Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan
Royce and Hadrian can steal anything. Want the crown jewels from the capital? They’ll get them for you. How about incriminating letters from a locked tower? Consider it done. So when the two men are contracted to steal a sword the night before a duel, they think it’s just another job; an easy one at that. But instead of a sword, they find the King. Dead. Framed for the murder, Royce and Hadrian must discover the truth before they’re executed for a crime they weren’t even paid to commit. Their journey takes them to a secret prison and a mysterious, powerful man who has been locked away for a thousand years. What they learn from him shakes the very foundation of their beliefs and starts them on a path to thwart a conspiracy that began centuries before at the fall of the empire.
I loved this book (or books, since Theft of Swords actually combines the first two books Sullivan self-published, The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha). Sullivan’s style is simple and easy to read, while his characters and plots are wonderfully complex. This is epic fantasy at its best. Large sweeping themes, villains with hidden agendas, and characters that have you running to Barnes and Noble for the next installment (actually, running is out for me, so I sat on my couch and rushed it from Amazon).
Michael Sullivan is not Brent Weeks (author of The Night Angel trilogy). The themes he deals with are not nearly as gritty or dark. Royce and Hadrian are thieves, but their story focuses on the bonds of friendship and the overall goodness of their characters, rather than their illegal capers. The darkness in Royce’s past creeps up behind him, threatening to pull him back, but again and again we see him choose friendship and the possibility of love.
Sullivan weaves his characters delicately yet deftly, laying down a framework and adding details as they are relevant. He respects his readers, trusting them to pick up the clues that reveal Hadrian and Royce as realistic, heroic, and flawed men. When we meet them in the first scene, they are being waylaid by a band of highwaymen. We know nothing about these two men, but by the end of the scene, it’s obvious that they are thieves and they are very good at what they do. Sullivan hasn’t told us any of this in words, but we see it in the way they turn the robbery around, giving the amateur bandits advice on how to do it better next time. We see it when they reveal their name, Riyria, and the bandits react with awe and respect, letting them go on their way with their purses and weapons intact.
Royce and Hadrian’s individual characters are revealed the same way. At first glance, the brawny swordsman and slinky thief may seem like stereotypical archetypes, but through their actions and their painstakingly unveiled histories, you find they are so much more than what they appear to be on the surface.
There were several sections of description that I skimmed. This was my second read-through, and I remember being bogged down by them the first time as well. That isn’t to say other people wouldn’t find them fascinating or beautifully written. The places described really are incredible. But I’m the kind of reader that’s more interested in characters and how they move through the plot. Lengthy paragraphs that paint pictures of the setting just don’t to it for me. Call me a Philistine, but I’d rather be watching Hadrian’s superior sword-work or listening for Royce’s well-timed comments.
I like to talk about characters with disabilities and there is a really interesting one in Theft of Swords. Unfortunately, all I can say about him is that I’m breathlessly waiting to see more of him in later books. He is a secondary character without a lot of time in the spotlight. And most of the reason he is so interesting is because we know so little about him. The point of his character is to be mysterious. I don’t think I can even reveal his disability since it’s kind of a spoiler, and Sullivan does it so much better in just a few lines. This makes it hard to analyze him or his disability. Maybe I’ll get a chance to talk more about him after I’ve finished the series.
If you’re interested, Sullivan also writes a great blog where he talks about his rise through the author ranks and gives tips for aspiring writers. All in all, I think he has created a masterpiece, joining other names like Brandon Sanderson and Brent Weeks on my favorites shelf. Rise of Empire and Heir of Novron conclude The Riyria Revelations. Speaking of which, my brand, spanking new copy of Rise of Empire is sitting next to me right now, calling my name. “Kendra! Read me, Kendra!”