Theft of Swords is a collection of the first two novels in Michael Sullivan’s ‘Riyria’ series. It follows a pair of thieves for hire, as they become increasingly entangled in magic, mayhem and politics – at least partially by accident.
The centre of both text are the duo of Hadrian and Royce, thieves for hire. We’re largely given insight into their characters by their actions, rather than any deep internal monologue, but those actions are enough, alongside some weapons-grade banter, to establish them as protagonists. Royce is the grimmer, more cynical one, more prone to selfishness (or pragmatism, depending upon ones point of view), with a few surprising chinks in what’s obviously a hefty set of emotional armour. He also sneaks a bit, indulges in the occasional bit of lockpicking, and has a fine set of one-liners for every occasion; those occasions may involve being in disguise, climbing up a tower wall, dodging the occasional lethal mythical creature, or…well, you get the idea.
Hadrian, in contrast, is the more seemingly straightforward – a star swordsman, his initial pragmatic demeanour quickly falls away to reveal a heart of gold. Or at least silver. He’s the one standing toe to toe with the bad guys, chivvying his taciturn partner into action – and often finding increasingly unconvincing reasons why they should do the right thing.
Sullivan manages to provide great chemistry in the duo; reading their scenes sometimes felt like a cross between Lankhmar and Die Hard. They’re aided by an excellent supporting cast of characters - again, largely defined by deeds and dialogue over internal struggles, but all eminently readable. There’s a few villains, especially in the first volume of the omnibus, that could have done with a bit more fleshing out – but some of that occurred in the second volume, and hopefully will continue through the series.
The world, much like the characters, is well served by Sullivan’s tight descriptive prose. There’s no baroque flowering of excessive detail here, but a level of focused detail which keeps the reader both in the world and in the narrative moment. As the text progresses, the world begins to feel fleshed out, as institutions and characters are brought in, and given the chance to provide some exposition in amongst their scheming and/or heroics. I was particularly impressed by the depiction of a church populated by true believers, whose political actions actually form a key part of their theology.
The plot of both volumes is, without spoilers, quite well done. It’s cleverly plotted, and each event sets up others later in the narrative. It’s a proper fantasy romp – a semi-heroic quest, largely entered into accidentally, with swordfights, magical monstrosities, a mysterious wizard, dead kings, scheming murderers…there’s a lot going on. It’s to Sullivan’s credit that he makes the whole thing flow together perfectly, leaving the reader turning the pages, desperate to see what happens next.
Overall then, this is a fantasy adventure in the classic mode. It’s smart, funny, and sure of itself. There’s some nice red herrings shot through the text, and some interesting questions raised, but the broader form is simultaneously comfortably familiar and a breath of fresh air. It’s a charming story with a lot of heart, and I’d say it’s worth a read – though now I have to catch up on the rest of the series!