Sullivan has all the ingredients for a great fantasy epic and stirs them well. He’s got the unwilling hero who ends up upsetting the very balance of the world, a strong woman who’ll not let the patriarchy or her own tragedy keep her from helping her people, mystics of many cloths and secrets, political intrigue from just about anyone elevated enough to be privy to it, and several characters whose aim is really anyone’s guess. These building blocks are saved from becoming their tropes with well written and engaging plotlines and with every character truly having an agenda. This world of magic and strife is held together fastidiously with well-thought out scenarios that weave chance and skill together in surprising ways. There’s always another level to what’s going on, and just when you’re coming to the end of the book, characters who’ve been mysteriously sidelined when their actions once had major impact suddenly reveal massive agendas that further the ongoing plot in what is to be a five-book series.
Sullivan states that he writes all of a series at once, allowing him to shape the overall story and not end up with chapters talking about clouds or grass or any of the other nonsense that bogs down otherwise enjoyable epics that end up dragging on for no reason other than to extend the really great stuff that we all jumped on to read in the first place. (Tolkein, Martin, and Jordan are all guilty of it, especially the last.) Although there’s a little bit of padding after one big reveal, where several characters have the reveal at different times that’s a touch monotonous, overall I enjoy the first step of this approach. There are several plotlines that can sit unattended for a bit that will play into the overall arc and allows Sullivan to play the slow game with the important stuff, being touched upon here and there with a tease for the long game. The final revelation in the book is well worth the wait to get there and sets up a myriad of possibilities of what could happen next. At first some of the characters feel incomplete, but as you read you realize that it’s just to set up these big “ah-ha” moments later on. There are still a lot of unanswered questions by the end and many possible false leads that I can’t but be excited for the series as a whole.
The writing itself is quite good. There’s a scene where an antagonist dies that affected me much more than I anticipated, and though it’s not a character per se, it resonates with the idea that simple things can become so much more dangerous when creatures who feel that they know better muck around with them. It’s written with such immediacy and intimacy that there’s no where to hide from it, even though we’ve been worried about a protagonist for long before that. It was horrendously vibrant and illustrates the care and detail that Sullivan gives to every part of his narrative.
With hints of Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, the visceral and traitorous nature of George R. R. Martin, and a firm grasp of how to fully utilize the genre, Michael J. Sullivan strides easily into a place I’d trust giving to any friend who loves high fantasy getting down into the dirt and playing. With characters who never fail to engage with each other and the reader, this is a world I’ll be happy to go back to again and again.
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