Book Review: Theft of Swords (The Riyria Revelations, #1-2) by Michael J. Sullivan
Cover art is done by: Larry Rostant
Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: The Riyria Revelations (Book #1-2 of 6)
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy
Pages: 694 pages (Kindle Edition)
Published: 23rd November 2011 by Orbit
It’s been five years (January 2017) since I first read through The Riyria Revelations, and I honestly didn’t expect I would ever read through this series again. That changed after last year. Last year, out of nowhere, I suddenly missed Royce, Hadrian, and the characters of The Riyria Revelations. And I ended up reading through The Riyria Chronicles, the prequel series to The Riyria Revelations, which I enjoyed immensely. After I finished the first two books in The Riyria Chronicles, I immediately knew I MUST read The Riyria Revelations again because I knew that my experience of it will be improved significantly. And just from reading Theft of Swords, the first omnibus in The Riyria Revelations, I can already confirm the accuracy of my prediction. This review will be different and longer than usual. I will keep my thoughts on my first read intact for newcomers to the series, and I will also elaborate on why things worked so much better on reread.
“The abbot once told me that lying was a betrayal to one’s self. It’s evidence of self-loathing. When you are so ashamed of your actions, thoughts, or intentions, you lie rather than accepting yourself for who you really are— or, in this case, pretend something happened when it didn’t. The idea of how others see you becomes more important than the reality of you. It’s like when a man would rather die than be thought of as a coward. His life is not as important to him as his reputation. In the end, who is braver? The man who dies rather than be thought of as a coward or the man who lives willing to face who he really is?”
Back when I first read Theft of Swords, I totally remember that I had the misfortune of having an unpopular opinion on it. Back then, none of the people on my friend list on Goodreads rated Theft of Swords lower than 3 stars; I was the only one. However, despite that, I also knew I must not make the final decision on whether to recommend this series or not yet due to the way the story in this six books (three omnibuses) series is structured. But before I get on with my review and comparison, I would like to say something about Theft of Swords that bothered me before I even started reading the book. And that is the horrible cover art to this omnibus. Almost six years have passed since I saw the cover art to Theft of Swords, and the cover art is still as horrible as ever, maybe even worse now.
I wish the cover art to Theft of Swords is a joke. Out of all the physical books I had back then, this sat at the number 1 spot for having the worst cover art; I sold my physical copies of this trilogy because I hate the cover art so much. The characters in the cover art just don’t match the description mentioned in the books, and I’m pretty sure it also doesn’t match what’s in the author’s vision. And yes, Sullivan has confirmed this, by the way, but it’s out of his control. Who the heck is that Christian Bale look-alike in the cover art who can’t stop staring at the reader!? And Royce looks like a drug cartel that picked up a sword after having himself transported to a middle of a war. Both of them stare at the reader as if it’s our fault they’re in the cover art. Just look at it! God, make them stop. I can feel their stare even when I’m typing this. They’re still doing it, right?
I’m not against having characters in cover art, but I prefer them illustrated. I hate cover art that features people having a photoshoot like this one. I seriously think Marc Simonetti should’ve been the one hired to illustrate the cover art to The Riyria Revelations. His artworks are utterly suitable for high fantasy series, and I’m gratified that now, five years since I first wrote this review, he’s the one in charge of illustrating the cover art to The Legends of the First Empire and The Rise and Fall series by Michael J. Sullivan. Oh, and also The Death of Dulgath and The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter. All of them look breathtaking, and now I’ll begin my review after showing these two gorgeous foreign edition cover arts by Marc Simonetti to the two books inside Theft of Swords.
The Crown Conspiracy by Marc Simonetti
Avempartha by Marc Simonetti
Two widespread claims led my expectations astray when I first read Theft of Swords. First, the claim that The Riyria Revelations was one of the most epic fantasy series out there in terms of scope and world-building. This claim and praise still confused me to this day, and I have to disagree completely with it. Having read through the series already, this is a great high fantasy series, but I still wouldn’t call it epic in terms of its scope unless you consider the entirety of all the available books so far in Elan. Due to this claim, the simplistic and straightforward plot of the first two books, especially The Crown Conspiracy, disappointed me. I remember being incredibly underwhelmed by The Crown Conspiracy. Both books are less than 400 pages long individually, and The Crown Conspiracy served as an introductory installment to the six-books series. Maybe even better to consider it as a 300 pages prologue. Avempartha was definitely better, and there was a noticeable quality in storytelling, line delivery, and pacing.
To me, Avempartha felt more like the true beginning to the main story in The Riyria Revelations as it dealt with conflicts and mystery related to The Heir of Novron. This doesn’t mean that you should skip The Crown Conspiracy; that’s not what I’m saying here. But if you’re reading this for the first time, it would be beneficial for you to just enjoy these two books for what they are—a simple and enjoyable fantasy story—instead of expecting something epic in scope like I did. The Riyria Revelations is really one big book divided into six entry. Even though this kind of structure didn’t fully work for me as individual installments on my first read, it did work insanely well as a whole series. I couldn’t wait to see how it all played out, and I was left satisfied by the end of the journey. On reread, I’m already emotionally attached to the characters and the world, and I also didn’t have any overblown expectations. Because of this, my reading enjoyment has been dramatically increased.
“The real struggle is in your own mind. You must know you are going to win before you start the fight. You have to see it, smell it, and believe it utterly. It is a form of confidence, but you must guard against overconfidence. You have to be flexible—able to adapt in an instant and never allow yourself to give up. Without this, nothing else is possible. Unless you believe you’ll win, fear and hesitation will hold you down while your opponent kills you.”
Alright, let’s talk about the second claim and praise that affected my reading enjoyment the most on my first read: Royce and Hadrian are the best duos in fantasy. Now, I’m not innocent of this myself. After I’ve read The Riyria Revelations and also The Riyria Chronicles, I’ve mentioned several times that Royce and Hadrian is one of my favorite bromance/duo in fantasy. However, if you’re reading The Riyria Revelations for the first time without reading The Riyria Chronicles first, you have to understand that you won’t get this level of attachment from reading the first omnibus. Maybe even not after reading the second omnibus: Rise of Empire. This was something that I wish I had known back then. I wish other readers and reviewers have told me that Royce and Hadrian became one of their favorite duos ONLY after they finished Heir of Novron, and if that were the case, I would have agreed with them. It feels like I’m discussing semantics here, but there are huge differences. Here’s the thing, Sullivan’s prose is accessible. The dialogues and narrative felt fast-paced, and the world-building felt vivid. The fact that the world of Elan borrowed a lot of elements from classic fantasy—like The Lord of the Rings—made it a series easier to dive into for many readers. But Sullivan’s intentional choice in characterizing the characters can be a struggle to deal with for first-time readers of the series that came with the expectation of finding one of the best bromances in fantasy from the get-go.
“Your best ally in any discussion is silence. Learn to develop that skill. Learn to listen instead of speaking and you’ll weather many storms.”
It was very noticeable from the narrative that Sullivan purposefully withholds information and the character’s background. This was already noticeable on my first read, even more so on my second read. One of the reasons Sullivan did this was to ensure the gradual increase in quality with each volume in the series, which he succeeded brilliantly, in my opinion. But on my first read of Theft of Swords, the storytelling decision in characterizing Royce and Hadrian made me feel detached from the characters. It was not as if Sullivan couldn’t do it; the supporting characters—Alric, Myron, Esrahaddon, Thrace—had their respective well-written character development immediately from the first two books. But for Royce and Hadrian, we barely got to know their inner feelings and thoughts behind their actions, not as much as I preferred anyway. It was difficult for me to care about Royce and Hadrian on my first read. As I said, I never felt fully invested in Royce and Hadrian until I started reading the third and final omnibus of the series. Obviously, it was a different matter on the second read on Theft of Swords; the issue I mentioned earlier is gone because I felt attached to Royce and Hadrian already. I understood their personality, and their interaction and banter felt more entertaining now.
“Hadrian shook his head and sighed. “Why do you have to make everything so difficult? They’re probably not bad people—just poor. You know, taking what they need to buy a loaf of bread to feed their family. Can you begrudge them that? Winter is coming and times are hard.” He nodded his head in the direction of the thieves. “Right?”
“I ain’t got no family,” flat-nose replied. “I spend most of my coin on drink.”
“You’re not helping,” Hadrian said.”
If you’re not patient enough, I recommend you to start from The Riyria Chronicles instead of The Riyria Revelations. Doing this will result in more organic character development for Royce, Hadrian, Gwen, and a few other characters. The writing in The Riyria Chronicles is more well-polished, and you might notice a drop in the quality of the prose if you read The Riyria Revelations after that, but I still think of it as a truly viable option.
One of the things that bothered me so much on my first read of Theft of Swords had something to do with the Riyria reputations in the story itself. By the time of Theft of Swords, the Riyria reputation was hugely famous already; there were many praises for their legends and feats, but we readers seldom get to see their battle or assassination skills in action. There were a few wonderful action scenes for Hadrian but practically none for Royce. All Royce did in the first two books was talk and open doors. He rarely used his knife to fight his enemy. This disappointed me on my first read, and I remember thinking maybe I should’ve read the prequels first to know the characters further before starting this series. The withholding of information on their background doesn’t help either; I predicted Royce’s background since the beginning of the first book, and I was proven right by the end of Avempartha. This made the clear withholding of information redundant to me. It simply didn’t have that surprising or mysterious factor to it. Thankfully, it’s a different situation for Myron and Esrahaddon. Myron is precious, and there was an abundance of intriguing mysteries surrounding Esrahaddon.
“Actually,” Royce said, “I don’t have any political leanings. They get in the way of my job. Noble or commoner, people all lie, cheat, and pay me to do their dirty work. Regardless of who rules, the sun still shines, the seasons still change, and people still conspire. If you must place labels on attitudes, I prefer to think of myself as an individualist.”
Admittedly, most of the issues on my first read that I mentioned above lie mostly in The Crown Conspiracy. Avempartha was a step-up on almost every aspect, especially in its world-building, action scenes, and overarching narrative. Royce & Hadrian received more spotlight, and the supporting characters were interesting. Plus, the politics and foreshadowing for the deadlier conflicts and revelations to come were already evident, too. Five years ago, I mentioned in my review of Theft of Swords even before I was done with the series that The Riyria Revelations is a series that gets better and better with each book. Now, I can confirm this notion.
“Theron, that weapon of yours may be mighty sharp, but what good is a sharp weapon when you can’t hit anything or, worse, hit the wrong target? You don’t win battles with hate. Anger and hate can make you brave, make you strong, but they also make you stupid. You end up tripping over your own two feet.”
If you haven’t read this series, and you’re reading this review thinking whether you should give Theft of Swords a try or not, yes, you should. The only advice I have for you is to clear your mind of expectations with Theft of Swords, and just enjoy it for what it is. And if you’re, like me, felt disappointed with Theft of Swords, I won’t force you to read the sequels if you don’t want to, but I do think the sequels are worth the read. You’ll most likely end up loving the series and characters so much by the end of it. Lastly, if you’re thinking about whether you should reread this series or not after enjoying it the first time, you absolutely should read The Riyria Revelations again. I’m genuinely happy by this reread experience after having read through The Riyria Revelations and The Riyria Chronicles, and I’m still at the weakest books of the entire series. I have no doubt I’ll love my reread of Rise of Empire and Heir of Novron, which I consider to be the best of the series, even more than I already did.
“As with everything, fighting takes practice. Anything can look easy if you’re watching someone who’s mastered whatever it is they are doing, but what you don’t see is the hours and years of effort that go into perfecting their craft. I am sure you can plow a field in a fraction of the time it would take me for this very reason. Sword fighting is no different. Practice will allow you to react without thought to events, and even to anticipate those events. It becomes a form of foresight, the ability to look into the future and know exactly what your opponent will do even before he does. Without practice, you’ll need to think too much. When fighting a more skilled opponent, even a split second of hesitation can get you killed.”
Omnibus overall rating:
The Crown Conspiracy: 2/5 stars on my first read. 4/5 stars on my second read.
Avempartha: 3.5/5 stars on my first read.4/5 stars on my second read.
Theft of Swords: 5.5/10 stars on my first read. 8/10 stars on my second read.
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