Monday, December 31, 2012

“Heir of Novron” by Michael J. Sullivan (Orbit)

Sullivan-3-HeirOfNovron

The Third Omnibus, the Conclusion and the greatest revelations of Riyria

The New Empire intends to mark its victory over the Nationalists with a bloody celebration. On the high holiday of Wintertide, the Witch of Melengar will be burned and the Heir of Novron executed. On that same day the Empress faces a forced marriage, with a fatal accident soon follow. The New Empire is confident in the totality of its triumph but there’s just one problem — Royce and Hadrian have finally found the Heir of Novron and they have their own holiday plans.

It’s almost exactly a year since I read Rise of Empire, the second omnibus in Sullivan’s excellent Riyria Revelations series. I don’t really know why I waited so long to finish this series – save perhaps, as a result of general book ADHD and an apparent unconscious hesitance when it comes to finishing any series. Nevertheless, now that I have read this third omnibus edition, I can say that Sullivan has written a great series – one that will forever be on my shelf, and one I have no doubt I will re-read. This is a lot of fun.

It took me a little while to get re-settled in the world, and re-acquainted with the characters. But, given how long this book is, it wasn’t a significant amount of the book, relatively speaking. Heir of Novron is made up of two novels: Wintertide and Percepliquis. Therefore, I’m going to split this review into three parts; one for each novel, and a summation at the end for more general book and series observations.

One thing I’ve tried to do is stay away from discussing the plot too much – there would just be too many major spoilers in almost every sentence, if I gave it much attention. Needless to say, there is plenty of action, intrigue, tragedy, disasters averted and realized, and an intricate web of bait-and-switch. The story unfolds at a steady pace – unhurried, but by no means slow, and we see the characters grow as the world around them becomes steadily more dangerous and uncertain.

Wintertide

Sullivan-5-WintertideThe first novel in the book expands on the Imperial intrigue that marked Rise of Empire, and sees the latest fractures among the conspirators coming to a boil. The soon-to-be Emperor has got a bit ahead of himself, and has started throwing his weight around, reneging on deals that got him to where he is.

Meanwhile, things are not looking good for our heroes: Arista is in chains, after getting caught trying to save the unwilling, future Empress (Thrace, now going by Modina). Royce and Hadrian have come to the imperial capital to prevent the execution of Degan Gaunt, who they suspect is the true Heir of Novron. I must admit to getting Gaunt and Emury mixed up in my head for a little while – I couldn’t get past the idea that Gaunt had become a complete asshole, where in Rise of Empire  he had been noble and charismatic.

Our two heroes soon split up to pursue their own missions: Royce heads back to Medford to see if Gwen’s ok and hasn’t been a victim of the elf invasion; while Hadrian stays behind and is apprehended while trying to find out where Gaunt is being held and prevent his execution. After his arrest, he’s dragooned into fixing a problem of the conspiring Imperial Regent Ethelred, and his co-conspirator Saldur. They want him to kill Sir Breckton, a constant thorn in their side who shows them nothing but the bare minimum of respect. He’s to do this at a tournament, during which we learn more of just how skilled a warrior Hadrian is. And things don’t really go as anyone anticipated.

My biggest issue with Wintertide was the budding romance between Amilia (the Empress’s counsel) and Sir Breckton, the commander of the Imperial forces. Sir Breckton is a pretty good character (his first scene was particularly good): he is loyal to a fault, and a paragon of knightly virtues, to the extent that he can come off a bit over-done. Amilia is a former scullery maid who was elevated to her position by accident – something she is acutely aware of and is constantly battling to overcome. Her first meeting with Sir Breckton reinforces the strict social mores and strictures of proprietary in this world, only to be rather clunkily turned on their head. He dismisses her as just a servant, before he realizes his mistake, and we see a complete about-face:

“I’ve offended you, haven’t I? I am too bold! Forgive my impudence. I had no intention to participate in the joust, as I deem such contests the unnecessary endangerment of good men’s lives for vanity and foolish entertainment. Now, however, after meeting you, I realize I must compete, for more is at stake. The honor of any lady should be defended and you are no ordinary lady, but rather the Chosen One of Maribor. For you, I would slay a thousand men to bring justice to those blackguards who would soil your good name! My sword and lance are yours, dear lady, if you will but grant me your favor.”

Seriously? That’s the most blatant, hypocritical careerism I’ve ever read. From there, the romance felt a little forced. Things develop better in Percepliquis, though, but Amilia remains “very nervous” and even a little “silly” around him. And, at another point: “Amilia felt terrified, embarrassed, and happy beyond what she had believed to be the bounds of emotion.”

The novel concludes with a momentous, tragic, and almost heart-stopping double-ending. Given the delay between the release of books five and six (a result of Orbit buying the publishing rights), I can certainly see why some people were upset, and champing at the bit for the conclusion.

Percepliquis

s-typeopts13In the final novel of the series, the elves have finally invaded the lands of men, and swept through three kingdoms with unexpected speed (including Arista and Alric’s home of Melengar). Percepliquis is particularly difficult to write about with spoiling, well, everything. I shall try, but be warned, there are probably some spoilers following this paragraph.

Before his death, Esrahaddon muttered a riddle to Arista:

“Find the Horn of Gylindora — need the heir to find it—buried with Novron in Percepliquis. Hurry — at Wintertide the Uli Vermar ends. They will come — without the horn everyone dies.”

In Percepliquis, we finally get to the heart of what’s been going on, and discover what Esrahaddon’s been working towards since the very beginning (actually, centuries before the start of the series). We learn the truth about the history of the humans, dwarves and elves of this world. Particularly late in the novel, we learn of the difficulties and prejudices visited upon the dwarfs and the “mir” (half-elves) by basically everybody else.

Percepliquis reminded me of The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s kind of obvious why, in that a group of companions are gathered together, and sent out on a quest to save the world. The group includes a wizard, a dwarf, possibly a king, an elf, and some other warriors. But it’s certainly not a rip-off, and Sullivan does a great job of paying homage while not mimicking, and instead makes this popular fantasy trope his own.

Given the make up of the group, we also get to spend some more time with Myron, probably my favorite character in the novel. He has an eidetic memory, a passion for books that surpasses everything else, and doesn’t really know how to interact with other people. He has an innocence that doesn’t border on naïveté, and instead makes him an integral part of the group sent off to Percepliquis. He develops into a big part of the group’s conscience and heart, saving Royce from himself, and bringing the reluctant members of the quest together. He’s also good for a few smiles.

“Straight as a maypole,” she muttered. The monk looked at her. “This is it,” she told him. “The road to Percepliquis. Under this snow are stones laid thousands of years ago by order of Novron.”

Myron looked down. “It’s nice,” he replied politely.

This is just one example of Myron’s unfortunate ability for defusing solemn moments with gentle humor. Speaking of favorite characters, in this omnibus we are also introduced to Nimbus, who is hired to train and educate first Amilia and then Hadrian in the proper comportment of members of the nobility. He’s not always successful, but he’s a superb character.

On the subject of proper noble behavior, I noticed a few more nods to social “propriety” in these two novels, which was a bit of a surprise. Specifically, I don’t remember Alric being so uncomfortable about or opposed to his sister’s abilities or leadership role, or so condescending towards non-nobles. Here’s just one example from this novel:

“Alric hated how she had taken charge when setting out. As much as he had enjoyed the look on Gaunt’s face when she had barked at him in the courtyard, he disliked the bold way his sister acted. If only she had given him the time to act. He was the king, after all. The empress might have given Arista authority to organize the expedition, but that did not extend to leading it. She had never satisfactorily explained why she was along, anyway. He had assumed she would ride quietly in the wagon and leave commanding the venture to him but he should have known better. Given her theatrics in the courtyard, it was surprising that she still rode sidesaddle and had not taken to wearing breeches.”

I also just want to state that Degan Gaunt is an absolute asshole. He gets his comeuppance, but also grows a little over the course of the novel. All of the characters, actually, go through their various personal trials and tribulations, and not a few tragedies. Some of them are brought together, others pushed apart. Some turn out to be someone or something we never expected (there were two revelations that completely took me by surprise).

The expansion of the story’s cast is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it’s excellent to meet these extra, colorful and well-rounded characters. On the other hand, it means that Hadrian and Royce don’t make up as much of the story – at least, that’s how it felt to me, and particularly in Wintertide. However, given that things are moving toward the series climax, one can accept that more attention had to be paid to other characters. I missed Hadrian and Royce’s dynamic from the previous books, while also appreciating the extra characters. All I can say is, I’m very happy that we have two upcoming prequels to look forward to: The Crown Tower (Aug.2013) and The Rose and the Thorn (Sep.2013).

There are lots of nice little details sprinkled throughout the book, which really enhance the overall reading experience, and aid with both world-building and character development. They don’t always work out as well as I would have liked, but even when they seem extraneous, they are fun to read. For example, Lady Genevieve’s loquacious obliviousness to those she’s talking at; or Bella the cook’s long (and justified) character assassination of Degan Gaunt, a scene with plenty of natural details and asides.

I think the only thing that really stood out for me as a flaw was the way in which Arista’s growing magical prowess was utilized. There were a number of occasions, especially in Percepliquis, in which it felt like her magic became a bit of a crutch - a deus ex magica, if you will, that fortuitously got our heroes out of a number of particularly tricky situations. And the romances, as stated above, but that’s largely my own (cold, dead-inside) bias.

Sullivan’s prose throughout was tight and well-crafted, with only minor niggles here and there. The pacing was sometimes a little off – mostly in Percepliquis (at times it felt a little spun-out) – but this book had me reading until the wee hours of the morn on four occasions. I was swept up by the story, just as I was with the first books in the series.

If I’m honest, none of the sequels have matched the all-round, classic fun of The Crown Conspiracy. But, I recognize and appreciate the reason for the series changing: the story developed, rightly so, in a more serious direction. There’s still plenty of fun to be had throughout, plenty of humor sprinkled hither and thither across these two novels and also the previous ones. We and the overall Riyria story have just moved on since the earlier, more whimsical times.

This has been such a tricky review to write. I know I’ve singled out a couple of disappointments, but this book is, as a whole a great read. There are plenty of other things I wanted to bring up; chunks of dialogue or text that I thought were great examples of Sullivan’s writing, as well as the nuance and depth of the story. For example, Magnus the dwarf’s monologue on the plight of the dwarves and their betrayal by the humans; or Royce’s reflections on his youth and his painful discussion with Myron in Percepliquis following a particular tragedy at the end of Wintertide, an event that informs his character until the very end of the series. The revelations of the title, some of which I had thought already told, didn’t come close to the surprises in this omnibus – a couple of them I never saw coming, and was genuinely stunned. Other snips of text would have highlighted the understated wit Sullivan has woven into his novels.

This series presents an excellent story, filled with action and adventure aplenty. The characters are three-dimensional (with just a couple of exceptions), and it was a pleasure to follow them during their trials and victories. There are flaws, certainly, but they don’t detract from the simple fact that these books are great, fun reads. The Riyria Revelations don’t break the mold of or reinvent the fantasy genre, but the series does some wonderful things with its most popular elements and tropes. It is heroic epic fantasy. These books err more towards the grittier mores of contemporary fantasy, but couple it with a faithful adherence to more classic fantasy aesthetics (so yes, there is a happy ending, one I think could have been toned down, actually).

I would definitely recommend this series to anyone with an interest in fantasy.

***

Also on CR: Reviews of The Viscount and the Witch, Theft of Swords and Rise of Empire, an Interview with Michael Sullivan, and a Guest Post

Sullivan-RiyriaRevelationsOrbit

US Omnibus Editions

Sullivan-RiyriaRevelationsUK

UK Omnibus Editions

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