Age of Swords is the second in Michael J. Sullivan’s “The Legends of the First Empire” series. It has a historical connection to his popular Riyria series, taking place in the same world, but seemingly several thousand years before. Here are the women and men who shaped the world that the other series is embedded in – and they’re up to their own adventures.
The world of Age of Swords is one of conflict, and also one of hope. The conflict – well, that exists between the species of men, and the Fhrey. The latter are long lived, and relatively technologically advanced. They see humanity as somewhere between pets and vermin. At the centre of Fhrey society are the Mirialith, sorcerers beyond compare. They can shatter bones with a thought, rip the earth asunder, or, less often, produce a rather nice bouquet of flowers. The other Fhrey respect the Miriliath, even as they fear them. It’s great to see some intra-cultural tension, as the Mirilaith begin thinking of themselves as the natural leaders of the Fhrey, or even as gods – as far above their brethren as above the rising tide of humanity. It’s interesting to explore how this long-lived people have set out to govern themselves, to prevent violence amongst each other. Their institutions are sometimes familiar – a council hall of governing consensus, overseen by an absolute ruler whose final word is law evokes the Roman senate, for example. At other times, they’re distinct and plausible – the border posts that some of the Fhrey guard prevent humanity from entering their lands; but those manning the walls are not allowed to return to the centre of their civilisation. Predictably, this breeds mistrust and resentment.
The Fhrey now contemplate a march to war, humans having done the unthinkable and actually killed several Fhrey. Theirs is a society in turmoil, social assumptions upended. That said, they’re dealing with a human society which is less than prepared for them.
In the society of humanity, there are echoes of our own bronze age. Groupings are familial, tribal, organised by clan. Bronze weapons are rare, the height of the science of war is the warrior charge. The gods are numerous, tied to places and clans. Though humanity thrives and outnumbers the Fhrey, they know better than to act against a people who are effectively immortal, well fed, and tactically trained. Still, like the Fhrey, this is a society on the cusp of something else. There’s a potential for consolidation, for groups coming together as part of a greater whole, under pressure from externalities.
In both cases, the societies constructed are clearly constructed on a sound footing. They’re plausible, carefully constructed, and presents a rich background for the characters to act within.
The first book was something of an ensemble piece, and that hasn’t changed here. There’s some standouts though. Suri, the young seeress, whose view of reality seems to be about forty-five degrees from everyone else, is one example. She begins with a certain naivety, but it’s tied to the ability to look outside or around limitations – and occasionally to set things on fire with her mind. As the text progresses though, she grows into something more, tying into her friends, being moulded externally as the plot rumbles on, but drawing her own personality together as she reacts to the trials and tribulations she endures.
Persephone is similar in this way – beginning as a part-time leader of one clan, already preparing to face the wrath of the Fhrey, Persephone is stubborn, loyal, clever, and reluctantly willing to make hard choices. It’s the latter which change her here, or at the least help to accentuate her dominant characteristics.
Raife, the God Killer is always an interesting read. He’s often angry, with an upbringing in hardship which his copmapnions may not quite understand. This predicates him away from people – so his gradual integration into the group is fascinating to watch. He remains as prickly as ever, but seems willing, perhaps, to accept others into his life.
There’s a swathe more here, from the occasionally malevolent adolescent Fhrey prince, to the mysterious dwarf-ish types, through the collective leaders of the different human clans. Sometimes they felt like they had a basket of traits to hand to drive the plot, but typically this wasn’t the case; watching the conflicted Fhrey work through the implications of his actions, or the clan heads bicker over which of them should be in charge, the sense is of complex, flawed people in a demanding world. This is certainly true of the major actors, whose lives carry a convincing depth and a true complexity of sorrows and joys. Feeling their trials and tribulations as reality, no matter which ‘side’ of the narrative they were on, is indicative of the skilful characterisation and emotional weight that has been used here.
The plot – well, I won’t spoil it. I will say that there are several wonderful kinetic duels, the narrative evoking heart-in-mouth tension. There’s a swathe of epic magic as well, lightning from the sky being the very least of it. Politics is at play, if you like that sort of thin g- both humanity and the Fhrey attempting to organise themselves in a tumultuous time. There’s betrayal and love, and some electric dialogue which alternately tore a hole of sorrows into my gut, and left me shaking with laughter. There’s battles, and costs, triumphs and consequences. In summary, it’s a fast-paced, compelling read. So pick it up, if you enjoyed Age of Myth, and give it a try – you won’t regret it.