Fantasy Review Barn
The second part of the Riyria prequels. The first part, ‘The Crown Tower’, was such riotously good entertainment that I gave it five stars. This one... well, it starts badly. It’s nice finding out about Hilfrid, a minor character with an important role in the main Riyria series, but really, our introduction to him is a total cliché-a-thon. Hilfrid gets bullied by the local youths. Hilfrid can’t defend himself. Hilfrid is low-born. Hilfrid’s dad’s a drunk. Hilfrid is a bastard (oh, pur-lease, as if anyone cared about that in the middle ages; and for anyone who argues this is an alternative version of the middle ages, why impose certain modern values on it?). Then there’s our lovely princess, the thirteen year old Arista, already the wilfully spirited and rebellious young lady we’ll come to know and love later (or not, in my case). And, a credibility crisis; Arista is riding around the countryside in a purple silk gown, the silk imported all the way from exotic Calis and given to her as a birthday present. Really? Seriously?
But the second chapter is the short story (‘The Viscount and the Witch’) which the author made available some time back, here slotted into its rightful sequence in events, wherein Royce and Hadrian, everybody's favourite thieves, make their appearance, and from then on things look up. I'm still not much enamoured of the Hilfrid story, or the dull infighting between the nobles, but the rest of it is fun, although with a darker edge at times. Anyone who’s familiar with the author’s work knows what to expect - action all the way as our heroes face up to crisis after crisis. Mr Sullivan is a master of intricate plotting, and even though this is a relatively quick, easy read, there’s enough going on to keep the reader enthralled and the pages turning.
This book doesn't work quite as well as 'The Crown Tower'. It's tedious when the main point of tension is that a character has been beaten up. Sure, these are violent times, but it would be nice to have a little variety (fortunately, the events surrounding Rose are much more creative). There's a problem here, too, for those who've read the original Riyria series: much of what happens and the reasons for it are already known. This removes a great deal of the what-will-happen tension. With Hilfrid, for example, as soon as it's obvious who he is, we know exactly what the main crisis of the plot will be and how it will turn out. The political subplot holds no surprises either, although there's some nicely drawn irony. And - the biggest problem - the focus is frequently off the two main characters. Royce and Hadrian are the stars of the Riyria show, and the banter between them lights up the whole book, so it's a disappointment to find so little of the two of them, and that somewhat darker than might be expected.
I enjoyed this, on the whole. For über-fans, there’s a lot of fun in seeing Arista, Alric, Mauvin and Fanen as children, in seeing the whole royal family as they once were, and in seeing the roots of the later machinations against the throne. For newcomers - the book undoubtedly works as a stand-alone, but there’s a whole lot of subtext that will just whizz by, which is a pity. My real concern is that there are some ten more years to fill in before the start of events in the main series, and undoubtedly there will be pressure from fans for Mr Sullivan to sit down and write all those books. It would be so easy; the characters already exist, much of the plot already exists, the setting is there, so all he has to do is weave his unique brand of magic and rustle up more entertaining Riyria tales, and away you go. Lots of happy fans, and an income for life.
I hope he doesn’t do that. Much as I enjoy reading about Royce and Hadrian, I also enjoyed the author’s foray into sci-fi, ‘Hollow World’, a much edgier and more interesting work, if a little uneven. So I know his imagination is capable of writing about far more than a pair of rogues. So maybe another Royce/Hadrian episode every few years, and in between - something more challenging, please, Mr Sullivan. Four stars.