Telling origin/prequel stories well after characters/heroes have been established can be a tricky thing. Just ask George Lucas or Paul Jenkins (writer of Origin, the origin story of the Marvel character Wolverine). With the success of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revaltions (Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire, and Heirof Novron, readers/fans wanted to read more of Royce and Hadrian, their friends and any further adventures. The problem with that is the six novels (three omnibus editions) which comprise the Riyria Revelations were constructed by Sullivan to tell a complete story so the only place he could go for stories (without cheating those pleased with the inherit completeness in the author’s design of the Revelations) was the beginning. That seems enough preamble to the review of the actual content between the pages of The Crown Tower.
Hadrian Blackwater is a former soldier and arena fighter wandering the world, looking for purpose. Hadrian is on his way to meet with his father’s old acquaintance at Sheridan University, when a young boy known only as Pickles encourages Hadrian to board a boat. Along the way, several people are killed on the boat, almost including Hadrian himself. When Hadrian finally arrives at the university he discovers his father father’s old acquaintance is Arcadius, the Professor of Lore at Sheridan University. What’s more surprising is that the mysterious hooded man whom he suspected of killing the people on his boat is waiting in Arcadius’s office. The man, of course, is Royce Melborn whom Hadrian’s father’s friend pair up and assign a mission of stealth – to steal a book from the Crown Tower.
Running parallel to Hadrian’s storyline is that of Gwen DeLancy, the “hooker with aheart of gold.” [WARNING: Clicking that link will send you to the rabbit hole known as TVTropes] As much as The Crown Tower is an origin of sorts for the Riyria (Hadrian more so than Royce), Sullivan devotes nearly as much narrative to Gwen’s story. Here, Sullivan gave the novel its truest villains in the drunk, violent customer Stane and Gwen’s boss, Raynor Grue. When Stane kills a prostitute in The Hideous Head Tavern and Alehouse (Grue’s establishment) and gets away with it, Gwen decides she needs to leave Grue’s employ to start her own brothel, Medford House.
The banter between Royce and Hadrian takes a while to get going, Royce being very much a man of few words. The two men have no trust for each other, barely any respect for each other, and a great deal of disdain. Sullivan convinced me that these guys could work well together through the course of the novel. As I indicated in my review of Paul S. Kemp’s A Discourse in Steel, sword and sorcery in many ways is like the buddy-cop equivalent to the fantasy genre and Sullivan’s Riyria duo is very much a modern descendant to Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. As one might infer, readers who are enjoying Paul Kemp’s fine Tales of Egil & Nix would likely enjoy this novel (as well as Sullivan’s six book Riyria Revelations).
One thing that comes across is that in this world, for these characters at the time this story takes place, there is much more of a threat to women than men. If nothing else, Gwen is given two despicable male characters to provide her with a significant threat. The threats to Hadrian, and to a lesser degree Royce, are much more disposable. Gwen’s journey, at least these initial steps, is beset with more challenges than her male counterparts; she has to deal with a lot more obstacles to surpass. I’m still trying to figure out if this is a problem with the novel, but as the kids say, it definitely seems like “a thing.” Another way of reading the villain issue is to view Royce as an antagonist for Hadrian. The two nearly come to blows and both debate whether they should leave each other for dead over the course of the narrative.
The Crown Tower is an engaging, quickly paced sword and sorcery adventure that will satisfy readers of Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series and will definitely appeal to new readers. This is the first of what Michael has dubbed The Riyria Chronicles and has a very episodic feel to, I mean that in a good way. There’s a clear ending, but you as a reader know more is to come in The Rose and the Thorn, a novel I’ll be reading soon.
© 2013 Rob H. Bedford
Volume 1 of The Riyra Chronicles
Orbit Books / August 2013 / 416 Pages
Trade Paperback ISBN 978-0-3162-437-1-1
eArc & Review copy courtesy of the publisher