Michael J. Sullivan, best known for his Riyria novels, started a new series The Legends of the First Empire with book 1, Age of Myth. I enjoyed this first novel (reviewed here) and had high hopes for the sequel, Age of Swords. Unfortunately this second book was hard to read, glum, boring for the first two thirds before speeding into high gear for the last third. Had I not gotten it through NetGalley I’d have tossed it aside well before the half-way mark. (I had the same problem with the Riyria Revelations, thoroughly enjoyed book 1, then floundered about half way through book 2.)
Why is the first half of the book hard to read?
Little Character Development and Action
The characters are the same but we don’t see anything new with them. Persephone is still leading her people despite feeling like a fraud; Raithe is still hanging around but doesn’t quite know why. We don’t see these people doing anything except packing up to evacuate their old home. Sullivan doesn’t show us anything new about any of these people, no character development, no witty dialogue.
Mawyndule has a small role that is interesting at first. A Miralyith young lady plays with his ego and hormones to get Mawyndule to flirt a bit with a Miralyith-supremacy group that manipulates events for a coup attempt. Any reader can see what the young lady is doing but Mawyndule falls for it. This episode is important because it frames the reason why Lothian will decide to war against the Rhune.
I’m all for strong female leads in fantasy novels and Persephone is a great character. But Sullivan really went all out in The Age of Swords with smart ladies inventing clever solutions while the men stayed home and boasted and got drunk. It got a little tedious.
Technological Advancement, Or How to Invent Wheels, Writing and Archery in a Week
Rhune lacked the wheel, knew nothing of iron or even bronze, were unaware of writing and no one had bows and arrows.
Brin developed writing for her own use, a beautiful accomplishment. Somehow, a week later she was able to decipher tablets worth of texts that she didn’t write. Moreover, the author of these tablets was an ancient being, alien, not a Fhrey or a dwarf or a Rhune. I’m sorry. Literacy is magic, but not that magic. Look at how we still cannot decipher Linear B which ordinary humans wrote within the last 3500 years.
Roan developed wheels and bows and arrows the same month Brin developed writing. The real problem is that archery is tricky; you can learn the rudiments of sticking an arrow on a bow and shooting in some general direction but it is difficult to do well. I doubt anyone could first figure out the bow, then realize arrows need fletching to stabilize, then give to a friend who can master shooting in a few days. Not going to happen.
Rhune Society and the Fhrey Tribes
We learned a lot about the Rhune society in Age of Myth. It’s a typical tribal/family system with a chieftan (male) supported by his wife and his trusted lieutenant First Sword. Each tribal group has a mystic and a Keeper of the Ways, likely female, who keep the tribe centered on its heritage and past knowledge. The individual tribes vary in terms of how civilized they are, whether they use agriculture or rely on hunting, trade, wealth, so on.
The Fhrey tribes are mostly based on family except for the Miralyith who use magic. Knowing how societies work when one group has special powers that others lack, we can expect infighting between the Miralyith and the rest, and some does show its ugly head in Age of Myth and now in Age of Swords. I think Sullivan can do much more with this although he will need a careful hand to keep it interesting and not polemic.
Trilos, an older Fhrey (at least looks like a Fhrey) sits in front of the Door every day. Trilos has a suggestion for Imaly, the Fhrey Curator, to avoid tearing the Fhrey apart in a Miralyith vs. everyone else civil war: Blame the Rhunes. This could work despite having so many holes and such leaky logic that no one could seriously believe it. At best it gives Lothian an excuse to avoid a bloodbath at home and instead go kill some negligible folks.
The interesting question is why this mystery person does this. Does he simply want to avoid Fhrey vs. Fhrey war? Or does he want the Rhune to war against the Fhrey? Or something else?
The Age of Myth set up a detailed fantasy world using characters and its action-filled plot to tell a story and build the world. Age of Swords spent about 60% of itself re-setting up the same world, characters and plot. Sullivan could have avoided all this set up, edited out much of the first half, and had a tight, moving novel.
One star for the first two thirds and four stars for the finale. Let’s say 3 stars.
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