The Crown Conspiracy by Michael J. Sullivan
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
The Crown Conspiracy is perfect for readers who enjoy epic fantasy, but in a smaller package. When you have the time and energy for a 500 or more page epic, why not? But if you want a good historical fantasy tale that is shorter but doesn't lack what you enjoy in the genre, then it's great to find one. This is a good choice if you have encountered that dilemma. When I developed a renewed taste for fantasy as an adult reader, I looked at different fantasy novels that many established fans of the genre recommended, and this one continually came up. I've had this on my to read pile for years, and fortunately, my library had a copy. I had a ball reading it.
A good writer can use an economy of words and bring a character to life. Most of my favorite authors are ones who excel at this. I would say Sullivan acquitted himself very well in this area. The portrayal of characters in this novel gave me what I need but also left some mystery. Some characters more than others. He reveals most of their personalities through what they do and say, instead of in long descriptions of them or telling their histories. That's okay with me. I like a story that keeps moving.
As far as characters that stood out the most:
I definitely want to see more of Esrahraddon. But then wizards have that effect on you. The more mysterious the better. Besides Hadrian and Royce, the lead characters, I have to say my favorite was Myron. His sense of wonder about the world (which makes sense considering he was in a monastery for over 30 years and most of his life at the age of 36). He has some of the funniest lines in the book. He's utterly captivated by horses, for instance. He's never seen one before, and he thinks they are brilliant. The same goes for women. You can't help but laugh at him, but it's in a gentle way, because he's really a sweet guy.
Other characters grow on you, such as Prince Alric. He's pretty much a pompous jerk initially. But he comes into his own. You realize that he's not different from Myron. Merely a person shaped by his experiences. He comes to realize that being King is not just luxury and privilege, but also a lot of responsibility and discomfort and self-sacrifice. He learns that the hard way. He also learns who he can trust, and that is not always who he might initially think.
Hadrian and Royce are two of those amiable rogues that make fantasy so fun. They are thieves and proud. But they have honor, in their own way. I like how they end up saving a kingdom, the unlikely heroes of this piece. Although they might be criminals, they are never the bad guys in this book. I liked that distinction. Sometimes you can be on the wrong side of the law and not be a bad person (I am not advocating breaking the law, mind you). Sometimes that law isn’t necessarily fair across the board or makes it hard for you to do what’s right. Or maybe you’re just a criminal who is otherwise a decent person. I don’t see why it can’t happen, at least in theory.
I liked that the characters’ motives aren’t necessarily crystal clear initially. You have to read to see the story develop (sounds like a no-brainer) and what choices the characters make that will define them ultimately, or at least elucidate who they are. There were some nice twists and turns along the way that I wasn't expecting. While some of the secondary characters are less developed, that’s only to be expected, unless you want a 1000 page book, and I definitely don’t.
The World of this Novel and Magic:
What could have been complex world-building instead is simply explained, which is a relief. I like books that have good world-building, but I don’t like things so complicated that I can’t figure out what’s going on or I am drawn out of the story and get bored. The political themes are a constant undercurrent of the story as there is a struggle between the imperialists, nationalists, and royalists, and the main characters get caught up in this struggle on a personal level. The religious foundations and spiritual beliefs of these countries also play a role in the storyline, since the governments are more or less based on the founding/creating gods worshiped. When Myron explained all this to Royce and Hadrian, I admit I was captivated. It made sense, and at the same time, it was rather sophisticated how the ancient past related to the present of the world at the time of this book. Albeit subtle in rendering, magic is part and parcel of this world, used as another instrument to wield for everyday uses. I especially loved Esrahaddon's prison. It was unnerving and yet fascinating that magic allowed such an invention. And the fact that they would go to so much trouble just to keep one person locked up made me long for more information about this unique individual. I wish that Astria had been able to demonstrate more magical ability. She only got to do a couple of simple magical things, and with her role being so important to the story, it would have been nice to see more of her. Perhaps Sullivan didn’t want magic to be a fix all in this book. With that as a presumption, I can understand why he kept magic low key in the story overall.
Overall, I was quite satisfied with this story. I think it was a very good fantasy adventure tale. While I have read some epic fantasy stories that have more wow factor, I think this is one that sneaks in on you and delivers in a way that can’t be questioned. It harkens back to the older adventure tales, such as Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser by Fitz Leiber or even Elric of Melnibone’ by Michael Moorcock. Shorter stories that are great reads in their own way even if they don’t seem as majestic as Tolkien. From reading this work, I would say that Sullivan definitely has a love of this genre, and he created a story that treats it with respect.
I definitely want to follow this series, and it’s gratifying that these books were written in such a way that they are self-contained despite being related to each other. I would recommend The Crown Conspiracy to fantasy readers, and those who want to give the genre a try.
Overall rating: 4.5/5.0 stars.
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