Saturday 31 July 2021

Riyria Revelations, by Michael J Sullivan


Regular readers of this blog (yes, both of you!) might recall that I posted reviews of the four volumes of the Riyria Chronicles on 28 December 2019. These told the story of the meeting, and eventual partnership, of Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melbourne, two adventurers for hire (who come to refer to themselves as Riyria). The three books of the Riyria Revelations, of which Theft of Swords is the first, continue their story; this volume originally appeared in two parts,  The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha

There is a complicating factor, however; Sullivan actually wrote the Revelations first, then went back to write the Chronicles as an extended prequel (the Chronicles end a few months before the Revelations begin). So readers have a choice between reading the books in publication order, or following the internal chronology. As you may have gathered by now, I chose the internal chronology (as usual). I have to say that Sullivan did the stitching-together very well, and I noticed no anomalies.

Swords are the main theme of this book: Riyria are commissioned to steal a famous sword, but find themselves arrested on the most serious charge imaginable. It is clear that they have unwittingly become involved in some top-level manouvring for power but fortunately they have some allies as well as enemies this time, and they end up escaping with a prince of the realm in tow. The climax of the story is a battle for the crown.  

In the second part of the book, Riyria meet a young girl, Thrace, who is desperate for them to come with her to her remote village which is being gradually destroyed by a magical dragon-like creature, a Gilarabrywn. She needs them to steal another sword, this one reputed to be the only weapon capable of killing the creature. The only problem is that the sword is held in an inaccessible elvish tower, which is also where the Gilarabrywn has made its home. The conclusion is both dramatic and unexpected.

The second volume of the Revelations trilogy is Rise of Empire (originally published  as two stories: Nyphron Rising and The Emerald Storm). The Nyphron Church’s long preparations have climaxed in a play for power with the creation of the New Empire, intended to draw together all of the little kingdoms of the land under one overall nominal leader, the Empress Modina. Much of the focus is on Arista, Princess of Melengar and sister to the young King Alric, for whom Riyria are (usually, more or less) working. Arista is intelligent and determined to do whatever it takes to support her brother, and there is much enjoyment to be had from observing her development from a pampered member of the court to a toughened and inspirational leader with growing powers. In the meantime Royce is following up some snippets of information about his friend Hadrian which suggest that he has a much more important role to play than anyone realises.

The second part of the book sees Riyria out of their comfort zone and undertaking a long sea voyage. Brushes with pirates inevitably follow before the pair find themselves marching through the jungle territory of the dreaded Ghazel. In the meantime, the hidden leadership of the New Empire are seeing all of their plans gradually approaching fruition.

The final volume of the trilogy is Heir of Novron (consisting of Wintertide and Percepliquis). It is some months after the end of the previous volume, and the New Empire is growing in strength, rapidly absorbing most of the old kingdoms. A major celebration is planned at Wintertide, culminating in the execution of two captives; Degan Gaunt, known as the "heir of Novron", and the Witch of Melengar, otherwise known as Princess Arista. The young Empress Modina, firmly under the control of the Co-Regents Saldur and Lord Ethelred, is to marry Ethelred in order to consolidate the Regents' power. Needless to say, Riyria take a dim view of all of this and plan to free the captives, but this proves to be an unusually difficult task, particularly since the Regents have Merrick Marius, Royce's formidable old enemy, working for them.

 Percepliquis is the name of the legendary capital of the Old Empire, lost for a thousand years.  A group led by Riyria need to find its ruins and locate the mysterious Horn of Gylindora which is said to be hidden there. Without it, humanity will be overrun by the newly militant elves. 

The climax of the story - and of the Revelations - is particularly well done, with various unexpected outcomes all fitting neatly together and explaining the clues which had been scattered around during the story, just like a good detective novel. About the only element which was totally predictable concerned Hadrian, but I'll say no more about that.

Taken as a whole, the Riyria sequence is one of the great achievements in the modern epic fantasy genre, right up there with Mark Lawrence's Red Queen's War and Thorns trilogies. On a trivial note, I did find a few of the names unnecessarily awkward, being difficult to spell or pronounce. Curiously, as it is relatively short and simple, Riyria is one of the worst offenders - I have to check the spelling, letter by letter, every time I type it.

For those whose appetite for Sullivan's world is still not sated,  the author clearly sees no reason to abandon a carefully created world without getting a decent mileage from it, so is using it for other stories: most notably The Legends of the First Empire, a (very) distant prequel series to the earlier books, consisting of six volumes to date. 

Saturday 10 July 2021

Spaceworlds: Stories of Life in the Void, edited by Mike Ashley


The theme for this British Library Science Fiction Classics anthology sent to me for review is living in space: in space stations, spaceships and generation ships (sub-light-speed starships which take several generations to reach their destinations).  The editor includes in his usual introduction mention of earlier writers who tried to address the problems of living in space, such as the lack of air and the low temperatures. Some well-known names were promptly on the case... Edgar Allen Poe mentioned technology to provide fresh air (Hans Phaall, 1835) while Jules Verne added thickly padded walls (Autour de la Lune, 1869). By the end of the 19th century, scientifically-mined writers were tackling such issues as long-term survival in the light of the expected length of journeys, including growing food, and even the indelicate question of how to cope with human waste. Moving closer to the present time, the ultimate in living space was envisaged in Larry Niven's marvellous Ringworld. Now to the stories:

Umbrella in the Sky by E.C. Tubb (1961).  The Sun is building up to going nova. A huge but lightweight movable shield is being contructed in orbit, which will protect the Earth from the effects. But progress is much slower than expected and time is running out. So a special investigator is sent undercover to join the construction crew and discover the cause of the problem. An interesting plot focusing on the psychology of those working in space.

Sail 25 by Jack Vance (1962). This time, a steerable sail ship is the technology of choice and a trip in one of them is the basis of a "finishing school" for trainee pilots, with an assessor who is notoriously tough. Only the best will survive.

The Longest Voyage by Richard C. Meredith (1967). The sole survivor of a devastating explosion which wrecked his space ship struggles to make it back to Earth - from the orbit of Jupiter. He has to work with what he has and knows, and with a much lower level of technology.

The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey (1961). The subject of a space ships having their own minds - either by "plumbing in" a human brain or via developing artificial intelligence - is a popular one nowadays but this rather poetic story is an early example.

O’Mara’s Orphan by James White (1960).  This is an early one of the Sector General series of stories about huge orbiting hospitals equipped to minister to the health of a large number of alien races. O'Mara is assigned to look after an orphaned baby Hudlarian, a race about which very little is known. I have to say that I find the whole concept problematic; in my (secondhand) experience of the medical profession, the tendency is to specialise, e.g. in major repairs to limbs and joints (human, naturally!) - and a surgeon who does that usually does nothing else.

Ultima Thule by Eric Frank Russell (1951). Hyperspace was an easy and very fast way to travel around the Galaxy; your spaceship disappears from one location and appears in another one. But what happens if it doesn't reappear? This story follows the fate of a small crew who find themselves stranded in hyperspace.

The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox (1940). This is an early example of a "generation ship" story, but it also incorporates suspended animation: one member of the crew is a monitor who spends almost all of the time asleep, only waking about once a century to check that the descendents of the original crew are still following the plan. The story consists of a series of glimpses showing the cultural and social evolution of the generation crew from the monitor's viewpoint. 

Survival Ship by Judith Merril (1951). A curiously high level of security surrounds the crew of a space ship intended to preserve human civilisation by establishing a colony on a planet in orbit around another star. Suspended animation is the method chosen for surviving the trip but, to obtain the maximum diversity among the settlers, the gender distribution is unconventional... No doubt shocking at the time, but would hardly cause a flicker now.

Lungfish by John Brunner (1957). Another "generation starship" story, this time with the emphasis on the relationships between the "earthborn" and the "tripborn".  After all, those born on the voyage did not volunteer for the journey, and might develop entirely different priorities from those of the original crew.

An interesting point about these stories I noticed compared with earlier BL collections is that they are mostly relatively recent: one in the 1940s, three in the 1950s and five in the 1960s.  Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the fact that the problems of extended living in space hadn’t really been thought through until then.

My pick of this bunch would be Brunner's Lungfish. He really was a very good writer. Wilcox's effort was also very commendable considering when it was written.