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to read really amazing works without the internet (I think one of the best fantasy writers of my generation is an unpublished Canadian who lives in British Columbia), hell this review series wouldn't exist.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