Series: The First Empire #1
Publisher: Del Rey (June 28, 2016)
Length: 432 pages
My Rating: 3 stars
Michael J. Sullivan is an author for whom I have the utmost respect. Not only is he a gentleman in dealing with fans and detractors alike, but his ability to pen entertaining fantasy in the classic mold has been a real breath of fresh air for a genre lacking that traditional flavor. Indeed, I will proudly tell anyone who asks that Hadrian Balckwater and Royce Melborn from The Riyria Revelations and The Riyria Chronicles are two of my favorite fantasy duos ever. So, needless to say, I was highly anticipating the release of Mr. Sullivan’s newest series, The Legends of the First Empire, which promised new characters, new revelations, and a look at the ancient past of the Riyria world.
Thousands of years before Hadrian and Royce exist, Elan is a far different place. The land itself is the same with many familiar names present, but Rhunes (humans), Fhrey (Elves), and Dhereg (Dwarfs) share it. The Fhrey are supreme at this time, having fought a huge war and driven the Dhereg underground, while the Rhunes are far beneath either of the other races, living in primitive clans, having short lives, and lacking the affinity for the Art (magic). These deficiencies in the Rhunes causing them to be little more than subject people of the Fhrey, whom the scattered clans view as not just overlords but as immortal, omnipotent, invulnerable gods. The equilibrium of the world built upon the false belief of Fhrey divinity.
One day, the god myth is forever shattered by a young Rhune named Raithe and his father. These two having an unfortunate encounter with a Fhrey on the wrong side of the river which divides Rhune country from Fhrey land. This dispute escalating from a verbal misunderstanding into a physical struggle, one which ends with Raithe killing a god.
At the same time, in another part of the Rhune lands, Persephone is dealing with the death of her son then her husband to a seemingly crazed animal. These untimely deaths resulting in her leaving her role as wife to the chieftain of her town, or “dahl” as the Rhune call it. Soon, she finds herself at odds with the new chieftain and his cohorts as well as dealing with unexpected trouble and surprising mysteries when a young mystic named Suri and her wolf companion Minna show up with puzzling prophecies of coming doom.
Inevitably, the fugitive Raithe (and an escaped Fhrey slave named Malcolm) find their way to Persephone’s home of Dahl Rhen. Already, stories of a Rhune killing one of the gods has reached this out-of-the-way hamlet, and rumors of the Fhrey’s retaliation has put fear into everyone. So, when the “God Killer” himself shows up, followed soon after by a contingent of Fhrey warriors, things take a decidedly unexpected turn. The world of Elan never to be the same again.
Like all Michael Sullivan novels, Age of Myth is a fast paced, easy to digest affair, filled with action, fun, and some unexpected twists. While the author doesn’t reinvent the fantasy wheel, he continues his trend of crafting intriguing narratives, where Easter eggs litter the landscape and encourage you to keep careful eyes on the pages, because you know some small tidbit of information there will surprise you later on.
One of the highlights of this story (especially for fans of Riyria) will be in visiting the ancient past of Elan. We have all read so many tidbits of legends about this time and place in the prior books that experiencing those legends first hand is a joy. And, overall, Michael Sullivan does an excellent job crafting a past which is comfortably familiar but also different enough from the supposed history of Elan presented as fact in Revelations and Chronicles to be uniquely compelling. Simply put, Michael Sullivan turns the ancient history of this place on its head, presenting these legendary figures and events in a more realistic way: the heroes’ personalities, their motives, and their actions not nearly as mythical or epic as the Riyria stories suggested. And our close-up look at the Fhrey doesn’t disappoint, as these beings are filled with magical majesty; so much so, in fact, that their unabashed arrogance nearly seems warranted, especially in comparison to the primitive, clannish Rhune.
As for the characters themselves, Age of Myth is filled with a large cast of them from Raithe, Malcolm, Persephone, and Suri to several of the Fhrey themselves. Now, none of these guys break any classic fantasy molds, but they are relatable, likable (or unlikable) and entertaining. Their actions true to their motives and past. Their exchanges or interactions with one another realistically portrayed. The personal journeys they are on mingling together quite well to form a complex, cogent narrative. In fact, they also remind one clearly of past Sullivan characters in the Riyria novels. A fact which makes it much easier to quickly gain a comfort level with these new guys and gain an empathy for their circumstances.
Unfortunately, all these positive traits of Age of Myth had a decidedly negative side for me personally, which I will attempt to succinct express with my sincerest apologizes to other fans of Michael J. Sullivan. Honestly, I hate to say anything negative about the book at all, because I admire the author, so please keep that in mind as you read them.
First, I was very concerned when I picked this one up that the “new” characters would be too much like the leads in Riyria. I mean, Hadrian, Royce, Arista and the rest were great, but I wanted something uniquely different here, not the same people with different names. And while Mr. Sullivan attempted to give Raith, Malcolm, and Persephone their own unique personality, our new cast tended to sound, behave, and make decisions just like their Riyria predecessors. Honestly, Raithe and Malcolm do a flawless impersonation of Hadrian and Royce in their bickering, while Persephone takes charge as well as Arista ever dreamed of. That may or may not bother you according to your personal expectations for this novel, but it was a major issue for me personally.
Second, the main antagonist here was a huge letdown. He is a cookie cutter villain who is so obviously the “bad guy” that you sit there wondering how everyone else doesn’t see it. When I added that to his rather lackluster scheme to take control of everything, he became very difficult for me to swallow as an intimidating bad guy. Perhaps I’ve read too much grimdark or watched too many episodes of Game of Throne, but this individual did not scare me or mesmerize me with his wicked genuis in the least. The exact opposite is how I felt. Truly, everyone one of his scenes were just painful to get through.
Lastly, the pacing. The first half of the book was slow. I’m not one to enjoy fantasy with endless traveling anyway (Other than The Lord of the Rings that is.), but the beginning of this story was just too much traveling by everyone. Raithe and Malcolm running away from the Fhrey. Persephone taking trips into the forest. Fhrey characters taking journeys to the Rhune lands. Every time I turned the page there was more traveling; none of it tense or exciting, just fairly meh type journeys that didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat. I totally admit the last part of the book accelerated non-stop to a great ending, but even it could not make up for the glacial slow feeling of the rest of the narrative.
If you are a fan of Michael J. Sullivan’s prior work or merely a lover of classic epic fantasy, then Age of Myths is certainly a novel you should pick up and give a try. It combines timeless themes with comfortable characters to provide ideal escapism, and if you don’t expect too much besides fun, action, and adventure then you will find yourself having the time of your life. I personally wish I enjoyed the novel more than I did, but I have enough faith in Mr. Sullivan’s writing ability to know the ultimate payoff in this series will be at the end when I’m mesmerized by how I never saw it coming.
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.