Reading Michael J. Sullivan’s Theft of Swords is the most I’ve enjoyed the first entry in a fantasy series for a long time. In fact, it contains two stories from The Riyria Revelations: The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha. These were originally released individually by Sullivan on a self-published basis and were combined into this excellent package by Orbit in 2011. To readers new to Sullivan’s work, Theft of Swords and The Riyria Revelations is what the author recommends reading first. The Riyria Chronicles are prelude adventures that follow the same two protagonists. I’m noting the above details as I read 25% of this novel before realising that I was reading the books in the suggested order. Read here for more information about Michael J. Sullivan’s recommended reading order.
Theft of Swords follows the adventures of Riyria. Riyria is made up of two legendary and infamous rogues who take on seemingly impossible heists and requests, normally for nobles who can afford their services to “embarrass a rival, to hurt an ex-lover, or to increase their standing in the strange and twisted world of high-stakes politics.” The duo aren’t affiliated with any guilds, monarchs, or political factions, so can tread where other thieves would be unable to operate, with their unique and tailored set of skills. Hadrian Blackwater is a charismatic and genuinely good-natured warrior who carries three swords. Trust me, a man who carries three swords knows how to use them. His partner is Royce Melborn, an extremely talented thief who is a master of stealth and comfortable walking in the shadows. He is much more cynical and critical than his colleague and he holds his cards close to his chest. I enjoyed having certain mysteries around Royce unravel gradually as I read on.
“Two hundred gold tenents to slip a sword out an open window—you don’t find that suspicious?” Royce asked with a tone of amazed disbelief.
Theft of Swords has an excellent opening segment, with a gang of amateur thieves choosing the wrong marks, which then leads into one of my favourite fantasy adventure story setups. I was truly excited at the 10% mark and was completely invested in the duo’s exploits and the possibilities that could present themselves in the novel.
“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.”
The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha take place chronologically in a familiar-feeling but distinct enough fantasy world that is large in scope and features gods, histories, and political maneuverings. The Crown Conspiracy had elements of mystery surrounding who killed a main character and uncertain motives of key players. The mystery elements were well-worked and there are many puzzles and secrets in Sullivan’s world that I am sure will be revealed the further the series progresses but I’m fascinated to find out more about the Dwarves and the Elves. Tropes they may be, yet I’m intrigued to see how they’ll fit in Sullivan’s stories. The world-building throughout is neatly done, although, during the first story, there is a fair bit of info-dumping by the extremely likeable priest, Myron Lanaklin. He has a convenient photographic memory. Slightly different in tone with some more grim and sombre content, Avempartha was slightly reminiscent of a Sapkowski The Witcher short story with a dragon-like Gilarabrwyn harassing a small farming town.
In addition to Royce and Hadrian, the other two main characters are Prince Alric and Princess Arista. Throughout certain sections in these two tales, their lives intertwine with the thieves’ missions. The fact Sullivan made me adore Riyria so aptly and promptly, I was probably unfair on the Alric and Arista sections, rushing them to begin with to get back to the thieves’ escapades. As the stories progressed though, and these characters became more fleshed out, I liked their moments too, however, when reflecting, the majority of the standout moments did feature Hadrian and Royce. As happened with the brother and sister, I believe it will be the same result with the rest of the side characters and that as they get more page time, I’ll become more invested with them as they become more three-dimensional too. There are some fine creations already though including Esrahaddon and Thrace.
“Royce stared out at the tower in the middle of the river and considered why jobs involving stealing swords were never simple.”
I’m glad that I finally decided to give Sullivan’s catalogue another go. I tried Age of Myth about two years ago and something about it didn’t work for me at the time. After reading Theft of Swords and knowing his popularity and fanbase, I would class Sullivan as a heavyweight of the current fantasy author scene. To Grimdark Magazine readers who have come across this review, I will gladly recommend Theft of Swords. The novel features hope, heart, and humour, especially delivered through Hadrian, which nicely colours in the turmoil, grittiness, and political uncertainty of Sullivan’s world. An extremely addictive read that I raced through and enjoyed thoroughly. I don’t doubt that I will adore Rise of Empire at least equally. (Minor spoiler in the below quotation.)
“So,” Royce said, “you want us to escape from this prison, kidnap the king, cross the countryside with him in tow while dodging soldiers who I assume might not accept our side of the story, and go to another secret prison so that he can visit an inmate?”
Arista did not appear amused. “Either that, or you can be tortured to death in four hours.”
“Sounds like a really good plan to me,” Hadrian declared.“Royce?”
“I like any plan where I don’t die a horrible death.”