The Riyria Chronicles by Michael J. Sullivan takes us back in time to bring us the story of how our two heroes Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater came together in their Riyria partnership. If you are unfamiliar with the Riyria Revelations series, it is still possible to listen in to The Crown Tower, the first of the Chronicles, without having any knowledge of the Revelations.
That being said, long-term listeners of Sullivan’s audiobooks will probably enjoy this new angle to the story of Royce and Hadrian more. There are certain (minor) plot points here that can spoil some (minor) parts of the story for listeners who tune in to the prequel first, but the author has also done a good job of keeping The Crown Tower a standalone story.
The Crown Tower audiobook starts 12 years before the events of the Riyria Revelations. Our heroes meet for the first time because of a common quest which brings them together despite their animosity. They have a heist to carry out at the eponymous tower. The tower is an apparently impregnable fortress which holds a treasure that our assassin and mercenary must bring back. Another character Gwen has an important part to play in this. She also has her own story, where she does not like her work conditions as a prostitute and struggles to open a brothel on her own terms.
The plot starts slow and only kicks off when Hadrian meets Royce and the main thread is a little familiar. But there are some twists and turns that keeps the listener’s interest sustained throughout the narrative.
As you would expect, the story centers on Hadria and Royce and is also told from their point of views. We meet Hadrian and Royce when they are young and still raw around the edges. Hadrian is youthful, optimistic and naïve, looking for his place in the world, and Royce is ruthless and ready to stick a knife into you. It is no surprise that they start off on the wrong foot and spend quite a bit of the story hating each other. They take a little time (the first quarter) to settle into the familiar bantering that made them so popular with listeners of the Riyria Revelations audiobooks, but their characters are fleshed out with consistency by Sullivan, giving us a greater understanding of their motivations in the later books.
Those who have been intrigued by Gwen, the enigmatic prostitute and brothel owner, in the past will be pleased to find her playing a significant role in The Crown Tower. We learn her history and how she came to play a role in the duo’s partnership. She is the major female character in the story and also brings an element of magic to the narrative. She can be smart and resourceful. Her point of view is a pleasant change from Hadrian’s at times, but I did find myself tuning out a little when her parts dragged out too long.
There are a few other minor characters that liven up the narrative, such as Tom the Feather, and the minor story of Rose and Dixon, and they make particularly fun characters to listen to.
The world of the story is not particularly complex enough to introduce new and profound themes. Though it is epic fantasy of a sort, its ‘epic’ nature is not characterized by grand themes of heroism, dark and light, fate and choice, actions and their far-reaching consequences. The narrative is character driven and lacks large-scale political machinations. But there is a focus on trust, which must be earned by both Hadrian and Royce, and the coming together of our heroes in adversity to form a stronger team.
Another theme that is common in Sullivan’s works is that of a strong woman trying to assert her freedom in a patriarchal world. Gwen’s profession is fraught with hardships, and her efforts to rise above it make an interesting angle.
As always, Tim Gerard Reynolds does a good job of voicing the characters. I particularly enjoyed his voices for the minor characters such as Staind and Pickles. The narrator has a knack for making the minor characters stand out, and I imagine The Crown Tower audiobook certainly offers a different experience on that count when compared to reading the book.
What Works in The Crown Tower
The somewhat familiar plot is not the highlight of the story, the burgeoning relationship between our two heroes (or is it anti-heroes?) is. The two are polar opposites when it comes to personality. Hadrian is a kind of soft mercenary who is a good fighter but reluctant to use his swords. Royce is a self-centered and mistrustful assassin who only keeps from killing Hadrian because of a promise made to Arcadius. It is interesting to see how the two find out that individually they are too weak to carry out their quest, but together, they are a formidable pair. We find ourselves rooting for their partnership and it is very satisfying how that pans out.
As I have mentioned before, the story has a slow start, but once it picks up, the pace of the narrative is as zippy as the rest of the books in the Riyria Revelations series. And there are still a few surprises and moments fraught with tension that keeps you on the edge of your seat as you listen. This is true both for someone who is already familiar with the characters and for someone who is new to the series. So, the story is a great complement to the Riyria Revelations and also stands on its own.
The conclusion leaves plenty of scope for continuations. It is a strong and satisfying ending, belying the slow start, so stick through the beginning and you won’t be disappointed. The world in which the story is set may not have ground-breaking new elements that readers of fantasy haven’t seen already, but Sullivan is a great storyteller and that is what keeps the listeners hooked to the story.