, I will acquire The Riyria Revelations. It will be interesting to see if these earlier works (in publication terms) are as well-written as the Chronicles.