Friday, August 26, 2016

Okko the Cycle of Water By Hub

Okko the Cycle of Water
By Hub

Okko is a French graphic novel written and illustrated by Humbert Chabuel. Mr. Chabuel was born in Annecy in 1969 and educated in Lyons. Upon finishing his education he set forth for Paris to try his luck. Once there he worked on a number of projects, the most well known being a little science fiction film called Fifth Element (fun movie! Had the best guns!). He later decided to try his hand with comic books and would work on marketing and art for video games, comics and television shows. I haven't been able to find much about his comic work because I don't speak French. If there are any French speakers among my readers please feel free to add to my knowledge. Okko was published in France around 2007, the English translation was brought over by Archaia Entertainment owned by Mark Smylie (which some of you may remember as the writer of the Artesia series, review of series III coming soon!). Now that I covered all the dry logistical details that took way too damn long to look up let me get to the comic itself.

Okko is named after the leader of a group of Ronin Demon Hunters. The Empire of Pajan, which is a fantasy Not!Japan, has fallen apart into a set of violently feuding factions along clan lines using a new technology of Combat Bunraku, sets of large powerful armors controlled from within by puppeteers to battle each other. With the powers that be busy murdering each other by the wagon load, there's no one keeping the various demons, ghosts and monsters of this mythical land from running riot. Which means Okko is gonna clean up, both by getting rid of the various nasty denizens of the night and by getting paid to do it. Of course, a man has to have a crew to travel in safety and make sure he has all his bases covered. In Okko's case he has the giant masked Nubaro and Noshin the saki monk. Nubaro (who I suspect isn't entirely human) is always masked and seems to have more powerful senses. His main job is to provide combat power. Noshin plays go between for the group and the various kami that inhabit Pajan. By making sacrifices and cutting deals, he is able to convince the kami to provide favors and services that prove to be invaluable in their line of work. Everything from glowing homing fish to earthquakes is in Noshin's bag of tricks.

That said despite being the literal headliner Okko is not the main character of this story. No that honor goes to Tikku, the last son of a poor fishing family and narrator of the story. When a plague killed their parents, Tikku's sister sold herself to a Geisha house while Tikku vowed to find a way to defend his sister. Unfortunately for him, the world doesn't wait for you to be ready when you make promises like that. In this case a shipload of pirates shows up and kidnaps every girl in the Geisha house after a rip-roaring battle with Nubaro (who we can now confirm sleeps in his damn mask!). Tikku is forced to watch this happen helplessness to stop the one person he loves being taken away from him... again. This honestly speaks to how much Pajan society has simply fallen apart. I mean okay orphans selling themselves into slavery is a bad thing that goes without saying; sadly it’s something that happened in a lot of ancient societies. On the flip side, a pirate ship just showed up and kidnapped a bunch of people, murdered others, and burned the place down! When the reaction of the characters is to simply shrug instead of informing the authorities I'm left with the distinct impression that the authorities aren't really doing their jobs. Even during the worse parts of the Viking Age some local lord or knight would have at least come by!  Mr. Chabuel never directly states that things are breaking down mind you, but leaves a number of hints such as this to paint a picture of a society whose leaders are so wrapped up in fighting each other for power that they're destroying the very thing they're fighting over. I’m actually liking the subtlety here.  Anyway, back to the story. When Okko shows up in the morning more than a little put out that his buddies can't do something as simple as wait for him at a Geisha house for a couple days without ending up mixed up in something weird, Tikku is driven by desperation to make a deal with the demon hunter. If Okko will help him find and save his sister (or failing that avenge her death), Tikku will spend the rest of his life in service to him. Okko, who like any small business owner is always on the lookout for good cheap labor, accepts and thus begins the hunt.

The hunt will take them across the sea to one of the wickedest cities in the empire and beyond to half forgotten wilds. During this hunt, they will deal with men, monsters, and spirits; and Tikku will find himself progressing from a poor son of a fisherman to an appreciable monster hunter. Ready to learn how to scour the enemies of humanity from the earth. The Cycle of Water thus becomes a combination of origin story for Tikku, a Japanese style ghost story, and a good tale that takes you through the low urban and wild wastes of a civilization determined it seems to beat itself into a new dark age. The art is well done in a style different from most Anglo or Japanese comics but still nice to look at. The story is well done and dark in tone without dragging itself down into angst or being overwrought in horror. Instead Mr. Chabuel seems more than willing to let the events in the story speak for themselves without trying to force a response from the reader--which I appreciated.

That said the characterization of a number of characters is fairly weak. We don't get a lot from Okko, despite the series being named after him. Nor do we learn about Nubaro or Noshin beyond getting a view of what some of their talents and capabilities are. We learn a couple things about how Okko and Noshin view honor and their jobs but the story is honestly lean on looking at anyone but Tikku. I also have to give fair warning, this is an adult comic so there's blood, guts and smut all over the place. I definitely must recommend this be kept for the over 13 crowd at the very least. Still if you like ghost stories and enjoy a Japanese theme to your entertainment this is a pretty good book. As for my complaints on characterization, well there are more cycles to go so I'm willing to give Okko more time to see where it goes. Okko Cycle of Water by Hub gets a B and hope for the future.

Next week, we go pulp. With Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl.     

This Review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Millennium By Tom Holland

The Millennium
By Tom Holland

Once again I found myself reading a book by Tom Holland. Shadow of the Sword was a reader recommendation and Amazon suggested Millennium on the basis of my established reading-habits. I can see why the two books are paired as well. While Shadow of the Sword covers the end of the ancient world the creation of Islam and it's expansion into Iran and the Eastern Mediterranean, Millennium covers the creation of the world that replaced the Roman Empire in the West. Of course as many of you likely have guessed if we're talking about the west in the dark ages, then we're talking about Christianity. Like Shadow of the Sword, Holland opens with a thesis that is somewhat surprising (but not as likely to provoke controversy); the pivotal moment of western history was in the Italian Alps in 1077 AD when the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (yes, yes I know the joke, we're not doing it here) Henry II walked barefoot to the Pope's winter quarters to request the forgiveness of his sins, thus creating the split of spiritual and political authority that in many ways has characterized modern western civilization. That division has worked out pretty well for Christianity and for the west as a whole.  Say what you will, the Roman Catholic Church is still here and the Pope is still ministering from Rome, while the office of Caliph is part of the dust of history. But I digress. The conflict between the Pope and secular rulers and how that conflict mapped out how western society was going to work is a major thread of this book that ties a lot of it together.

Millennium covers a time period from the late 700s to the end of the 1st Crusade but really buckles down and focuses on a 200 year period before and after the first millennium (1000 AD), with the prior years really just brought in to provide context. It does however demonstrate the dramatic changes that can occur in some 300 odd years as Christianity goes from a religion under constant assault on all sides to a continent wide religion bound together within a single church under (theoretically at least) a single ruler. Mr. Holland takes us through the conversions of the Hungarians, Poles, Vikings and others. We watch the rise of Charlemagne's Empire and it's long slow death from the constant divisions between the sons of the Carolingian Kings. There was a struggle that lasted centuries to rebuild a reborn Roman Empire as Pagan Rome, once the oppressor of Christians, became the model for a universal Christian state. I found this haunting of western Christendom by Rome to be a fascinating part of the book. The Empire of Rome, once the greatest enemy of the faith had become the goal and hope that all Christians were striving for, the very model of what the Christian world should be. This tied into the ideas and folklore of the time, as a common belief came to be that Rome would rise up again and spread out to encompass the entire world and at that moment the last Roman Emperor would lay his crown down at Jerusalem to be taken up into heaven, and in doing so would unleash the Anti-Christ and begin the end of the world. This idea was taken so seriously not just by the peasantry but by the rulers themselves that the last Saxon Emperor Henry II vowed to go to pilgrimage to Jerusalem and lay down his crown on the very hill Jesus was crucified and thus bring about the end of days. He would die of disease before he could even leave Italy.

The social order was constantly on the verge of breaking down and often only just pulled back from the brink by heroic efforts and kludge-ridden compromises. Just going from this book, a reader can be forgiven for thinking that during the dark ages orderly and lawful societies were hard to find, fleeting, and frankly in a lot of ways they were. If it wasn’t the raids of pagan war bands (be they Wends, Vikings, Hungarians or worse) or Muslim pirates (who several times came close to raiding Rome itself), there were the constant battles between Christian warlords who brawled at levels ranging from the international to the embarrassingly local for land, money and power. This is was the unsightly origin of the Knighthood and feudalism. Men would build castles (often on someone else's land) not as a means of defense but as an offensive weapon and there didn't seem to be a difference between bandits and knights yet. There were times in France when if you left your home on a trip, you were virtually guaranteed to see more than a few dead bodies along the side of the road, and if you heard hoof prints that was a sign to flee for your life and hide.

We are also given a look at the consequences of that constant struggle to forge a stable society and social order. For example when all of society is looking like it's about to pull apart at the seams, it is no wonder that you start to think that this may just be the end of the world. Rather than make people lay down and die, the belief in the end of days often impelled them to action. Whether it be to go on pilgrimage to purify themselves or throwing themselves into the mass reform movement that swept the church and laid down the bedrock for the modern Church we know today. It also manifested itself in attempts to push back the chaos that seemed to be constantly attempting to pull down whatever pockets of peace and order remained in Europe. One example that I was completely unaware of until I read this book were what I call the Saxon Emperors. When the last of Charlemagne's descendants in Germany died, these were the men who were elected by the German Princes to carry on in his name. The Saxons would battle across the length and breadth of what would become Germany as well as battle it out with the still Pagan Hungarians and Prussians. These were the men who created the 1st Reich, and considered themselves the last Roman Emperors; and they could back this up by being crowned in Rome. I mentioned the last of the Emperors of this dynasty Henry II, I found myself actually feeling bad for the man as I read of his death and usually I don't approve of attempts to end the world.

This was not a time of a docile and quiet peasantry either but of men and women who despite their humble station were determined to make a mark on the world and leave behind something better. In France the Peace of God Movement driven mainly by the peasantry and Church as an attempt to get the early knights of the time to stop brawling with each other and setting the countryside on fire. This actually ended up being one of the main forces behind the feudal order we think of when we think of the middle ages, because peasants were prepared to trade their liberties and freedoms for peace, law, and order.  Even a severely unfair and oppressive law and order was better for them then the sheer chaos threatening to engulf their lives. In modern times, it is not chaos that most of us are worried about, it is to much order suffocating and crushing our lives that motivates the majority of us. I find myself thinking that this is the one of the biggest changes in our worldviews and beliefs compared to people a thousand years ago. Today we fret about the law becoming the boot planted on the face of humanity forever, back then they were terrified that there would never be law again. This doesn't make either of us wrong mind you. The countryside of France in the 10th and 11th centuries was a completely different time and place compared to the modern west. We can travel outside the bounds of our towns and cities without worrying that there are armed men lying in wait to murder and rob us. In the west we don't have rival bands of warriors battling it out for lordship and dominion. We don't worry that strange sails on the horizon may be Vikings or Muslim pirates come to burn our homes, loot our wealth, and carry off our loved ones to a life of slavery and violation. On the flip side they didn't have effective law enforcement or communication networks. Most of them didn't benefit from organized effective government even on the local scale. I find myself reading this book and thinking to myself, no matter what it's sins (and it's sins are legion let us not forget) the nation-state has provided a secure and more or less peaceful environment for an increasingly vast part of humanity on a scale that has never been realized before on Earth. Let us give thanks for that even while we work to improve on the nation-state's shortcomings.

While the book concentrates mostly on Christendom, there are some space spared for the Islamic kingdoms and empires of the time. Mostly the Spanish Muslim states, which were honestly wealthier, more sophisticated, and better learned than almost any Christian state of the time barring the Byzantine Empire itself. There have been some attempts to rewrite those states as multi-cultural success stories, you won't find that narrative in this book. While the accomplishments of those states are noted and rightly so, we should also remember that these states had it has a matter of law that Christians and Jews could not hold government office for most of their history and demanded that Christian and Jews pay special taxes that the Muslims enjoyed exemption from. This doesn't make them special pits of depravity mind you, the Christians to the north were engaged in brutal wars with the various pagan nations around them that nearly took on the character of race wars (for example the English king Ethelred in 1002 carried out a mass pogrom of Danes living in his Kingdom. A good number of them were Christians at this point). One of the Muslim states, Cordoba, tore itself apart in a series of ethnic conflicts as natives turned against the imported Berbers that their leaders had brought in to do the fighting for them. The Berbers response was a simple one: they slaughtered the natives (shocking I know the idea that when you try to kill a group of soldiers and their loved ones that their first response is going to be to kill you back but there you go). Some are likely to make hay of this comparing it to the modern refugee situation in Europe, I'm going to state that there's a difference between a bunch of people fleeing a war and a group of people you specifically invited in to fight a war for you. But I do think Cordoba does carry a warning on the dangers of giving one ethnic group special status over another and how that can come back to bite you badly.

The book ends with the end of the 1st Crusade and the horrifying massacre that took place when the Crusaders took Jerusalem. This serves to end the book on a contrast from the beginning. The European Christians at the end of the book have gone from a people huddled in the wreckage of the end of a civilization being preyed upon by other cultures to launching military expeditions into the very heartlands of other cultures to take and hold territory in the name of wealth, power, and God. Millennium in this sense shows us the long slow struggle to rebuild a shattered social order, to preserve and expand Christianity, and to map the very foundations of modern Western Civilization. While I was frustrated in Mr. Holland showing me things I had no idea about and then wandering off to talk about things I know plenty about (like the Battle of Hastings, for God sakes I'm part of the Anglo-sphere I bloody well know about the Battle of Hastings the English won't shut up about it!), that's a result of the sheer amount of space and time that the book has to cover. It's educational, it's entertaining, and unless you're a medieval scholar odds are you will find yourself learning things you were completely unaware of. While I'm hoping that Mr. Holland will try writing more focused books soon, I find myself giving Millennium by Tom Holland an A. The sheer value of a book like this which is well written, and well ordered (with a time line in the back! Love that!) doesn't let me do much else. Hand his books to anyone who tells you history is boring or anyone who doesn't know where to start on the time period they cover.

Next week, a graphic novel as I try to take it easy. I'm sure nothing called the cycle of water can be that harsh right?

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, August 12, 2016

Avempartha by Michael Sullivan

Avempartha by Michael Sullivan

Avempartha is a direct sequel of the Crown Conspiracy, taking place some months after the first novel. Our two troubleshooters have left the kingdom of Melengar, where they saved the crown prince from his own Uncle and (most importantly) lived to get to paid. Feeling they had business elsewhere they took their money and ran (also they needed to find the guy who got them into this mess and explain why that was a bad idea). Once again the television influence on Mr. Sullivan is very apparent with the first chapter functioning more as a teaser than anything else. I find myself wondering if maybe Mr. Sullivan missed his calling and should have been writing episodes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer or something. We are swiftly reintroduced to the main characters, Royce and Hadrian and learn a new tidbit about them. We learn that Royce was once an assassin for the thieves guild he belonged to and that experience didn't go well for him. It's after learning this that we get throw into the story itself with the character of Thrace.

Thrace is a farmer's daughter from the back edge of nowhere. When a monster starts killing her neighbors and family members she walks alone and unguarded to the city our boys are in and just starts walking up to people and asking where to find them. She's naive and innocent and sweet and...that's it. I'm not really fond of characters like Thrace, not because she's a nice girl, I think there's room in fiction for people who are just good people, but the ‘Aw Gosh The City is so BIIIGGGG’ makes me groan. This is especially irksome because we have to go through Thrace being unrelentingly sweet and naive for 2/3rds of the book. Being a good or nice person doesn't mean being an idiot or unobservant, nor does it mean not having a bit of an edge to you. The nicest guys I know also are the last people you want to piss off. That said I was okay with her being ignorant, she is a farm girl from the very edge of civilization after all. I just wish I saw that there was more in her head then fluff and puff before the final chapter.

Which leads me to her surviving family Theron: a crusty old man who as seen all his dreams disappear into blood and pain. He had pinned his hopes on his son becoming a tradesmen after sacrificing everything to drag him and his wife out to the very edge of the known world so they could have their own land and what happens? Some thing from the night attacks and kills everyone, his wife, his son, his grandson, his daughter in law. Everyone except Thrace. I found Theron the most interesting character in the story because here's a guy grappling with very real loss and pain and doing it in a very self-destructive but believable way. He believes there's nothing left of his hopes and dreams and everything he ever wanted has been taken away so he's lashing out at the few people left who give a damn about him and pinning everything on just being able to kill the thing that killed his family. I buy that, I get it. That said I feel we spent a little too much time with Theron; while his character is believable and human, it's not like there's a lot going on with him either.

On the flip side we have Princess Arista Essendon, sister of the crown prince that our boys protected from a severe case of dead. As a returning character she has a bit more space to work with and a good part of this book is given over to her as she struggle to figure out how she's going to fit into her brother's government. Her brother--trying to help out in this--makes her an ambassador to foreign lands. That attempt to help just gets her pulled into more intrigue as she learns the role of the church in her family’s trouble as well as the role of her old teacher in magic (I'll come back to this). She ends up being pulled into attending a monster hunt while unearthing a conspiracy by the church that is literally a thousand years old, and trying to decide if she still wants to learn about magic. On one hand, she's intensely intelligent and curious and magic offers her a road to secrets undreamed of. On the other hand, she was almost burnt as a witch and made a fall guy for her brother's murder in the last book so she's feeling a bit mage shy. The suggestion that the man who taught her magic in the first place was using her as a stalking horse so he could escape his prison doesn't help. I also feel a little frustrated with Arista as a character. Basically... she's a woman who is not allowed to exercise her gifts and talents to their full extent because of her gender. Which (don't get me wrong) is awful, your gender should not be an obstacle in reaching your full potential. There’re enough problems and distractions that will stop you from reaching that full potential that society doesn't need to toss up such barriers. That said her story is one I've read hundreds if not more times in fantasy and science fiction. If you're going to pick up this storyline, you should really try to do something with it besides walk along the well worn path trod by thousands of writers before you. It's not that Sullivan is especially bad at this, it's just that he isn't interesting either and doesn't really seem to have anything to say on the matter that we couldn't figure out ourselves.

Enough of that, let me talk about the Church. There are two gods worshiped by humanity Maribor, third son of the creator and maker of humanity and Novron his son. Novron was the one who united humanity and led them to war against the elves. In doing so he forged a unified empire and carved out a living space for humanity enforced by a treaty. Generations later, the emperor, a direct descendant of Novron, was killed and the empire fell apart. Since then the church of Novron has in the main supplanted the church of Maribor and become the main faith of humanity. The church schemes to remake the empire with an emperor under their control. To that end they have arranged a monster hunt. That monster that Thrace hired our daring duo to kill? It is a magical elf construct, a weapon of war. The church believes they've figured out a way to kill that thing which will allow them to crown their chosen emperor of humanity. The Church of Novron is of course a villainous Catholic rip off and for that, I'm going to voice a complaint. For some reason fantasy writers seem to be under the impression that there is a requirement to pattern their fantasy religion after the Catholics. Let me assure all aspiring and practicing writers: this is not the case. You may now go forth and find other models now. Seriously, it's becoming a sign of laziness people! I understand that there is no single other church as powerful or as long lasting as the Catholics but come on! At least look at the Eastern Orthodox churches or the Hindu Temples or something! I'm also rolling my eyes at making an entire institution evil, when it's main job is to administer to the spiritual well being of it's people. In the last book I was willing to buy a corrupt/evil archbishop;  I could even buy that a group of powerful men are working to subvert a church from within. But everyone down to the village priest is shown to be corrupt, venal, and interested in their own comfort over anything else. Look, as the son of a pastor, if you're interested in comfort and wealth over anything else there are really better options for you out there, even in the medieval world. I mean why would anyone maintain faith in a church like this? Work with me Mr. Sullivan!

Then there's the wizard Esrahaddon, who claims to be 900 years old, to know who exactly murdered the last Emperor and his family, and has shown up at this little village at the end of the world. Not to deal with their monster problem but he's going to have to get what he wants. Luckily for the village he's the one guy on the planet who knows what this thing actually is and how to kill it, because he's run into this before; nine hundred years ago before the empire fell. Esrahaddon is another returning character, he taught Arista magic in a gambit to escape his prison that actually worked. He's also running around trying to find the right heir to the empire so he can resurrect the empire himself before the church mucks it up. To do that he has to break into the ancient elvish fortress that the monster lairs in, avoid being eaten and cast a complex magical ritual... with no hands. So you know, just another day at the office. His primary job in this book is mostly to explain things to Royce and sometimes other characters. Mainly about how awesome the empire was and how everything sucks now and that things are getting really dangerous because the elves have likely built their numbers back up for another war against humanity. While to humanity a 2000 year old grudge seems rather silly, to the elves what happened 2000 years ago might as well been last Tuesday. So Esrahaddon has to find the rightful Emperor before the elves pick up on how weak and divided humanity has become. This honestly jars my suspension of disbelief. The human realms have been divided and fighting each other for hundreds of year to the point that they lost the secret of indoor plumbing (seriously how devoted are you to kicking the shit out of each other that you lose the secret of plumbing? You'd think at some point people would start declaring plumbers untouchable to maintain the luxury of not shitting in an open field right?) and the elves just... didn't notice? I mean... really? Considering there are elves living in human lands you think some of would have popped over to tell their cousins right? I'm just not buying this.

I continue to state firmly that Mr. Sullivan is no J.R.R Tolkien. He is clearly trying to build a world with a deep history (or at least the feeling of a deep history) but frankly he ain't doing so well. The story itself is serviceable (it's basically everyone shows up to kill the monster and the unlikeliest person does it, now what?) but he doesn't do anything new or interesting with the story. The characters remain characters that you've met before and will met again. Hell the shocking revelations about our main characters here were so heavily foreshadowed that I was sure of it before the halfway part of the first book. Look foreshadowing is a good thing, but you want to measure your foreshadowing by the teaspoon, not the shovel. The dialogue is still good but is bogged down as everyone feels the need to explain the world, which is honestly kind of clumsy. Still, I would hand this book to someone who hasn't read a lot of fantasy and was feeling queasy at the idea of going full out high fantasy. If you've read a lot of fantasy though, this is kinda Campbell's chicken soup. It's okay if you like chicken soup but it's not anything really ground-breaking or world-shaking. I find myself having to give Avempartha by Michael Sullivan a C. Maybe if I come back to his next book I'll find something better.

Next week, we're heading back to nonfiction, as we discuss The Millennium

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Crown Conspiracy by Micheal J Sullivan

The Crown Conspiracy by Micheal J Sullivan

           Let's be honest, I am not a modest man. Modest people don't start review series where everyone can see them shouting out which books are good and which are crap. You need a certain, call it “healthy respect" for your own judgment before you can do something like that, even if your audience is measured in the dozens (that's not a complaint, I appreciate each and everyone of you who reads this). Why do I start with this?So you understand where this is coming from when I tell you that I found out about Mr. Sullivan when Amazon and a Barnes and Noble employee told me that was the next Tolkien; my reaction was “No! I’ll tell you who the next Tolkien is, thank you!” So yeah let me be blunt, the knives are out now (not that I ever put them away but details!).

             Mr. Sullivan, born in 1961 in Wisconsin and started writing at a very young age when he found a typewriter in his best friend's basement. He would dabble in the art on and off for decades while raising a family with his wife. Frankly the interview where he outlined this was incredibly interesting because if nothing else it shows how much the internet has changed things. Mr. Sullivan talks about mailing (through post!) his stories to friends for comments and working on things via typewriter. The internet has been a bane in some ways; we have floods of sub par fan fiction (we all start out writing doggerel, my advantage is I wrote it in 1995 when the internet wasn't really a huge thing yet) and thanks to the internet we have 50 Shades of Grey. On the flip side we also have a massive expansion of the market and feedback that you can get without being published. Mr. Sullivan would not have reached the market without online publishing, a good number of the writers on this review would not have made it without the internet. I would have never gotten to read really amazing works without the internet (I think one of the best fantasy writers of my generation is an unpublished Canadian who lives in British Columbia), hell this review series wouldn't exist. The same happened here because Mr. Sullivan was rejected over a 100 times and had just about given up. At this point Mr. Sullivan was mostly treating his writing as a hobby until his youngest daughter (who is dyslexic) came along. He started writing to give her something she would actually enjoy and she demanded that he turn it into a real book. He decided to self publish it on the internet and it took off like a rocket. Eventually Orbit made a deal to publish the books for mass printing.

              Which brings us to the Crown Conspiracy, the first of Mr. Sullivan's works to be released to the public. The Crown Conspiracy gives us the beginning of a series of major adventurers had by a pair of thieves for hire. The secretive Royce Melborn and the rather honest (for a thief) Hadrian Blackwater. The relationship is established pretty quickly in the story, Hadrian suggests a nice thing they could do (like not murdering a band of bandits who try to rob them with faulty gear) and Royce gripes about the trouble that it will cause and then does it anyways. Hadrian serves as a the moral compass and heart of the pair as well as the muscle, being an incredible fighter who carries three swords for some damn reason (speaking as Marine, I feel if you lose more than two weapons in a fight you're either in the wrong fight or the wrong profession, but I digress). Royce is the drive, the stealth and the guy who does all the lock picking. To be fair he's pretty good in a fight all on his own and has absorbed one of the more important lessons on fighting for a living: a fair fight is for suckers. We are introduced to them carrying out a daring theft of incriminating letters on behalf of a noblewoman so she can avoid being forced into a marriage she doesn't care for. I'm right away struck by the similarities to a television show or a movie; you open with your heroes doing something daring that isn't very related to the main plot to establish how awesome and cool they are and set some of the facts of the world. It's done pretty well, if in a rather traditional manner with no real surprises.

            The facts about the world are honestly more interesting. We learn that the world is divided into kingdoms, theocracies, and republics that were set up in a dark age after an glorious empire that had ruled all of humanity fell. Today there are three major factions. The first are the Nationalists; mostly composed of up-and-coming commoners who want to live in a By God Republic. The next are the Imperialists who want to re-establish the empire of old reuniting all of humanity under a single throne, mostly backed by the most powerful church in human lands. The last are Monarchists who really just want things to stay as they are with the Monarchs on top for the most part. It's the struggles between these three factions that drive a lot of the plotting and intrigue at the upper levels of society. Intrigue that our heroes honestly couldn't care less about. What they do is commit crimes mostly for nobles on other nobles for pay. What they want to do is do their job well, escape, and live to get paid. But of course they are going to be drawn into it anyway. This happens when they take the wrong job and end up framed for a crime they didn't commit.

                  They find themselves pulled into a battle for the throne of their home nation and having to deal with a grumpy Crown Prince, a high spirited and independent Princess and a cabal of rebellious nobles (and friends) looking to stick someone else on the throne. They're alone, low on resources and being hunted by most of the royal army but they'll have to defeat the plotters, keep the crown prince alive in spite of himself and most importantly of all, live to get paid. Along the way they find themselves learning facts they rather not know and meeting the strangest of people. Like an imprisoned wizard who states he's over 900 years old and might actually be that old, and a monk named Myron who has never left his monastery but has a fantastic memory. I actually liked Myron although he didn't serve much of a purpose in this book, beyond bringing in some comedy (I did get a chuckle over him mooning over horses which he's never seen before, and upon seeing his first woman ever turning to Hadrian and declaring woman to be even more beautiful than horses). The violence is honestly somewhat indistinct. Mr. Sullivan is clearly not interested in giving us in-depth descriptions of bloodshed. Which is odd given how much violence there is in the book. Instead where he shines is in dialogue and in exploring his characters motivations. The dialogue is snappy and fun injecting a bit of light heartedness into what would otherwise be a dark story about betrayal, family feuding, and plots that look to overturn entire nations.

                 The influence of T.V shows in the plot, with the pacing of the plot feeling like it was written for a twelve episode season. We have characters enter scene, problem or information is presented, characters work to resolve problem or flee from it, or learn the information and react. It also shows in the way that the characters are treated. We learn a lot about our supporting cast. For example, Alric our grumpy crown prince who wants to discover who murdered his father and why; the aforementioned Myron and others. However revelations about the main characters are doled out slowly and grudgingly. The problem here is that I already know what half of these revelations are before they are revealed. Hadrian and Royce are fairly well written and not without depth but there is really nothing new and exciting here. We have the mercenary fighter who wants to do the right thing and look out for the little guy and is hiding secrets based on his amazing fighting abilities. Royce is the super sneaky cynic thief can't bring himself to believe in human decency because he's been burned too many times. A lot of the secrets are somewhat telegraphed. That doesn't mean the story is bad, just that there are no surprises in it. There are a few attempts at leading you on a false turn but their hooks don't really set in with me. In short I found things predictable. I think part of it is I've been reading fantasy since I was roughly nine years old and well...there are almost 70 reviews in just this series covering what I've read in just the last two years. I've been told that most people don't read half of that (to be fair I watch a lot less T.V than the average person). That said if you've not read a lot of fantasy this is a great book to start with! It's got relative depth and is not a Tolkien knock off (no dark lords, no mystic chosen ones, just a pair of thieves trying to do a job and not be utter bastards in the process) and it isn't so sunk with world building that you find yourself somewhat intimidated.

              That's not to say that there isn't any world building here but Mr. Sullivan wisely avoids the doom of many a young writer by measuring it out with a teaspoon instead of trowel. There are hints and clues that are carefully placed throughout the story to make you realize that this is an old world with a lot of history and many things have happened to lead up to that story. The story also doesn't dwell on this over much so if you're the type who doesn't care about world building then this won't bog down for you. Magic clearly exists as do elves and dwarves but they are rarely seen in this story and the magic is subtle for the most part. You will see no fireballs here, but you will see rituals to peer into the darkness to find out secrets. So basically with a well-written--if fairly standard--story with engaging characters that you've likely seen before, it makes a good book to hand to someone who wants to see if they might like fantasy.

             I did enjoy the book but I'll be blunt. Mr. Sullivan is no J.R.R. Tolkien, or at least he's not convincing me with this story that he is. That said, I may be judging him by reading his Hobbit instead of his Fellowship of the Rings. Luckily the book is sold in an Omnibus with it's sequel, so that's what we'll be looking at next week. The story itself stands up rather well on it's own though. Because of this I'm rating the Crown Conspiracy by Michael Sullivan a solid B-. There's not a lot of innovation here but there is solid craft work with fun characters and a good story that saves it from being just average. Although I am going to have to talk to people about what it takes to be the next Tolkien... Well, see you next time.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen