The Crown Tower is the first book in Michael J. Sullivan’s RIYRIA CHRONICLES series. This series starts before the existing novels, THE RIYRIA REVELATIONS, and it lets us see how Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn first meet.
Since I haven’t read any of Sullivan’s other books, in a way I was the perfect reader for this one. I didn’t have expectations. The Crown Tower is full of fast-paced sword-wielding fun from the first chapter. Sullivan’s breezy style moves the book along quickly. The characters are drawn well enough to hold the reader’s interest and make the conflicts believable. Royce and Hadrian, in particular, are so different that it is hard to see how they will ever be able to work together, which is exactly Sullivan’s point.
Hadrian Blackwater is a mercenary soldier, coming home after many years of fighting pointless battles in pointless wars. His father has died and he is on the way to meet an old family friend who bears a message from him. Practically as soon as he steps off the boat, Hadrian has to save a street-boy from a press-gang, and we see that he is both an amazing fighter and an amiable sort who really just wants to get along.
On a barge headed upriver, Hadrian is suddenly in the middle of a bloody mystery when everyone on the barge except for him is either dead or vanished. The murderer, he is sure, is the unfriendly dark-hooded man on the barge, the one the other passengers had warned him about. When he reports the murders, though, he and the sheriff find no trace of the barge or the bodies, or any report of a barge missing. Hadrian continues on to the university of Sheridan, where he meets his father’s friend, the mage Arcadius, who also introduces him to the dark-hooded man; Royce Melborn.
Royce moves with almost supernatural speed. He is acrobatically agile. He trusts no one, he kills without compunction and he doesn’t believe in friends. He is loyal to Arcadius because he owes him a debt. Arcadius is about to collect. He insists that Royce and Hadrian, together, steal a magical treatise from the Crown Tower, an impregnable fortress in a neighboring country.
In a state of mutual distrust, Hadrian and Royce set off. The multiple murders and the cover-up on the barge are explained to Hadrian’s satisfaction if not approval. The first attempt at the mission does not go well, as these two still haven’t learned to work together. Even while they are bickering, Sullivan demonstrates how Royce’s cynicism, based on experience, can be very useful, while Hadrian’s innate chivalry and good nature build up a bank of goodwill they are able to draw on later when they need to.
The book also follows Gwen DeLancy, a prostitute in the town of Medford. When a customer murders another girl and the owner of the brothel where she works does nothing, Gwen leaves and takes the other girls with her, forming her own brothel. Gwen, it turns out, has gifts of her own, and did not end up in Medford randomly. The way she is connected to Hadrian and Royce is interesting. While I’m disappointed that women can apparently only be barmaids, prostitutes or farmwives in Sullivan’s fantasy universe, I admire Gwen’s guts and smarts as she carves out her own territory in the male-dominated port town.
The book moves quickly, and the action sequences are lively. The best parts of the book are Gwen’s actions to come into her own, and the growing partnership between Royce and Hadrian. A battle scene at a farmhouse near the end is catch-your-breath exciting.
Wise-cracking, sword-swinging characters with just enough pathos to hold my sympathy; this book makes me want to go find the first in the RIYRIA REVELATIONS series and read it, to find out what Royce and Hadrian are doing years later. Mission accomplished, Mr. Sullivan. Keep up the good work.