It’s been an interesting week in reading.
Just 3 days ago, I published a review of The Three Musketeers, which if you read, detailed how the book was a long, tedious and overall underwhelming read. And so it is funny, that just 72 hours later, I get to write a review that claims exactly the opposite.
It took me just one long weekend to rip through “Rise of Empire”, which comes as Sullivan’s sequel to his successful debut fantasy novel “A Theft of Swords”. Both these books were originally self published, and are each split into two parts. However here, for simplicity’s sake, I will consider them in their commercial format only.
Theft of Swords was actually the novel I dubbed my “book of the year” in 2015, when after receiving it as a gift, I was pleasantly surprised by the simple yet gripping fantasy tale I found within. Sullivan is a master of what I call “Economic Fantasy” (a term I believe I’ve invented). It’s not a ubiquitous skill by any means. Many well-regarded fantasy authors get caught up in complex plot devices, sprawling countries and a list of characters that runs right off the page. Sullivan circumvents this; pushing his plot forward so fast that it is impossible for it to gather dust. He trims everywhere, and keeps only the characters and locations that are absolutely necessary.
And now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say his worldbuilding is simple. Quite the opposite actually. The world laid out before us seems minute in his first installment, where literally one half of the book takes place on what you could call “one set”. But where Theft of Swords is condensed, Rise of Empire is like an explosion. Whole sections of the realm Sullivan creates become focal to the plot. What is perhaps more impressive again is how they are accessed. Travel in any fantasy novel that can stagnate a plot if it is not dealt with carefully. Here, Sullivan wisely blends the plot and the travel seemlessly, so much so that our protagonists Royce and Hadrian cross half the known world without it feeling laborious or drawn out.
These two characters, who form “Riyria”, after which the series takes its name, are perhaps the most enjoyable part of the tale. Characterisation can often be undercooked in plot-driven novels, but Sullivan refuses to let this be an issue. Instead, his main duo almost leap off the page, so much so that a master swordsman and an elven thief can almost be related to. Sullivan leaned his first novel heavily on the quick wit, action sequences and fascinating adventures of his protagonist pair, but in Rise of Empire his cast of characters begins to flush out. Added to the foreground are Princess Arista (given far more scope than the first novel), Modina (originally Thrace in the first installment) and Amilia, who only appears in this book. I’m not often one to point such nuances out, but it is key that each of these characters are female. Up until the last decade, nearly all fantasy novels revolved solely around men. Significant steps have been made since then, but a large amount of these belong to the Katniss Everdeens of the urban fantasy world. High fantasy is still awash with male characters, and so having three well-written female characters is a breath of fresh air. In fantasy, women are often painted as either damsels in distress or super killers without any faults. It is hard to understand how so many great fantasy writers can create whole worlds out of nothing, but find the notion of creating a believable female character impossible. Sullivan shoulders this responsibility well. Arista is endearing, strong, learned and brave, and it is clear the author has moulded her with as much care as he has Hadrian and Royce.
Sullivan treats romance with similar deftness. He achieves a fine balance between the non-existent and the overdone, and has the motivations of love and friendship cleverly intertwined with the traits of his characters.
Action is rife in the series, and where Theft of Swords was brimming, Rise of Empire is drowning. Some may argue it swamps the characters, but with the story driving onwards at such a high pace, the action always dances to the beat and never feels out of place. It is wild at times, but so too are our characters, and though they always seem to escape danger with relative ease, a shadow still hangs over the cast that feels very Game of Thrones-esque. Characters seem safe, but every so often we get the subtle reminder they are not, and as the story progresses this threat only ever looms larger.
The plot centres on the kingdom of Melengar, of which Arista is Princess and our main characters royal protectors, fighting against the newly formed empire. This takes us to the south, where Nationalists are battling the same foe, but not yet in one alliance. Arista’s goal is to unite their forces, but even as they do so, the world at large seems to shrink and more enemies come into play.
It’s intrigue at it’s best, and with so many revelations popping up as the story progresses, the stage is set for the climactic “Heir of Novron”, which should finish this trilogy with the storm it deserves!