Oh, how I love a well-written negative review. They beg to be tested, and encountering this review of Michael J. Sullivan’s debut novel The Crown Conspiracy on Strange Horizons, I had to go out and see for myself whether the critique was accurate. What I discovered is that while the attempt at archaic language is less of a trip-up, the book indeed cannot get beyond mediocre for ambition and content. Certainly ‘fun sword and sorcery adventure’ for some, it remains predictable, run-of-the-mill genre pulp that does not warrant investment for the reader looking for challenging or meaningful material.
The Crown Conspiracy opens with the arrogant Duke Archibald preening over his good looks and the letters he holds in his hand. Having invited the magistrate of a neighboring land to his castle, he proceeds to blackmail the man, stating he holds correspondence of an unequivocal nature that the magistrate’s daughter is having an affair with a common man. When it is revealed that the letters are mysteriously void of words, the magistrate walks away smiling, leaving the Duke fuming. The scene switching to the daughter, the mystery of who switched letters from the Duke’s private safe is slowly revealed—as is a bucketload of adventure.
The Crown Conspiracy, and as I am lead to believe, the books in the series thereafter, are centered around a classic fantasy duo named Hadrian and Royce. In the tradition of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Moorcock’s Elric and Moonglum, and more recently Chabon’s Zelikman and Amran or Lynch’s Locke Lamora and Jean, the duo have a variety of adventures in a fantasy setting, including the witty banter (though I would take Leiber or Chabon over Sullivan for wit any day). Royce an ex-thief and Hadrian a mercenary, Sullivan makes no attempt at putting a fresh spin on the sword and sorcery premise of a pair constantly in the thick of trouble. And the adventures they have in The Crown Conspiracy are no different. Deals gone bad, grand escapes, beautiful women, crazy wizards, and a host of other fantasy archetypes coat the pages.
But to say characterization in The Crown Conspiracy is thin would be an understatement. The following quote is the second paragraph of the novel and introduces Duke Archibald.
“As Earl of Chadwick, he already possessed ample wealth, a modest position at court, and of course, his exceptional good looks. Most ruling nobles were potbellied, gout-ridden, old bores. He, on the other hand, was in his prime: fit and tall with a full head of auburn hair, chiseled features, and piercing blue eyes. Archibald was proud of his appearance. He could obtain wealth and fame through any number of means, but to be born handsome was a gift for the deserving. He accentuated his natural virtues by wearing the finest imported fashions made with expensively dyed silks, embroidered linens, and feathers from exotic birds. His fellow nobles admired him for his elegant style. Soon his prestige would be elevated to the same enviable level.
At no time does the Duke’s personality go beyond the limits established by those six sentences. (Warning lights should go off anytime an author describes a man’s looks as ‘chiseled’ or as possessing ‘piercing' anything...) The remaining characters equally one-dimensional, the story’s ambition does not exceed this simplicity.
Regarding the plot of The Crown Conspiracy, the following excerpt indirectly sums matters up:
“As they entered the narrow wooden doorway of the tavern, the pungent odor of smoke, alcohol, and a scent that Alenda had previously smelled only in a privy assaulted them. The din of twenty conversations fought each other for supremacy while a fiddler worked a lively tune. Before a bar, a small crowd danced, hammering their heels loudly on the warped wooden floor, keeping time to the jig. Glasses clinked, fists pounded on tables, and people laughed and sang far louder than Alenda thought dignified.”
Everything as it should be, what else would be happening at a medieval bar? Glasses clinking, a stench, a little music and dancing, yet there is nothing to give it true character. It feels artificial. The remainder of the book also paint by the numbers, plot outcomes and story twists are presented in 1-2-3 fashion, the story plodding along a track worn thin by countless sword and sorcery adventures before.
My criticism has thus far centered on the simplistic, predictable presentation of the novel. But in order to be fair, it should be pointed out that Sullivan in fact hit his target; he was not aiming for anything more complex or challenging. Based on a few interviews I have read, he wanted to write a ‘classic’ work of epic fantasy that hearkened back to the glory (read: pulp) days of the genre. Given the novel’s characteristics, he succeeded. Whether his success has any value, well, when you aim for the side a barn and hit it, it’s time to narrow your target.
In the end, The Crown Conspiracy is pulp epic fantasy that will appeal to those not looking to be challenged by their reading material. The storyline light, characters flimsy, and plot formulaic given the overt tell-rather-than-show narrative, fans of David Eddings, Dragonlance, Terry Brooks, Leiber’s Farfhrd and the Gray Mouser, and the like should/could enjoy. Like bologna, the only thing different about this meat is the name on the label, the product coming from the same factory as the other never-ending series of sword and sorcery. Strange Horizon’s review is indeed harsh, but it would seem the majority was warranted if the bar for literature is ever to be looked up to rather than down.
(A side note: much of the fuss about Michael J. Sullivan is his relative success as a self-published writer and transition to published writer. I note this because, there is a lot of discussion these days on the merits of self-publishing, and whether Sullivan’s books deserve the legitimacy of being published by a recognized house. With The Crown Conspiracy the answer seems obvious to me: it aspires to little, but worse has been accepted for publishing. The “prose” is literally paint by the numbers like Brandon Sanderson’s works, but this skill in itself requires more talent than was invested in some books I’ve read that were officially published. In terms of overall quality, far, far better books exist, but it would be highly contentious to say it is worse than all of what publishing houses are choosing to print.)