Michael J Sullivan launched himself successfully from the realm of part-time, self-published novelist, to full-time, successful commercial novelist in a relatively short amount of time. His Riyria Revelations series – a 6 book epic, which was turned into 3 omnibus volumes by Orbit – has been incredibly well received, and his protagonists Royce and Hadrian have found themselves in the ranks of the most beloved duos in fantasy. I personally enjoyed the original series quite a bit, especially the ending. Based on the success of the series, as well as demand from fans, he began writing a prequel series, the Riyria Chronicles, which give background to how Royce and Hadrian met, some of their adventures prior to the original trilogy, and a heaping pile of fleshed-out references made in the Revelations series.
A couple years back, Mike (look at me, getting all familiar here) successfully launched and completed a Kickstarter campaign for his sci-fi novel Hollow World (review here). At the time, I thought this was a great idea – it allowed him to produce and print a story in a unique way, get it out quicker than he would have normally, and gave his diehard fans a bit more of a unique chance to get a piece of the action. Personally, I loved it – for something like $35, I got a very respectable package, including a signed novel, my name printed in the novel, bookmarks, signed posters, and some other items. It was a great bargain for a fan and collector, and the whole process worked incredibly well.
Springboarding off of that success, Michael opted to go a similar route with The Death of Dulgath. Despite the first two books in the series being published by Orbit, the publication of his forthcoming epic fantasy series meant that putting out a new Royce and Hadrian novel would be pushed back for a year or more, unless he opted to self-publish it, as he had in his early days. Cue a similar, albeit MUCH larger Kickstarter campaign for the new series, including a whole slew of add-on goodies and the like, and the third installment of Riyria Chronicles made it to the market in style.
The Death Of Dulgath continues where The Rose And The Thorn left off, with Royce and Hadrian working together as Riyria, mercenaries/thieves/hired hands. In this particular novel, they’re contracted to travel to a small corner of their world, for the assassination of a noblewoman from one of the oldest noble families in Avryn. Or, more specifically, to help prevent an assassination, by providing counsel to the guards and handlers as to how they WOULD go about assassinating her.
Upon arrival, they’re thrown into a city in turmoil – a large clash between the religions of the area, and everyone is tense due to the suspected assassination of their noble leader; on top of that, Lady Dulgath herself is an eccentric and bizarre character. They immediately find themselves maligned by a group of locals, after saving a local church leader from being tarred and feathered publicly as a product of the locals’ beliefs. This, in turn, has some grave consequences.
As Royce and Hadrian attempt to complete the mission they are hired for, they end up caught in a large web of deceit and corruption, have their lives threatened on a handful of occasions, and find themselves framed and on the run from the local authorities. Or, in other news, all in a day’s work for them. Along the way, a colorful and deep cast of side characters are introduced, including some faces from Royce’s past, who pop back up at the most inopportune time for them.
The novel itself is, frankly, exactly what we’ve come to know from Riyria novels – somewhat complicated plots that the duo have to unravel, intense action scenes that showcase the strengths and weaknesses of the pair, interpersonal relationship conflicts between Royce, Hadrian, and the people around them. There are, however, some glaring differences between this novel and the previous two in the Riyria Chronicles series.
The first, and biggest, difference being that this novel contains a MASSIVE spoiler for the Riyria Revelations trilogy. The kind of spoiler that completely takes the ‘oomph’ out of one of the main storylines in the entire series. Michael has been pretty easygoing about the ‘suggested reading order’ of the series. However, I personally felt that new readers to his series should start with the Riyria Chronicles prequels first, as they set up the characters, give background, and are a lot of fun. Additionally, The Crown Conspiracy (the first half of the ‘Theft of Swords’ omnibus on the Orbit side) was a bit of a…rough book – the writing was a bit dodgy due to being early on in Sullivan’s writing career, and Michael was still growing into his characters and series. The writing as the Revelations series goes on improves with each book, and I felt that reading the prequel books first put the reader in the right mindset for the series, and made the writing quality of the first book a bit more of a moot point, as the focus would be on the story and characters.
However, that plan of attack is completely tossed out by Death of Dulgath, as it all but ensures that you must read the Riyria Revelations trilogy first, unless you want it to be spoiled by the revelation (sorry) in this novel. On top of that, the issue at hand was fairly subtly handled in the Revelations series, however was very straightforward in this novel – there was no mystery, no drama about it; the reader was just kind of presented with the information and left to do with it as they chose. Those of us who read the Revelations series were not surprised by this at all, however the impact would be lesser even to a new reader, as without the backstory in Revelations, there is very little background as to why this entire event is actually a big deal in the first place.
That said, this is hardly a crippling issue, or something that hurts the book. It’s fine, it’s an important piece of this particular novel, and I do not feel that Sullivan handled it poorly. I felt that it probably should not have been written into the book at all, for the sake of continuity and versatility, but if it was to be in the story, he handled it about as well as it could be.
Sullivan handled many parts of this particular story very well – Royce and Hadrian’s interactions in this novel were quite interesting, still in the ‘feeling out’ process of knowing each other a little bit, and some more background was revealed about the pair of them. It also featured Royce and Hadrian in some of their weakest and most vulnerable states at any time in the series as a whole – both physically and emotionally. Both had their internal working stripped bare at times, exposing them, leaving them vulnerable and weak, and forcing them to overcome those lapses in strength. Physically, they encountered a battering – physical beatings, poisoning, incarceration, the works. So while we know they escaped from the adventures unscathed (part of the downside of writing prequels), there were still plenty of tense moments, and nervous interactions that left you feeling as though the heroes of our story were truly human, flawed, able to be exposed.
The writing in the books is what we’ve come to expect from later Sullivan – crisp and without excess, incredibly approachable for people of all reading levels, not lacking in sophistication but also not wowing you with the prose and structure. Sullivan makes his living as a storyteller, one with very easy-to-read works that appeal to a large audience, and he certainly has that part of things down. It works with Royce and Hadrian, and he is able to drop lore bombs, have impactful scenes, intense battles, and plot twists and turns, but without encumbering the reader.
The one downside I had to The Death of Dulgath, which I did not have in his previous works, was predictability. While his books have always been approachable and fairly easy to digest, they were never short on twists and turns, and some of his novels had jaw-dropping moments (Percepliquis/Heir of Novron, looking at you, buddy). Unfortunately, I personally found The Death of Dulgath to be his most predictable work – I am fully self-aware that, as a reader, I am not always the most intelligent or active person when it comes to deciphering plot twists, diagnosing the story elements, or using my skill in soothsaying to predict upcoming events or endings. However, in this book I found myself easily predicting upcoming events, including the ‘main’ story twists. They were slightly more foreshadowed, and I think most readers knew exactly what was coming when it came to the main plot points. There were still plenty of “oh snap” moments, wherein something unexpected happened, but the overarching story was fairly predictable.
That being said, it was still incredibly enjoyable. Royce and Hadrian are like a familiar, comfy sweatshirt – the kind that isn’t necessarily your most fashionable piece of clothing, yet you always find yourself reaching for it when you’re getting dressed, and you’re always glad that you pulled it on. The more bits and pieces we get about them, the ancillary side characters, the world and politics, the more we WANT to know about them. They’re a fascinating duo, their dynamic grows with each new book featuring them, and although there’s only a finite number of stories that we can have with them in it due to the timeline of things, I feel as though I speak for all Sullivan fans when I say that we still want more.
The Death of Dulgath wasn’t my favorite of the series (that goes to The Rose and the Thorn in Chronicles, and Percepliquis in Revelations), and it was probably the most divisive of Michael’s books in this setting. However, that’s far from a condemning statement – like saying that chocolate ice cream isn’t my favorite, even though chocolate ice cream is still pretty amazing. It holds up well, and I found myself smiling contentedly while reading, laughing at the jokes, sitting on the edge of my seat during the action sequences. Royce’s character is developed significantly in this book, and we’re treated to a very well-handled (albeit high schoolesque) romantic situation with him that was a lot of fun, and actually fit really well within the story being told.
The Kickstarter campaign was another rousing success, the story itself was worth the wait and was a lot of fun, and I still think this is one of the penultimate series for fans of more casual fantasy – easily approachable, yet rich with content and history, and never short on drama. Sullivan has more than earned his spot amongst the fantasy elite.