Saturday 28 December 2019

The Riyria Chronicles, by Michael J. Sullivan

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.

Saturday 7 December 2019

Fantasy Roundup

An assortment of fantasy novels I've read recently.

The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson

THotB was first published in 1908, and is regarded as an early classic of supernatural horror. It is not exactly my usual type of reading, but I'm trying to catch up with Books I Ought To Read, and this one kept popping up in recommendations concerning the history of SFF; it is regarded as highly influential. A check on Hodgson's Wiki page revealed an interesting character who published a range of stories, many of which are still available. He was killed in the First World War at the age of forty.

THotB is a story within a story. It is topped and tailed by an account of a fishing holiday undertaken in a very remote part of Ireland, in which the two fishermen do some exploring and discover the ruins of a great house, hidden in a huge overgrown garden which contains an enormous pit with a fast-flowing river at the bottom. In the ruins they find a book, hand-written by a former resident of the house to describe his strange experiences. The bulk of THotB consists of the resident's tale.

The resident lived in the house a long time ago, alone except for his sister and dog. He moved in because it was cheap, having already acquired a grim reputation for supernatural events. His strange experiences began with the sighting of hideous creatures, vaguely humanoid but with porcine faces, which instilled in humans a powerful sense of dread.  They came from the pit and laid seige to the house, during which the resident experienced his first out-of-body journey, arriving at a strange land. His spirit travelled to a place surrounded by mountains, in the centre of which was an exact replica of the house in Ireland, only much bigger and made of some glowing green material. In the surrounding mountains he observed vast beings, the old gods of the pagan religions, while a giant version of the porcine creatures was trying to get into the green house.

In subsequent out-of-body experiences he travelled in time at a gradually accelerating rate to the death of the sun (a sequence surely inspired by H.G. Wells's The Time Machine); a powerful and sustained piece of imaginative writing.

I found that finishing the book was no problem (assisted by the fact that it is a novella of only around 100 pages) even though it didn't really engage me. The plot lacks coherence, consisting of a series of loosely connected events, with the significance of the house never explained. Despite this, it is worth reading for the imaginative visions the resident described.


In Search of the Shining World, by Mary Beth Melton

This is another kind of story that I normally don't read. It is a fantasy, featuring an unhappy fifteen-year-old girl who passionately believes in fairies, treasuring the memory of once having seen some, and would like nothing more than to enter their world. This she does, and finds a strange culture with its own rules and practices. She is sent on a mission to prove her worth, and encounters dangers that she had never dreamed of before the unexpected conclusion.

I am not the best person to assess this book, as I suspect that it is mostly appreciated by young teenage, or pre-teen, girls, with whom I have so little in common that they might as well belong to an alien race. However, I not only finished it, I read it in only two sessions. Which is a tribute to the author's story-telling ability.


Limited Wish, by Mark Lawrence

Limited Wish is the second of the author's Impossible Times trilogy: the first volume, One Word Kill, I reviewed here on 24 August 2019, the final part, Dispel Illusion, being due out in a couple of months.

This continues the story of mathematical genius Nick Hayes and, as before, is written entirely from his viewpoint, in the first person. He is now a 16-year-old student at Cambridge University, working at the cutting edge of physics in order to develop the time machine which (he learned in the first volume from a time-traveller) he was due to achieve later on. Life is not simple, however; strange effects and manifestations keep occuring as the paradoxes of time-travel seem to be closing in on him. Two young women are to be involved, apparently in some kind of competition for his favour. To add to his problems, his leukemia has relapsed and he is pursued by a deadly relative of an old enemy. Fortunately, his Dungeons & Dragons-playing friends are there in support, along with more visitors from the future.

This book was just as much a pleasure to read as the first volume, and I am eagerly awaiting the third.


Fallen, by Benedict Jacka

Fallen is the tenth of the author's Alex Verus series, following the fortunes of the maverick diviner living in a present-day London in which magic very much works (albeit unsuspected by the general, non-magical, public). The other nine books have already been reviewed on this blog, so I won't repeat the background; I'll just point out that the books are effectively telling one long story, so it is essential to read them in the right order.

At the start of this volume, Verus has achieved a degree of acceptance, being appointed to the magical Light Council with his friend (and now girlfriend) Anne also accepted as his assistant. Needless to say, this does not last and Verus's world comes crashing down around his ears, with the support he has enjoyed from various others being brutally kicked away. Almost alone, he has to take drastic, life-changing measures to acquire the ability to defend himself against his powerful enemies. He succeeds – at a cost. The story ends abruptly, so we'll have to wait for the next (and last) two volumes to discover what happens. This whole series is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys this kind of contemporary urban fantasy,