Theft of Swords is a compilation volume of Michael J Sullivan’s first two novels in the “Ryria” series, ‘The Crown Tower,’ and ‘Avempartha.’
Our heroes belong to the “Rogue” class in the fantasy kingdom;’ they are Hadrian and Royce, two thieves for hire, mercenaries who use skills of stealth and combat to earn a buck and make their way in the world. At the start of Book 1 that is life for them, they are on no heroic quest, they bear no allegiance, and whilst there is an underlining honour among thieves morality, they aren’t particularly interested in writing wrongs. Book 1 sees them tricked into being the patsies in a Royal assassination They unfold a huge conspiracy, involving the Church, and those pushing for a Republican Empire. Along the way they will rescue a Wizard of dubious allegiance, who may yet hold the key to the whole adventure. And they just might find that the need to do the right thing is not as disposable as they thought.
Book 2 begins an adventure of a different tone, but still continuing the tightly knit story arc. The conspiracy continues, this time involving a mystical beast laying siege to a farming community. Only a rare relic imprisoned in an Elvish tower can stop it, and our thieves are the men for the job.
What stands out in these books for me is the character development. Hadrian and Royce are compelling characters you will grow to love. Royce is the hooded, laconic stranger, a master of stealth who in a previous life was a top assasin. Royce is a warrior, double sworded, tough as Hell and an excellent fighter. He is talkative, affable, and quicker to take up a chivalrous quest, to recognise moral duty than his partner. As they go through their adventure they witness and are part of horrors, they rescue the weak and vulnerable and find themselves unwitting champions of justice. Sullivan’s skill is in writing these character arcs believably and subtly. As with these other characters, the King, developing from a precocious young Prince to a care worn statesman is another journey that is satisfying and has integrity. Minor characters, such as a grieving father / farmer in the second book also journey from bitterness to self realisation and hope in a nuanced and shaded way that is far from contrived.
Then there is the skill of the world building. Whilst the narrative delivers well paced, action packed questing and adventuring, behind this is a believable, epic world, created with familiar archetypes, but in a way that balances real-world politicking with elves, wizards and monsters, but avoids the oppressive cynicism of Game of Thrones. There’s an underlying humour, lightness of touch and cracking dialogue. But it does not slip into by now overly familiar fantasy satire. These are stories of real heft and dramatic consequence.
I listened to the audio-book version of this, read by Tim Gerard Reynolds. He is well suited to these tales, and moves through an impressive dramatic range of voices, from Hadrian’s cheerful banter, Royce’s laconic and abrupt manner, and an array of hissing villains, elder wizards, feisty Princesses and more.