New fantasy that tries to feel like classic sword-and-sorcery with a dash of epicness thrown in, Theft of Swords reads like a labour of love. It is an uneven combination of tropes any half-dedicated fantasy reader will recognize. However, Michael J. Sullivan turns those tropes into a decent, entertaining story that showcases some of the best parts of this genre, in my opinion. This is not the type of novel that blows off one’s socks, but it may indeed cause them to slip down your feet somewhat.
This is an omnibus of the first two novels in the Riyria Revelations series, which Sullivan initially self-published. In these novels, we meet the duo Royce and Hadrian. One is a thief and assassin, the other a mercenary with your classic heart of gold. This, naturally, gets them into trouble. From the beginning we see that Riyria as a concept is near-legendary; Riyria the duo are far more prosaic. When Hadrian convinces Royce to take a last-minute job (oh no) to steal a sword for a noble (oh noooo) because otherwise he’s going to die in an unjust duel (oh nooooooo) the two inadvertently find themselves accused of regicide. What follows is about 600 pages of toppling kings, declaring heirs to long-dead empires, freeing wizards who may or may not be up to no good, and slaying ancient and deadly beasts. If this sounds like your cup of tea, then it will be.
Let’s get the criticisms out of the way first, shall we? As I alluded to in my introduction, this book is three fantasy tropes in a trenchcoat. Well, make that thirty tropes. You’ve got your patchwork of kingdoms, your pantheon of gods, your vaguely sexist monarchies, that sort of thing. There are elves and dwarves and goblins. The tone of the book lampshades these clichés, with some of the characters subtly winking at the camera like they know this has all been seen and done before; there is a sly awareness of genre here. This is perhaps most keen in the character of Esrahaddon, who is Gandalf if Gandalf were more crotchety and had a more tragic and human backstory.
Like most pastiches, Theft of Swords struggles to rise above its source material. If, like me, you are steeped in this genre, you will likely roll your eyes in places and find parts of this book just a bit too cheeky, campy, or cute for comfort. Nevertheless, I still liked it.
Sullivan’s willingness not to take the setting entirely seriously sold me. I like that while Royce and Hadrian seem to find themselves in the thick of significant world events (and honestly, figuring out the secrets to Royce’s and Hadrian’s identities isn’t hard) they remain humble about it. At one point, Royce knows they are in the middle of a vast plot to destabilize the known kingdoms and reinvigorate a long-dead empire, and his reaction is one of total political apathy. Which I love.
Moreover, most of the villains are not all that villainous. I like me a grey bad guy, and Sullivan takes the time to help us understand the motivations of our antagonists. They aren’t evil. They’re just trying to make the world a more orderly place, and that so happens to be a world that they are in charge of. Really, can you blame them when there are thieves going about stealing swords??
Don’t let the cover mislead you—don’t get me wrong, the cover art is gorgeous, but the aesthetic makes this book seem like a gritty Game of Thrones–type fantasy series. It is certainly not that. All in all, this is a romp. Don’t treat it too seriously and it won’t bite you back: it’s fun and frivolous, and if I get a chance I’ll dip my toes back into this world.