[Rereading before the final part of the series, and revising my opinion. Short version: still an enjoyable romp, still three stars. Long version is below.]
This is the first of a six-part series of connected stories set in the same world, but designed to be more or less stand-alone. The author has made an attempt to buck the trend towards gritty realism, so this is a more traditional kind of fantasy, without any graphic sex, violence or bad language. The books are aimed at adults, although suitable for young adults.
The lead characters are a pair of for-hire thieves, one a warrior (Hadrian), the other a more conventional thief (Royce). They work independently, specialising in difficult but urgent jobs. As the book opens, they steal a set of letters for a noble, and then double their profit by stealing them back for the original owner. But then they are set up: they are offered what appears to be a straightforward retrieval task, but become the prime suspects for murdering the king. The king's daughter helps them escape, on condition that they also spirit away her brother to safety.
There ensues a lively chase across the countryside, trying to protect the prince while avoiding getting spitted themselves, and along the way acquiring Myron, the last surviving monk from a burnt-out monastery and releasing Esrahaddon, a thousand-year-old wizard, from an enchanted captivity, and ending with a set-piece battle as the prince attempts to regain his castle.
The story is not overly complicated, and certainly not profound, but it is very entertaining. The avoidance of too much realism means that we never worry overmuch whether the lead characters will survive or not. No matter how difficult a scrape they find themselves in, they will dream up some clever escape plan, or help will miraculously arrive. This makes it feel like a children's book, despite the author's intentions. And there is no moralising angst: when confronted with a wizard so dangerous he has been magically locked away for a thousand years, and given the explicit instructions not to do anything he says, in no time flat they are helping him to escape without a second thought. Guys, don't you think this might not be such a great idea?
The characters are stereotypes - the warrior, the adolescent prince, the wizard, the good-hearted whore and so on - but that doesn't make them uninteresting, and hopefully future books will give them a less cardboard feel. The adventures are very enjoyable, and some of the problems the characters have to solve are intriguing - the magically hidden wizard's prison, and the collapsing tower stairs in particular. I enjoyed the book enough to try the second of the series.
Edited after reread:
With the final part of the six-book series in sight, I thought it would be fun to reread the earlier parts to see how they feel looking back with hindsight. I gave this first book three stars the first time round, as an enjoyable but fairly lightweight story, with some plot issues and not much depth to the characters. And although I got more out of it this time, seeing connections to later parts of the story, my opinion hasn't changed much. I liked the same things, and saw the same flaws, and it still feels like a three star book to me.
This time, after almost a year of reading other fantasy, I'm more impressed by the writing. One reviewer said that Sullivan doesn't use a single word that isn't essential, and compared to some authors this is true. Fantasy writers do tend to be verbose. It's a very spare, concise style of writing that puts the focus on the plot rather than endlessly describing characters or scenery. This keeps the action bubbling along, but I would have liked a little more detail sometimes, especially more emotion in the characters. However, I discovered quite a bit of nicely done description in a few places, which I obviously missed the first time round.
The plot still feels a little flaky, a bit of a caper, with no real sense of true danger (and so not much tension). You always feel confident that our heroes will find a way out of whatever pickle they've got themselves into. There were a couple of times when a twist was explained to us (the business of stealing the letters, for example, and later the fact that the abbey is burnt out); it would have been more dramatic, perhaps, to see these things happening rather than be told about it.
What really lets the book down, I think, is the world-building, which feels quite amateurish. There's a pseudo-medieval bit with peasants and castles, divided up into kingdoms, there's an elvish bit, and (later) a dwarvish bit and a tribal bit, and around the edges are 'wilderlands' and 'the lost lands' and 'the goblin sea', and some history of an empire and a god-king, none of which quite rings true. Maybe it's the dull names - Avryn, and Warric, and Trent, and Chadwick, and Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn. I suppose it's better than Fgthyzztia Ick'Maglorthen and the like, which look as if the cat walked across the keyboard, but still... And then there's Lake Windermere. I've been to Lake Windermere, and very pleasant it is too, but it drops me right out of any suspension of disbelief when a real place name pops up in fantasy. The medieval parts are just too clichéd to be interesting, but I liked the more original places - the enchanted wizard prison, for instance.
The characters never totally convinced me. Hadrian and Royce have a nice line in dry humour, but I felt we never really got under their skin (although I know this improves somewhat in the later books). Myron is by far the most interesting character in this book. His talents put him, I would guess, somewhere in the autism/Aspergers spectrum, and he was the only one to display real emotion, as he prepared to leave the abbey, his home, indeed his whole world, since the age of four. Although it's hard to believe he could be that innocent - surely he would have seen horses at the abbey at some stage? Arista and Alric are very one-dimensional, and Esrahaddon is no more than a place-holder (again, this improves in later books). As for Esrahaddon's archaic language, I didn't like it the first time round and I still don't. Maybe a Chaucerian scholar could have added some authenticity? Or perhaps Myron could have translated through a Latin-equivalent? But at least the author considered the likelihood of the language changing in 900 years, and I've heard that this has been tidied up for the new release, so no big deal.
In the end, it's still an enjoyable romp. Hadrian and Royce are still likeable, fun characters with a nice line in dry humour. The plot is still pretty silly. I enjoyed spotting all the references to future events, and as a series it's very well thought-out, but as a stand-alone it's somewhat flawed, so I'll stick with three stars.
[First read March 2011]