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