Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan is the first book of The Riyria Revelations published by Orbit. It is composed of two books, The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha, originally published by Ridan Publishing. Theft of Swords is a story of high adventure. For me, it evokes a sense of nostalgia for fantasy as a genre prior to the rise of epic and/or gritty fantasy-- a time when serials and pulps were predominant, and fantasy centered on interesting characters doing interesting things. So while Theft of Swords is a fun read and doesn't push genre boundaries, do not mistake it for a poorly written novel pandering to readers with rose-tinted glasses. Theft of Swords is a smartly-written, polished, well-paced story that is littered with interesting dialogue.

Theft of Swords is centered on the exploits of Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, who are thieves. In the first half of Theft of Swords, The Crown Conspiracy, Royce and Hadrian are fulfilling a contract that, naturally, goes all wrong. They subsequently become implicated in a plot to kill a king and his immediate family. The only means to clear their name is to save the surviving prince and foil the conspiracy. Along the way they encounter an ancient wizard, find hints of a larger conspiracy, and meet new friends.

The second half of Theft of Swords, Avempartha, picks up not long after the events of The Crown Conspiracy. Fate pulls Royce and Hadrian back into exciting events. This time to a remote village on the border of human and elven lands. Once again, they foil a sinister plot, uncover more of the larger story arch, and reveal a bit more of themselves.

If all of this sounds straightforward, it is. There is no fancy magic system. There is no complicated world building. This is a story about two men: Royce and Hadrian. Everything else exists merely to showcase them. If Royce and Hadrian were boring, Theft of Swords would likely be unreadable.

Thankfully, Royce and Hadrian are immensely interesting. Both have secretive pasts that they keep even from each other. They are polar opposites in nearly every regard. The only thing they have in common is their deep friendship and respect for each other. Via this bi-polar tandem Michael J. Sullivan tells his story. Every event is seen through the lense of two distinct points of view; every new character found is scrutinized in this bi-fold manner. Likewise, a little more about Royce and Hadrian is teased out in each encounter as well. It is a lively read and the back and forth between the thieving duo helps keep the novel fresh.

Structurally, Theft of Swords is also to the point. There are very few breaks from Royce’s and Hadrian’s point of view-- maybe a brief jump to the ‘bad guy’ to help frame the next sequence. Yet, the novel is very well-paced and edited. There is very little down time and very little exposition. Most of the story and novel is revealed through the characters’ dialogue.

More than anything, I enjoyed the dialogue. Royce’s and Hadrian’s exchanges with each other and with others is always memorable. Theft of Swords is a steady stream of conversation, and the banter seldom stops. This fact contributes greatly to the ease of reading and the sense of pacing. Also a refreshing change of pace is the absence of the vulgarity that has found its way into modern, gritty fantasy. Michael J. Sullivan uses sarcasm, word play, and puns instead.

Another thing I enjoyed was the tone. The novel keeps to the more light-hearted side of the spectrum, again eschewing the dark and gory descriptions more common in newer fiction. While there are some truly dark moments, Michael J. Sullivan cloaks them in poignant dialogue and quiet introspection.

My only criticism is that Theft of Swords doesn’t feel ambitious enough. It is clearly well written but it lacks a certain spark that I think would elevate it to the next level. Instead, Theft of Swords seems quite content to simply be what it is: a fun story with fun characters. That said, it is also the first book in a trilogy, and very little of the overall story arch has been revealed. My opinion here could very well change while reading the next installment.

Overall, I enjoyed Theft of Swords. I loved the sense of nostalgia and a break from the gritty and the dark. I also appreciated the skill that went into this novel. Without that skill and the great dialogue, Theft of Swords could be entirely forgettable. I look forward to the rest of the books in The Riyria Revelations series. While I have no doubts they will be memorable reads, I hope they take the next step and become classic-- with or without the rose-tinted glasses.

Memorable Quotes:
"'Oh, so you’re saying that you’re going to hang on to this and throw it at me at some future, more personally beneficial moment?'"
“'Actually,' Myron said sheepishly, 'I was praying for the horses. But I will pray for you as well,' he added hastily."
"'This is the first time, I suspect, anyone has ever visited a whorehouse and brought his own woman.'"
Image Source: Hachette
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 9780316200714

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Legion by Dan Abnett

Legion by Dan Abett is the seventh book in The Horus Heresy series published by The Black Library. Legion is ostensibly about the most secretive and least known of the Emperor’s Angels, the enigmatic Alpha Legion. In keeping with the theme of acting behind the scenes, the Alpha Legion is rather invisible for most of the book. Instead, the bulk of the book is taken up with a panoply of Imperial Guardsman characters as they deal with secretive plots, xenos agents and the Ruinous Powers. It is a heady mix indeed, but one that unfortunately is not greater than the sum of its parts.

Legion takes place largely on the world of Nurth, an ancient human homeworld cut off from Terra during the Long Night. The 670th Expeditionary Fleet has been mired in enforcing compliance. The Nurtheans have bloodied the Imperial Army heavily and compliance has taken far longer than expected through their use of unknown technology. Readers familiar with the Warhammer setting will recognize it as the chaos sorcery. Even with such foul aid, the Nurtheans are losing ground through attrition.

Behind the scenes numerous plots fester. The Alpha Legion is operating unknown. Agents from the Cabal, an ancient xenos organization, are attempt to contact the hidden Alpha Legion agents. Capping it off, The Lord Commander of the Imperial Army dreams of grandeur. At the height of fighting on Nurth, Chaos reveals its hand with disastrous effect to all involved. Afterward, the story shifts focus to the Alpha Legion and the Cabal, centered around a rendezvous on a forbidden alien world where dangerous truths are laid bare and the fate of the Imperium hangs in the balance.

Dan Abnett once again shows his fondness for the human side of the Imperium. In particular, he seems to enjoy the creative potential of the pre-Heresy Imperial Army. The Imperial Army, as usual, is composed of many smaller armies, each with their own martial traditions. What is thrilling is that this time, the units date to the time of the Unification Wars. These are the armies of ancient Terra during the Age of Strife. Dan Abnett fashions whole new histories, filling in the blanks of Terra’s history. The martial pageantry of each unit is carefully constructed. You learn of the Zanzibari Hort, Crescent-Sind Sixth Torrent, Outremars, Geno-Chiliad, Lucifer Blacks and Regnault Thorns. For fans of the Warhammer 40K, this world-building fluff is truly exciting.

The strength of Legion is found in its human characters. The interactions between Hurtado, Peto, Honen Mu, Rukhsana and John Grammaticus drive the novel. Their loyalties, honor and sense of self are all tested. Also, the characters from the Geno Chiliad stand out because their loyalties are suppose to lie with the Geno first, Imperium Second. This test of loyalties becomes central to Legion’s story and makes the ending heartbreaking.

The non-human characters stand out less. The Alpha Legion and Cabal exist as philosophical extremes, tugging at the human players. Each are devoted to long term monolithic causes with pragmatism dominating their decisions. Their knowledge is secret and dangerous, not to be shared. In one scene, such is the danger of this knowledge that its mere revelation kills one of the Alpha Legion’s psychic agents. In occupying such extremes, it is difficult to identify with either the Alpha Legion or the Cabal. The Cabal was intended to be this way as they are composed of incredibly ancient xenos. With the Legion, I think they were simply under-developed, especially when compared against earlier Horus Heresy novels. If not for the major revelatory moments concerning the Cabal and the Alpha Legion, they would have very little impact on the story as a whole.

My primary criticism with Legion is that it fails to form a cohesive whole. There are many excellent elements to the narrative and much to like about the book-- the splendor of the Imperial Army, the memorable characters, glimpses of the Alpha Legion, momentous secrets, etc. These are all things that are well done and exciting when examined individually. Yet when viewed as a whole, they feel as if they had been stitched together from a handful of short stories. Some elements seem to exist only to move the story to the next phase, such as the Black Cube. I think this weakness manifests itself most clearly in Legion’s anticlimactic ending. The most powerful moments center around the human characters. The moments featuring the Alpha Legion are lackluster as a result of their under development, and this unevenness robs the ending of its potential.

Overall, I enjoyed Legion. As a fan of the Warhammer 40K and Horus Heresy settings there is a lot to enjoy about the novel. The good points far outweigh the negatives. Yet when Legion is viewed independently of its setting, it isn't as successful and lacks a cohesive, driving narrative. This weakness was unexpected given the excellence of Dan Abnett’s previous entry in The Horus Heresy, Horus Rising. Legion is a solid if average entry to The Horus Heresy series. It helps drive the series forward but doesn’t raise the bar. Like the Alpha Legion itself, Legion is important due to its impact on the overall series story-line but will fade into the background letting other standout novels take the spotlight.

Memorable Quotes:
"'We are all Alpharius' said a third. 'We are all Alpha Legion, and we are all one.'"
"Overhead, the slow skies turned. The wind made a reptilian hiss, and the noise of the drums almost drowned out the sounds of screaming coming from the city ten kilometers away."
"He realised at length, that it was simply too big, too alien, too unparalleled, for his mind to accommodate without collapsing into madness. He looked away. He'd seen enough of the extraordinary for one lifetime."
"Honen Mu perceived that no one would be coming for them."
"It wouldn't be his first death, but he hoped it would be his last."
The Black Library: Legion by Dan Abnett
Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 9781849703406