Friday, September 28, 2012

You Should Be Reading: Michael J. Sullivan

Thomas Wolfe once famously wrote 'you can never go home again', and as readers that often holds far too true. Going back to the televisions shows and books of our childhood can be a painful experience, as our world view and standards of quality have grown over time. I know from re-watching TV shows like Voltron and The A-Team that nostalgia is best left as wistful remembrances, so you never have to hear "Daddy, this show sucks" from your nine year old only to discover you agree with him.

Books don't suffer as badly, at least in my experience. But they do suffer, especially now that fantasy and science fiction are big business that are targeted, not at children, but adults. Seventeen on the top grossing films of all time are directly tied to science fiction and fantasy in some fashion. (Eighteen, if you count The Passion of the Christ, but I'm not opening that can of worms.) It stands to reason, with that much money to be made, both the writers and readers of fantasy and science fiction have grown more sophisticated, making reading some of the earlier mainstays in the genre seem even more dated and passe on a second viewing. Readers of Weiss and Hickman's Dragonlance novels and David Edding's Belgariad and Mallorean series, would likely agree that while these series remain some of the most formative of our early years as fantasy readers, they are definitely not books we would rush to read again or recommend highly when authors like Rothfuss, Martin, and Abercrombie are dominating the charts.

So what does this all have to do with Michael J. Sullivan, author of the self-published and later commercially successful Riyria Revelation series?  Sullivan's return to the adventure rich, hopeful, and rollicking themes of those older novels, proves while you may not be able to go "home" again, nostalgia can be used to tell powerful and rewarding stories that don't necessarily fit into the more gritty and adult themed stories that make up the bulk of popular fantasy reading today.

The Riyria Revelation follows the adventures of the unlikely partnership of Hadrian Blackwater and Royce  Melbourne. Hadrian is an idealistic swordsman of uncommon skill, possessing the secrets of a legendary warrior caste, while Royce is a cynical thief whose demeanor is as dark as his occupation. If this sounds like a riff on Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, it's because it is. Sullivan doesn't bother to obscure his use of tropes at all. His thinking seems to be that these archetypes are popular for a reason, and his use of elements familiar to long time fantasy readers doesn't stop with his choice of protagonists. We have elves and dwarves, that are exactly what we expect them to be, an all powerful wizard, a princess that seems fated to fall for one of our heroes, a hidden heir to the throne and more. What makes Sullivan so successful is that he makes no attempt to hide what he is doing and embraces the universality of these elements with an intent to deliver a fast-paced story with likeable characters and nothing more. Focusing on the strength of the characters and knowing exactly what kind of story he intends to tell, gives Sullivan the ability to eliminate the  reams of exposition and meandering plot common in most door-stopper fantasy. Sullivan sets out to entertain and while his characters and settings may be all to familiar, he accomplishes his mission with a calculated light touch that is more common to episodic television than most of today's genre fantasy.

Some may criticize the limited scope of Hadrian and Royce's personalities, finding their relationship little more than a sword and sorcery riff on buddy-cop movies like the Lethal Weapon series. And they wouldn't be wrong, but Sullivan makes it work, allowing the effortless and often comedic nature of the relationship between the two to sell itself. We liked Riggs and Murtaugh, and I think that even the most accomplished and cynical fantasy reader will like Hadrian and Royce as well. They bicker and snipe at each other, but underneath is a grudging respect and love for one another that makes reading their adventures like visiting with old friends. More than anywhere else in the series, this is where Sullivan shines.

This is obviously Hadrian and Royce's story, so secondary characters often seem wooden by comparison. Later volumes allow other characters to step into the limelight, and they fair better then, though they never threaten the star status of either the warrior or the thief. Sullivan handles female characters well, when the spotlight focuses on them. Princess Arista and Thrace are standouts in this regard, though I felt that the end of both of their character arcs was predictable if ultimately satisfying.

The plot of the Riyria Revelations starts off simply. Hadrian and Royce accept a job that seems all too easy, to steal a sword from inside the castle of the king. Predictably, they succeed in acquiring the weapon but are caught red handed before they make their escape. The king has been murdered and our heroes are holding the murder weapon. The duo is placed in the dungeon awaiting trial and certain execution, when they are released by the princess Arista who knows they are innocent and frees them to find the true culprit, the only catch they must take her brother, the heir to the throne, with them. The plot grows in complexity from there, with Sullivan adding layers with each volume in the series, but fans of the labyrinthine plotting of Martin or Weeks will find this series all too simplistic if not predictable. But Sullivan's aim isn't to confound you with reversals, switchbacks and red herrings. He simply wants to tell a rousing tale of heroism and daring, not unlike a very well done campaign of Dungeons and Dragons. And he succeeds, Hadrian and Royce are heroic, almost always likeable, and ultimately successful through either their own considerable skills or sheer dumb luck and coincidence. Things progress quickly as the stakes rise and we see more of the world and the characters that populate it. The stakes rise and predictably so do our characters, leveling up to face the rising threat. But the progression makes sense and is ultimately satisfying as we want Royce and Hadrian to do well. Unlike George R. R. Martin, Sullivan gives readers what they want.

Sullivan's prose is as simple and comfortable as his characters and plot, and The Riyria Revelelations reads more like a episodic television show, than a multi-volume epic fantasy series. Given that Sullivan has stated that he writes with the intention of the writer being as invisible as possible, he should be applauded for never does a overly lengthy description or bit of poetic musing distract the reader from the easy, yet consistent  flow of the tale. This is Royce and Hadrian's tale and Sullivan never tries to make his own. Everything Sullivan does is in service to the story, and if the story is a throw back to simpler days where the heroes were undeniably heroes, the monsters were destined to be slain, and good is destined to triumph over evil, then Sullivan has more than achieved those ends. It may not be a reflection of the complex and often disappointing world we live in, but I would say that we as a people need fairy tales and Sullivan has provided us with one.

Wolfe was right, you never can go home again. But Micheal Sullivan certainly transports readers to a place so reminiscent of the idealistic adventures of our youth that we don't really mind the difference.


  1. Although I like the idea of running counter-culture, I prefer such a book to be smartly written. I don't think it's too much to ask to put in a twist or two that the reader doesn't see coming...I think that's why I like Sanderson so much. And with the growing length of books in my queue, it might be hard to find a place for it. The good news is it can be picked up in hard cover, which is a major plus for me...

  2. I haven't yet read this series, but I've heard a lot of good things from a lot of people whose opinion I respect. Now I'm even more intrigued. Of course, it's a classic case of too many books, not enough time—but I'll get there eventually. I'm happy to hear they still hold up in your mind, and even happier that your impression is of an old-fashioned story. There are times where I just need to sit back with some popcorn and read a predictable yet highly enjoyable Saturday matinee style of book. I'll definitely be keeping this series in mind when I next feel in that mood!