Every time I pick up a new book, I go into it with certain expectations, especially if it’s a book in a genre I enjoy and have a lot of books about, or have read a few books that I really, really enjoyed. Most of the time I try to keep my own expectations as low as possible, but sometimes that’s very difficult to do, and wind up holding all new books to the (sometimes very) high standards set by the books I’ve read before. My professor would say that this is to be expected, that readers ought to expect the very best from the writers they choose to read, but I do really want to try to give all writers a fair chance – or not, if I already know the writing is going to be nothing short of a train wreck (as it was with Fifty Shades of Grey).
This is especially true with books that are compared to Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards books, or to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. When someone recommending a book to me says: “Oh, the protagonist is a lot like Locke from Lynch’s books!” or “The lead reminds me of Miles Vorkosigan,” that already sets my expectations to somewhere at the higher end of the scale, as opposed to the more accepting middle range. So when my friend Matthew said that Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy had a protagonist who was like Locke Lamora, I expected the books to be just as good as Scott Lynch’s books – which they were, though for very different reasons than just the protagonist being like Locke Lamora, and that’s perfectly fine by me. If a book can break away from the premise in which it was recommended to me and still prove itself to be an enjoyable read, then that’s a very good thing indeed.
It was with this in mind that I started reading The Crown Conspiracy by Michael J. Sullivan, the first book in his Riyria Revelations series. It was recommended to me by someone on a forum I take part in from time to time, when I asked for recommendations for books that were like the Gentlemen Bastards series (at the time I was in a post-Red Seas Under Red Skies hangover and was desperate for anything like Lynch’s books to soothe me down from my high). It was recommended to me on the basis that the two protagonists had a similar dynamic to Locke and Jean from the Gentlemen Bastards, and since that dynamic is one of the things I find so fun about Lynch’s books, I figured there was no harm in trying Sullivan’s out.
And then I promptly forgot all about the series until very recently: after I read Republic of Thieves, the most recent novel in the Gentlemen Bastards series.
Feeling rather sheepish about the whole thing, I’ve realized that if I don’t actually pick up the first book and sit down to read it, and since I was already feeling quite nostalgic for Locke and his crew, there was no better time to actually give Sullivan’s series a shot.
The Crown Conspiracy opens with a pair of men: one is named Hadrian, the other is named Royce. Hadrian is the tank with a heart of gold, and Royce is the more classical rogue with grayer morals. Together they’re the main team of a group called Riyria: professional thieves who can accomplish all manner of skullduggery, but only for the right price. But Hadrian can sometimes be honorable to a fault, so when he accepts a job without doing a thorough background check on the matter, it lands him and Royce in hot water – the kind of situation that could get them killed, unless they accomplish a series of seemingly serendipitous tasks that will bring them fortune, and hopefully a modicum of gratitude, if they can survive long enough to see everything through.
Now, reading the above, one could say that it looks a great deal like a blurb for the first two Gentlemen Bastards novels (though more accurately for the first novel, The Lies of Locke Lamora). However, any similarities end at the blurb, because while The Lies of Locke Lamora had me swinging between manic giggling and outright screaming (in delight, horror, and anguish) at the book, The Crown Conspiracy had me raising my eyebrow and questioning the wisdom and intelligence of the characters I was reading about – and I do not mean the latter in a good way.
One of the very first things I look for in a fantasy novel is world building. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t mind having to work a little to understand a world, but the world itself must be interesting enough to make me want to learn about it in the first place. I didn’t have to do this in the least with the world of The Crown Conspiracy, but not because it was so well-written that immersion and comprehension of the world came easily. I didn’t have to work hard to understand it because the world felt generic: no different from the standard Western Medieval-esque setting that so many other fantasy novels take place in. I held out hope for a while in the beginning, because there were hints that it might turn out to be something akin to the world of the Witcher books but with a different sort of twist, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Nothing about the world stood out to me: not the geography, not the mythology (whatever precious little there was of it that was mentioned), not the people – nothing really stood out. Even the races are pretty standard: humans, dwarves, and elves, with no new spin on their culture to make them different from all the other iterations I’d already encountered, not just in books, but in video games, as well.
As for the characters, there is some light there, but not much. There’s nothing wrong with characters slotting neatly into certain archetypes (Hadrian into the “honorable thief” slot; Royce into the “mysterious and brooding” slot), but it is problematic when there’s nothing else to distinguish them. Hadrian and Royce are slightly interesting because they have the good fortune to be the series’ main protagonists; everybody else, however, gets shortchanged – especially the women. Only one woman appears to have any agency at all in the novel, and then it gets yanked out from under her by a male antagonist, whereupon she needs rescuing by one of the male protagonists despite supposedly having certain abilities of her own she could have used to rescue herself. There are other female characters, but one is set up as the love interest for one of the male protagonists, and the other looks well on her way to being set up as such, so I honestly don’t know what to make of them, except perhaps to feel a sense of disappointment that they could not have been characterized better.
And the plot. Oh, the plot. Given the title I was expecting something rather large, something to do with royals getting killed, or kidnapped, or swapped around in a deadly game of political musical chairs while the rest of the country got torn apart in rebellion and war. I was expecting dramatic escapes and amazing feats of derring-do. All of those things are in the novel – except crammed into a story that is far too short to really draw out the dramatic potential of the setup at the beginning. The entire thing is squeezed into ten chapters, and the whole plot spools out, one event after another, linked by flimsy coincidences and happenstances that allow the whole thing to lurch forward to its conclusion. There is no time taken to build suspense, or if there is an attempt to create tension it doesn’t work very well at all, and every time someone’s life appears to be in danger I never get any sense of genuine threat to their lives. There aren’t any plot twists, either, and it’s quite easy to predict plot events – all the way to the very end. And this is really, truly unfortunate.
Overall, The Crown Conspiracy is a disappointment on almost every level: the world building is weak; the characters are briefly interesting but in the end completely uninspiring; the female characters are a genuine disappointment; and the plot is predictable and far too short for what it initially promised. I suppose that the comparison made to Scott Lynch’s books may have set the bar for my expectations extraordinarily high, but even if the comparison had not been made I think I would still have found it a disappointment. This is truly unfortunate, because I really did want to like this novel, but I simply can’t find it in myself to find a reason to do so. This might be an okay read for someone who hasn’t really gotten into the fantasy genre yet and is finding a way in, but veteran readers of the genre would do their best to stay far away from it.