Sunday, 28 August 2011

Review: 'The Crown Conspiracy' by Michael J Sullivan

This is the first of a six-part series of connected stories set in the same world, but designed to be more or less stand-alone. The author has made an attempt to buck the trend towards gritty realism, so this is a more traditional kind of fantasy, without any graphic sex, violence or bad language. The books are aimed at adults, although suitable for young adults.

The lead characters are a pair of for-hire thieves, one a warrior (Hadrian), the other a more conventional thief (Royce). They work independently, specialising in difficult but urgent jobs. As the book opens, they steal a set of letters for a noble, and then double their profit by stealing them back for the original owner. But then they are set up: they are offered what appears to be a straightforward retrieval task, but become the prime suspects for murdering the king. The king's daughter helps them escape, on condition that they also spirit away her brother to safety.

There ensues a lively chase across the countryside, trying to protect the prince while avoiding getting spitted themselves, and along the way acquiring Myron, the last surviving monk from a burnt-out monastery and releasing Esrahaddon, a thousand-year-old wizard, from an enchanted captivity, and ending with a set-piece battle as the prince attempts to regain his castle.

The story is not overly complicated, and certainly not profound, but it is very entertaining. The avoidance of too much realism means that we never worry overmuch whether the lead characters will survive or not. No matter how difficult a scrape they find themselves in, they will dream up some clever escape plan, or help will miraculously arrive. This makes it feel like a children's book, despite the author's intentions. And there is no moralising angst: when confronted with a wizard so dangerous he has been magically locked away for a thousand years, and given the explicit instructions not to do anything he says, in no time flat they are helping him to escape without a second thought. Guys, don't you think this might not be such a great idea?

The characters are stereotypes - the warrior, the adolescent prince, the wizard, the good-hearted whore and so on - but that doesn't make them uninteresting, and hopefully future books will give them a less cardboard feel. The adventures are very enjoyable, and some of the problems the characters have to solve are intriguing - the magically hidden wizard's prison, and the collapsing tower stairs in particular. I enjoyed the book enough to try the second of the series. 3 stars. [First written March 2011]

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