Michael J. Sullivan's The Crown Conspiracy (available as part of the first Riyria Revelations omnibus, Theft of Swords) is a welcome throw-back to the heyday of quest-driven adventure fantasy. I thoroughly enjoyed it, so much so that I have already started in on Avempartha, despite my usual habit of allowing a little distance between books in a series.
It's a story that reminds me, at different times and in different ways, of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar books, Glen Cook's Black Company series, and Fred Saberhagen's Book of Swords, with hints of something grander to come, akin to Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga or Terry Brooks' first Sword of Shannara trilogy. It's fun, well-paced, wryly humorous, and altogether exciting, with a determined focus on the heroes. Unlike so much epic fantasy of the past decade, this is neither a sprawling soap opera with swords, nor a massive multi-national, multi-generational epic with lists of characters longer than most short stories.
This is fantasy. This is adventure. This is the genre stripped down and taken back to its roots.
Royce and Hadrian are likable protagonists from page one, and by the time they've double-crossed their client by re-stealing from him what they stole for him, you know you're in for a wild ride. These are adventure loving, risk taking men who are so good at what they do, they're allowed to exist outside the more generic thieves' guild. More than that, these are thieves with a conscience, a history, and a secret we're only allowed to flirt with . . . men who can't resist the chance to do a good deed, even if it nearly kills them.
While the plot is largely straightforward, there are enough twists and turns to keep you on your toes, although Sullivan keeps them simple and neat. The dialogue is crisp, with equal parts witty banter and honest debate, and the narrative is just as clean, more flowing alongside the reader than seeming to carry you along. As for the action, it's clever and well-orchestrated, without being overdone - it's a story that firmly remembers it's a simple fantasy adventure, not a big-budget action flick with wires, pulleys, and CGI trickery.
I have to admit, for a series I'd read so many good things about, I was prepared to be disappointed. I went into this first book almost looking for an excuse not to like it, not to hop on the bandwagon, but I've come out of it more than eager to jump on and enjoy the ride!