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Michael J. Sullivan: Riyria – Lioness at Large

Michael J. Sullivan: Riyria

The Riyria Revelations are the fantasy series that brought Michael J. Sullivan instant recognition back in the late 2000s.  Originally published as a series of six installments, they are now available as a set of three books, with each of the three books comprising two volumes of the original format.  As he did with almost all of his series, Sullivan only proceeded to publish the first installment, The Crown Conspiracy (now part 1 of the first double-dip repackaging, Theft of Swords) after he had finished writing the entire series, as a result of which the series hangs together extremely well; in fact, despite some awkward bits here and there, the writing even in The Crown Conspiracy is accomplished enough that if I didn’t know this was the first book he ever published, I would never have guessed as much — and in terms of writing proficiency, it’s been all uphill from there, to the point that the final installment of the Riyria RevelationsHeir of Novron, comprising the books originally published as Wintertide and Percepliquis — is among the closest things to the gold standard set by J.R.R. Tolkien that I’ve seen in quite a while.  While it’s still a bit short of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that’s certainly not so by a very wide margin; and in terms of its overall structure — despite one major digression in the original book 4, The Emerald Storm (now the second part of double-bill book 2, Rise of Empire) — it’s also quite a bit more successful than the Legends cycle, both taken by itself and as compared to the Tolkien “prehistory of Arda and Middle-earth” books, particularly so the Silmarillion … and yes, I’m saying that knowing full well that the Silmarillion started out as a collection of fractured material that J.R.R. Tolkien himself never got to edit in its final version and which, instead, was left to his son Christopher to sort out. (As I said in my review of the Legends cycle, the comparative shortfalls in the narrative structure of Sullivan’s Legends cycle chiefly pertain to the way in which the interaction between mortals and immortals is presented, and that — in Tolkien’s case — is a matter of J.R.R.’s actual writing, not of the organization of the Silmarillion material later provided by Christopher.)

Sullivan excels equally at plot construction, dialogue and, in particular, in the creation of fully-rounded, deeply flawed but engaging characters and in the rendition of emotions and human interactions, both on a grand scale (as in the workings of society, politics, government, and the pursuit of power and strategic goals) and on a person-to-person and individual level; in the latter respect, perhaps nowhere more impressively in his insightful and sensitive portrayal of a very young woman’s protracted PTSD after going through a truly harrowing experience.  And speaking of which, although Riyria itself is a partnership of two male characters, the Riyria books — like the Legends cycle — also feature a number of strong female characters, all of whom in their own ways overcome personal hardships and go through various forms of trial by fire to become unlikely leaders in a male-dominated society — and all of whom, therefore, are definitely among my favorite characters … and would easily qualify as main characters if the series were not specifically named for the (male-only) Riyria partnership.

When Sullivan was met with reader demands for more books featuring the two members of Riyria, Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, he decided to publish a series of prequels called the Riyria Chronicles, explaining that because of the way the Riyria Revelations are structured, there will be no sequels set after the ending of that series.  Instead, the Riyria Chronicles narrate some of the pair’s earlier adventures, including some that are referenced in the course of the Riyria Revelations series; most notably the mission that first brought them together and turned instant bitter enemies into reluctant friends and companions (The Crown Tower, book 1 of the Riyria Chronicles).

As Sullivan has since gone even further back in time and created a “prehistory” prequel series set in the distant past of the present-day world in which the Riyria cycle is set — Legends of the First Empire –, you now have the option to either approach all of his books and series chronologically or in publication order.  I frequently go for “publication order”, but in this instance I wanted to read the Legends cycle first; as indicated in my post on that cycle, in no small part because one of the major points that Sullivan makes both in the Riyria books and in Legends — and even more so, in the combination of the past and present-day narratives — is that the past is subject to misinterpretation and outright falsification, particularly if / to the extent that no reliable documents and records exist that are beyond such tampering and can set the historic record straight beyond the reach of cavil: I wanted to see how this plays out as both series are set side by side, knowing the “real” story (the Legends cycle’s “prehistory” narrative) while observing how that historic truth has since been changed and perverted.

And I’m really glad that I chose this approach: knowing the true events of the 3000-year-old past as narrated in the Legends cycle, the “big lie” at the heart of the Riyria cycle was evident almost from the very beginning.  Obviously this operated as a spoiler with regard to part of the ending of the Riyria Revelations (namely, the exposure of the falsification for what it is), but I didn’t mind, because (1) it was a spoiler that I had deliberately invited and taken into account, and (2) even more importantly, it in no way interfered with the suspense built into the “present-day” narrative; much to the contrary, it even heightened that narrative’s built-in tension, because it served to highlight the extent, poisonously pervasive nature and monumental, far-reaching consequences of the deliberate falsification — while still leaving enough of a surprise element for a key aspect of the final reveal.  All of that is true even if yet another part of the final reveal — the one foreshadowed on the very last pages of the final Legends book, Age of Empyre — also turned out to be exactly what I had suspected; but I probably would have clued into that particular aspect even if I hadn’t read the Legends cycle first: for one thing, it’s the kind of ending that is simply most consistent with the traditional structure of epic sword and sorcery fantasy series (so I’d have at least half expected it going in anyway), and in addition, there is yet another, almost blatant hint to this ending at the end of part 2 of Theft of Swords — originally book 2 of the Riyria Revelations –, Avempartha, which would almost certainly have made me sit up and take notice, especially taken together with several further hints sprinkled throughout the narrative.

I don’t know when I’ll be getting around to Sullivan’s remaining books set in various historic moments of the same fictional world (a place called Elan) — the remaining Riyria Chronicles, as well as a three-book series called The Rise and Fall, which is set in the time period between the Legends and Riyria cycles –; but I see a distinct possibility for at least one, and possibly even more of them to feature as part of my Halloween Bingo reads.

[As in the case of the Legends cycle, a detailed review of the Riyria books that I read, as well as the associated maps, will follow after the page break below; and blurbs, ratings, and “100 books of summer” prompt assignments are to follow on page 3 of this post. — NB: as a result of the prompt assignments for the Riyria books, I’ve also changed some of the original prompt assignments for the Legends books.]

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