The Rose and the Thorn audiobook picks up a year after the events at the Crown Tower. Our heroes, Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, have grown consistently and their partnership is less antagonistic as they have gotten better acquainted with each other. And like all of Michael J. Sullivan’s audiobooks, this one too adds more to the story arc of the two as we know them, while holding its own as a complete narrative.
The Rose and the Thorn starts with Royce and Hadrian returning to Medford, where they met Gwen the prostitute turned brothel madam (The Rose and the Thorn is the name of Gwen’s tavern) in The Crown Tower. Royce has been unable to get her out of his mind ever since she saved the duo from certain death, but Gwen will not see them in an attempt to protect them. She is the victim of abuse by a powerful noble and wants to prevent Royce from heading into revenge in his hot-headed way. But of course if this were a deterrent for the two thieves they wouldn’t be so popular, would they?
Besides the main story arc, we also find other storylines involving Princess Arista and the Medford royal family, the Viscount Albert Winslow, the Pickerings and others. Reuben Hilfred, a character who did not get much audio time in the Riyria Revelations, also gets his own significant storyline here and Sullivan manages to weave together these individual tales into an intertwining whole that is complete in itself, but also adds to what we already know about some of the characters from the other stories in the two series.
As mentioned earlier, when we come to The Rose and the Thorn we find that both Royce and Hadrian have each grown in the year or two that they have been together. Hadrian is not so naïve anymore, though he still has a good heart. Royce is still always a breath away from sticking a knife in someone to avenge an insult, but he has learned that problems may be solved in other ways. The well-known camaraderie between the two that many may have missed in the previous book is slow to develop here, but that is certainly the realistic way to go about it. The differences between the two are too great for them to slip into instant comfort for our sake.
With each book I find that Sullivan has an interesting way of developing our main characters while giving other characters that we have come across before, more space to tell their stories. So it is a pleasure to find Princess Arista and her brother Aldric as well as the Pickerings as kids. Hillfred, who becomes Arista’s bodyguard later, also gets his own limelight as a young boy about to become a palace guard. Other characters that we meet in the audiobook include Percy Braga (Lord Chancellor of Melengar), the grandfatherly Bishop Saldur (who runs Mares Cathedral) and the Pickerings (Count Pickering is a master swordsman).
Again, like the other narratives in the two series, there are no profound, epic themes in The Rose and the Thorn. Sullivan’s books do not have the scope for exploring the themes of crime and punishment, religion, corruption, social hierarchy etc. that makes the Game of Thrones, for instance. While the characters are certainly not one-dimensional, they are not nearly as morally ambiguous as some epic fantasy series.
Having said that there is some amount of politics played out in the world of Medford and Melengar! Revenge is also a trope that has tailed Royce for some time, and this is explored full-on here. Without giving too much away, it’s enough to say that Royce has never been darker in the two audiobooks that introduce him to us for the first time.
Tim G. Reynolds continues to narrate for Sullivan and delivers yet another enjoyable performance. There are no particular characters that particularly stand out in this version, but there were some moments that stood out for me, such as the meeting of our unlikely duo with the level-headed Viscount where his reaction to the two reveals to us what the relationship between the two is really like.
What Makes The Rose and the Thorn Work?
While The Rose and the Thorn lacks some suspense if you are already familiar with the Revelations series, it still manages to hold the listener’s interest with its filling in of the history of Melengar and Medford plus the back stories of familiar characters. The plot can be somewhat familiar, but the lively characters, far more realistic dialogue than some of the other Riyria audiobooks, and the fast-pace makes up for it.
It is also interesting that some of the characters that we meet here are known to turn evil in the Riyria Revelations (I won’t name them in order to not spoil surprises) but they are given quite realistic portrayals within the relatively narrow scope of the narrative here.
Also, listening to The Rose and the Thorn is like knowingly waiting for a disaster to happen. If you have heard the Revelations audiobooks, you know that evil will be looming over Elan soon and all you can do is get on board for the ride (and what an enjoyable ride it is.) The Rose and the Thorn stands on its own without spoiling Revelations too much for new readers or without leaning heavily on it.
Many prequels suffer from having been written after the success of a novel and as a result they often are unable to integrate well with the original story. That’s not the case with The Rose and the Thorn. The author has clearly thought this one out carefully. In fact, he drafted the entire series before the Revelations was published. The Rose and the Thorn integrates compellingly with the other narratives of the world of Elan, so even if the Riyria Revelations is complete, we still have things to discover about the characters that inhabit Elan. Kudos to Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Reynolds for with The Rose and the Thorn audiobook, they continue to deliver great fantasy entertainment.