Friday, February 12, 2010

[Review] 'The Crown Conspiracy' by Michael J. Sullivan

Title: The Crown Conspiracy
Writer: Michael J. Sullivan
Pages: 296
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Standalone/Series: First in The Riyria Revelations
Publisher: Ridan Publishing

There's no ancient evil to defeat, no orphan destined for greatness, just two guys in the wrong place at the wrong time...Royce Melborn, a skilled thief, and his mercenary partner, Hadrian Blackwater make a profitable living carrying out dangerous assignments for conspiring nobles until they become the unwitting scapegoats in a plot to murder the king. Sentenced to death, they have only one way out...and so begins this epic tale of treachery and adventure, sword fighting and magic, myth and legend.

‘The Crown Conspiracy’ has been in the review bloggers’ mouths for quite some time and it comes highly recommended from people, who have a sharpened sense for quality and spot gold, when they see it. I have to chime in the choir and sing some praise of my own. ‘The Crown Conspiracy’ distinguishes itself from the flock with a self-contained plot and major threads wrapped in the end of the story. Just shy from 300 pages, it offers a quick reading experience. All untypical traits for epic fantasy, which is more or less known for mammoth volumes as well as epic story arcs, secondary plots and cast of innumerous characters. ‘The Crown Conspiracy’ relies on a fast pace, dynamic situations, a tight, well groomed story and a limited number of character POVs. These choices eliminate pacing issues and confusion that may arise from abundance of characters and secondary plots. Simplicity here is a virtue.

However, being modest and restrained does not translate to a flat and underdeveloped book. On the contrary, ‘The Crown Conspiracy’ exemplifies a multidimensional and a well-crafted novel. I particularly enjoyed the secondary world of Elan, which is so Earth-like and yet so different from our own. As I stated earlier in my post about my first impressions, I loved the parallel between the Novronian Empire and the Roman Empire, but not in any recognizable historic sense. There is a loss of culture and degradation of the collective memory as secrets, knowledge and techniques fade to nothing in the troubled warring times, where the remnants of the empire fight each other to establish sovereign kingdoms. Magic, the Art, as a collective symbol of the era is also forgotten and shunned. What was once thriving now lays in decay. Again, not uncommon for this genre, but Sullivan builds his world with conviction and through his characters’ and narrative it transforms into an actual destination in the reader’s mind. When that transpires, I say, the author has done his job well.

On to the story itself, then. As stated in the title, there’s a conspiracy. The king of Melegar has been murdered and nobody has an idea, who the culprit is. My congratulations go to Sullivan for stretching the mystery as far as possible and keep me guessing for good, before he let the cat out of the bag himself. Sullivan provided several dastardly constructed red herrings and I alternated between princess Arista and her uncle Percy Braga. Could I trust the cultural stereotype that condemns all magic practinioners as vile and scheming characters, disguised as innocents, and accuse Arista? Or is the devoted and loyal Uncle Percy Braga ruled by greed and lust for power, thus deserving my pointing finger? Whatever my own suspcisons were the actual purpose behind this assassination is much more thrilling and complicated, which is the seed, the readers will see grow in the following installments.

Last, but not least I will discuss characterization, which paired with the solid worldbuilding made this book a page turner. Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn are the mercenary duo to entertain you through this epic journey through Melegar and they do a splendid job at that as well. Hadrian is the good-hearted part in the team, while Royce is the designated sullen and brooding character. Both have mysterious pasts, but the author does not rush to reveal them just yet, since this book is more about Arista and Alric. The duo’s dynamics are handled with a careful hand, provide solid entertainment and it’s impossible not to become attached to both. It is a safe bet that there is an epic bromance to be found here that can be achieved only between fleshed out characters. There is much about Hadrian and Royce that keeps the reader wanting more. On several instances they have made noble gestures, which then have been explained with ulterior motives, thus staying true to their outlaw nature. This is the reason I believe that the characterization is top notch. The characters’ justification behind each action. Fifty pages in, and you will learn that not a single action by the key players is done without a clear concept and purpose.

Now, you probably believe that there is nothing wrong with this novel. I wish it was so, but as with all things man made, there are a few faults here and there, which in this case are based on my own personal preferences. I believe it clever to use Myron, the bookworm monk, as a device to fill in necessary chunks of information regarding the world, the religion and the history of the lands, but his help has been a bit too convenient. It felt to me at times [not all the time, mind you] that his sole purpose in the novel was to help speed the quest and offer opportunities, when a dead end pops up. Thankfully, his personal tragedy and background prevent him from being a cardboard copy and a device. I also did not like the spoilt crowned prince grow from pampered to a man, especially one fit to rule the kingdom. However, this is a trope I personally detest and no matter how well done [it has been formidably done here] I never take to it. Apart from these minor issues is nothing left to be pricky about. It is a bloody good book.

Verdict: [B+] ‘The Crown Conspiracy’ is different, which will certainly attract the long term fans, while at the same time, this is a great introductory novel for those, who wish to taste epic fantasy, but the usual hefty volumes discourage them. A light-spirited and exciting debut. I can only recommend this novel.

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