REVIEW: Nolyn by Michael J. Sullivan

Bestselling author Michael J. Sullivan has just released the first book in his new trilogy, The Rise and Fall. Nolyn is set in the same world as Sullivan’s beloved Riyria novels and The Legends of the First Empire series. This novel takes place about 850 years after the end of the Legends series and 1000 years before Riyria. The Rise and Fall series will depict the formation and collapse of an empire over time, with each novel following a different main protagonist.  Grimdark Magazine received an ARC of Nolyn in exchange for an honest review. This review contains minor spoilers for The Legends of the First Empire.

“When the fate of the world is in your hands, gambling is an unaffordable luxury, and idealism is often burned on the altar of reality.”

NolynThough Sullivan states it is not necessary to read any of his other novels before Nolyn, a knowledge of the history of the empire and its power struggles adds vital context. With a dozen and counting published books set in the world, new readers may feel intimidated. Readers who know little of the world of Elan may be puzzled by repeated references to the Legends of the First Empire series. Reading Sullivan’s books in publication order offers the most gratifying reading experience.

The plot follows Nolyn—the only son of human Persephone and elf Nyphron —in the tumultuous events leading to Nolyn’s ascension from heir to emperor.  Nolyn, who has lived for centuries at odds with his militaristic father, has just been ordered to the front lines of the Goblin Wars in an assignment that is essentially a death sentence. Meanwhile, Nolyn’s childhood friend and love interest Sephyryn has been unsuccessfully trying to improve the lives of humans in the Empire for generations. The series of events that unfold following the kidnap of Sephyryn’s child near the beginning of the novel could have implications that derail the empire’s progress forever.

“Everyone has to pay, but heroes—I think they have a higher price than everyone else. And maybe they never erase their debts.”

A thought-provoking recurring theme in Sullivan’s novels is how myths and stories are born and manipulated, affecting civilizations for generations. Because many of Sullivan’s characters are long-lived, they witness firsthand how history can be blurred by bias, myth, and memory. Readers witness how Nolyn’s father, Emperor Nyphron, has molded history and myth to shape his elf-first vision of the empire. The Riyria novels set hundreds of years later display a future when even Nyphron’s story has been rewritten into something unrecognizable.

Nolyn will inevitably draw comparisons to Sullivan’s previous works. While it does live up to the magic of Riyria in its third act, Nolyn differs significantly in subject matter and tone. While the Riyria series is an adventure tale following odd couple ex-mercenary Hadrian Blackwater and cynical thief Royce Melborn, The Rise and Fall series is shaping up to be more of a mythological fantasy depicting fictional historical events. The plot arc and character dynamics of Riyria are more fun and leave space for surprise and humor interspersed with stylish splashes of violence. Royce and Hadrian are so engaging and well-rounded that by comparison, Nolyn and Sephyryn can sometimes feel hollow with their predictable choices and lack of meaningful interaction with each other.

Sephyryn’s plotline in particular contains little of the levity or character development that readers may have come to expect from Sullivan’s novels. Her point-of-view in the novel feels disappointingly inconsequential; she is given little agency or moments of growth and primarily serves as an absent love interest and catalyst for the male character’s rise to power. Over the course of the novel, Sephyrn is compelled, in gallingly predictable ways, into awful situations while failing to consider any path other than the one set in front of her.

This might have worked with the right foil, but unfortunately, the morally ambiguous types of characters depicted in many of Sullivan’s previous works are more or less absent in Nolyn. Readers may question why there are no interesting new villains or anti-heroes to accompany this new series. The bad guys as depicted in Nolyn are generally unsubtle stereotypes: kidnapping children, murder of innocents, and machinations to rule the world are all in the playbook.

Sullivan’s writing truly shines in moments when characters who know each other well are allowed to banter and interact with each other. Nolyn’s perspective chapters, in which he joins and travels with a squadron of skilled warriors as he attempts to stay alive, are among the most engaging scenes in the book. The cast of compelling side characters, especially Nolyn’s band of brothers, elevates the book any time they show up—though one wishes they were explored more deeply, with fully fleshed-out backstories and independent motives.

Like Brandon Sanderson, Sullivan is an extremely organized and prolific writer. Sullivan has a process in which he writes a series first and then publishes each book about a year apart. This technique allows the author a lot of precision in plotting and editing to maximize effective storytelling and continuity. Fans of Sullivan’s previous works may find themselves consulting the Riyria Wiki to help identify easter eggs and continuing threads.

With a slew of successful Kickstarter campaigns to fund his novels, Sullivan has a devoted and supportive fanbase that will definitely enjoy this newest novel. Readers who enjoy the cycles of history and myth in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series should definitely check out Sullivan’s work.

In Nolyn, Sullivan has penned an enjoyable tale with consistent prose and meticulous attention to detail. Though the novel perhaps does not match the charm and rereadability of its predecessors, it is definitely worth picking up. Entertaining and immersive, Nolyn is a great summer read for fans of epic fantasy.

3.5 stars

Read Nolyn by Michael J. Sullivan

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Julia Frazer

Julia Frazer

Julia Frazer has been a devoted science fiction and fantasy reader since elementary school. Her favorite books involve women who kick ass. She is based in sunny California.