The Riyria Revelations by Michael J. Sullivan (2011/2012)

February 12, 2012 at 10:34 pm (fantasy, negativity)

Two positive reviews in a row – okay, so they were both back in December and now it’s February,  never mind that – so it must be time for another pan.

An ominous way to start, eh?  Actually it’s not all bad – Sullivan has a good authorial voice, an excellent line in witty banter, engaging characters, and a bunch of interesting ideas.

The problem is, this trilogy of books needed better editing.  I’ve gathered that Sullivan is one of the handful of authors who’ve made the transition from self-published to published, which is great for him.  But Orbit Books is not the first publisher to pass through books that need more work.

What do I mean by “editing”?  I mean having somebody (and preferably multiple somebodies) look at the aspects of the book that don’t rely on that evasive and indefinable “way with words”:  pacing, structure, plot, and worldbuilding.

Actually, I’m mostly going to talk about the first book, Theft of Swords, because that’s the one I’ve read.  My husband read all three, and laments that so many trees have died to print them.  I couldn’t bring myself to read the second and third, even though I was somewhat interested in who the Heir of Novron really was, what the Church thought it was up to, and how the approaching civil war was going to work out.

The fundamental problem is that the further into Theft I read, the more I felt that I was reading an unreliable narrative.  In a book with an unreliable narrator, the reader realizes (sooner or later) that the putative speaker is not necessarily providing a true, complete, or accurate picture of events.  With an  unreliable narrative, the reader realizes that the author is withholding information that might make the novel’s events make sense.

An engaging style and characters can only do so much; a book also has to deliver things happening, with an order and level of impact that both makes sense and keeps the events moving forward in a way that satisfies the reader.  A really good narrative develops a sense of inevitability without seeming forced, and delivers the reader to a conclusion (even in a series book) that feels like milestones have been passed and the characters have reached an important new stage.

Theft doesn’t do that, even though it concludes with Important Revelations, the destruction by fire of a large building and most of the people in it, and a fight with a not!Dragon (yes, those last two are closely related).  It took too long to get there, wandering in and out of too many characters’ heads and down side plots until I was reading the book just because I wanted to know what happened in the end (and particularly exactly two characters), not because I was really enjoying it.

It’s hard to point to specific reasons for this perception of narrative unreliability, because the effect is cumulative.  First one thing happens, then another, and then another, and the reader is still left uncertain about where it’s all going.   It’s pretty clear, for example, that the Church of Novron holds the role of Evil in this book.  But why?  The apparent reasons were a mix of ideological politics, callous self-interest, and mindless resort to doctrine.  There was pretty obviously some underlying reason, but neither the protagonists nor the reader were allowed to know what it was.

Similarly, there was no explanation of why nobody was aware that – as was revealed late in the second half – humanity’s ancient enemy, the elves, were still there right across this here river, held in check only by an ancient treaty.  It’s not credible that the Church, top to bottom, really believed they’d never cross the river again.  Or maybe there was some reason, but it wasn’t being disclosed.

Basically, information crucial to understanding what was going on was being withheld from the reader for much, much too long.  It was so well-hidden that I didn’t even know what it was, except that it most likely had something to do with the Church.

In fact, according to my husband, it takes all the way until the very end of the third book for the ultimate reason for all of the religio-political deception and centuries of conniving and human misery to be explained.  That’s what I had begun to suspect would happen.   It’s very nearly the equivalent of the “and then I woke up” surprise ending.

And it is, frankly, a rookie authorial mistake: thinking that holding back the Big Secret to the very end is the way to keep the narrative tension going.  Not in semi-gritty epic fantasy, it’s not.  Knowing the truth and seeing if and how the characters would somehow manage to make use of it?  Now that would’ve been narrative tension.  Instead, both the protagonists and the reader are handicapped by having only the vaguest idea of what’s going on.  The story appears to have no structure, because its backbone is deliberately obscured.

I’ll probably give whatever Sullivan next produces a look, though.  While voice and the style can rarely (if ever) carry a book for me by themselves, if he can get a better grip on structure and all the rest, I bet he could really show me something worth reading.



  1. Paul (@princejvstin) said,

    Hi Kris.

    I’m a virtual acquaintance of the author and have followed his progression from quasi-self-published author (his first book was actually not self published but came out from a small press which folded, leaving him to self publish the others) to published authors.

    Recently, an excoriating and vicious review on Strange Horizons caused some flap in the SF reviewing blogosphere. The reviewer panned it, but crossed the line into ad hominem attacks.

    I haven’t read any of the books myself. From what I understand, there is a thinness to the worldbuilding that probably not to my taste. I’ve heard him talk about and reason out why it is as it is, but I like more meat on the bones that way.

    • diaryofatextaddict said,

      Yikes. I can be a little harsh, I know, but I try pretty hard not to get ad hominem. The book and the author are separate things. But on the other hand I don’t want to be so polite that the review gets soft and flabby, either.

      Also, Paul dear, please read this:

      – K

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