Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Reviewed by Liz Bourke

Theft of Swords US cover

Theft of Swords UK cover

Michael J. Sullivan is that rare beast, a man who self-published six books to moderate financial success, and parlayed that success into a deal with a major publisher. Theft of Swords collects the previously self-published The Crown Conspiracy (2007) and Avempartha (2009) in one volume. As of this writing, I want to hunt down every single soul associated with the decision to give this series the imprimatur of a major publishing house and rub their noses in it like a bad puppy. Sloppiness in amateurs is understandable. When professionals are involved, there should be consequences. I have words for these people. Bad words. But I'll restrain myself, and restrict my vocabulary to standards acceptable in polite company. The book's own words ought to be enough to condemn it.

I've read bad books. Tedious tie-ins, books that had a good idea and execrable execution, books where the standard of writing barely crossed competent and where clichés swarmed like schools of toothy fish. Thanks to my broad experience and lack of discrimination, Theft of Swords isn't, quite, the absolute worst book I've ever read.

But it loses the prize by a very, very slender margin.

Our protagonists are the honorable and infamous thief duo Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater. Hadrian is a mercenary who wields a short sword and a bastard sword. He was trained by his father, a blacksmith, and we eventually learn—or, rather, are hit over the head with obvious foreshadowing—that he's been taught secret knightly skills handed down for a thousand years. Royce is a half-elf with a dark past and a tormented soul, who is—it seems—in love with a Hooker With A Heart of Gold. In The Crown Conspiracy, they're hired to steal a sword from a palace chapel, but things go wrong. When they're blamed for the death of King Amrath, imprisoned, and sentenced to execution, the Princess Arista insists that they kidnap her brother Prince Alric in return for her aid in escaping from the dungeons.

Henceforth, the plot bears a the marked resemblance to the kind of D&D campaign GMed by a thirteen-year-old boy whose naïve attachment to the worst kind of tropes hasn't yet been shaken by contact with reality or actual human beings. There are no characters here. Not really. There are collections of stereotypes strung together into caricatures, which are very occasionally enlivened by dialogue that sounds like something a real human might say. More often, however, we get this:

I'll have you flailed to death! Release me this instant. (p. 62)

or,

The blackguard means to have the kingdom for his own! (p. 164)

or,

His father is a chivalrous knight of archaic dimensions. (p. 174)

Royce and Hadrian escape from the dungeon, and kidnap the prince. Following Arista's instructions—who they've only just met—they travel to a secret prison and introduce the prince (who just happens to want them dead) to a secret prisoner, who (Arista claims) will be able to sort everything out. Within the next sixty pages, we encounter a monk who has never left his abbey, and—despite the abbey being a haven for travelers—has never seen a woman and is also under the impression that horses may come in shades of green or blue. Alric and our heroes convince each other they're all on the same side. Shortly thereafter, we make the acquaintance of Esrahaddon, an ancient and mysterious wizard, immured in the secret prison for a thousand years, who speaks in ungrammatical thous. Like Yoda, he speaketh, but he makes less sense.

Measures thou see art but trifles. Walls, guards and the abyss stand least among the gauntlet. Lo what works of magic ensnare me! Magical locks claim all the doors here as smoke and dream they vanish with passage. (p. 113)

If you're going to write in a dialect with which you're not familiar, whether archaic or foreign, it behoves you to become familiar with it. If you're writing in Early Modern English (a language still read and performed, and not just by Shakespeare buffs), it behoves you—and your editor, and your copyeditor—to get the basic grammatical structures right. Early Modern English does have a grammar. And if you don't know the grammar offhand, the internet does.

The measures thou see'st be but trifles.

Esrahaddon only sticks around long enough to handwave mysteriously, point out the obvious, and declare that he has more important things to do than help Prince Alric regain his throne. Esrahaddon is a lucky wizard. He escapes both the scenes in which the Evil Plotters have a conference to explain to each other their Evil Plot (which involves getting an archduke the throne, and doesn't make any practical sense) and the most hideously described battle scenes I have ever had the displeasure to read.

A vanguard [of the attacking party] rode up and reported a strong force [of the defending party] entrenched around the city. The nobles ordered their regiments to form ranks. Flags relayed messages, archers strung their bows, and the army transformed themselves into blocks of men. In long lines of three across, they moved as one. The archers were summoned forward and moved ahead just behind the foot soldiers. (p. 196)

Knights on horseback charge fixed defenses. People defending a city do not bother to make use of the walls. The attackers say they "have to break a hole in that wall" and have no siege machinery. Three flights of arrows is considered a lot. Men with rapiers fight knights in plate armor.

In the meantime, Princess Arista is on trial for witchcraft, while Royce and Hadrian mount a rescue mission. Treacherous dwarves and Evil Scheming Aristocrats all come tumbling down into a truly terrible heap, and Prince Alric regains his throne. If this seems a little confusing to you, trust me, it was to me, too. Arista is on Alric's side—she isn't—she is but seems like she isn't—she really is, and Alric's sure of it, despite previous hints to the contrary. The characterization is wildly inconsistent, and Sullivan has chosen to attempt to increase tension by withholding any kind of clarity of information from the reader.

The Crown Conspiracy, the first half of Theft of Swords, is incoherent, awful, and as full of as much trite, stereotype-ridden nonsense as the worst kind of Forgotten Realms fanfic. Avempartha, the second half, is marginally more coherent. In all other ways it is, if anything, even worse.

The plot, what there is of it, involves the conspiracies of evil scheming churchmen, a magical sword hidden in an elvish tower, a terrible bloodthirsty beast which looks like a dragon, breathes fire like a dragon, and lairs like a dragon, but is always referred to as a Gilarabrywn, and a Naïve Farmgirl straight out of central casting. The farmgirl, whose name is Thrace Annabell Wood, comes to the city to find Royce and Hadrian. She wants to ask them to steal a magic sword that can kill the evil dragon Gilarabrywn.

Thrace Annabell Wood is the character that, for me, highlights what is worst about these books. In The Crown Conspiracy, I could put the author's female-gender-related hiccups down to a broad and bemusing lack of writing chops. Princess Arista is characterized with wild inconsistency—by turns decisive princess and dithering damsel—but so, speaking generally, is every character who's more than a walk-on. But in Thrace's first scene, she's the target of an interrupted rape. When Royce and Hadrian rescue her, she cries. A lot. And proceeds to thank them on her knees, after they get her cleaned up. Once clean, she proves to be a "young beauty with startling blue eyes and golden hair" (p. 240) that "shimmers." Sullivan's female characters, all two of the ones with major speaking parts, are infantilized and sexualized in the same breath. From the perspective of a woman who reads fantasy, this is disappointing. It is, in fact, more than a little disturbing.

As it transpires, the wizard Esrahaddon is responsible for Thrace's quest to find our two protagonists. The mysterious ancient wizard is back, but fortunately for the reader's sanity, this time he has fewer ungrammatical thous. He does, however, have his fingers in the dragon Gilarabrywn mess. Which is confusing and needlessly complicated even by the standards of The Crown Conspiracy. I'm none too sure why the Gilarabrywn—which I will henceforth refer to as the dragon, rather than calling a rabbit a Smeerp—is terrorizing the particular country village it's terrorizing, but some scheming churchmen have hatched a plot to set up a (fake) Lost Heir to an empire that's been gone a thousand years. They plan to get their patsy to kill the dragon and thereby prove his credentials. Unfortunately for them—and everyone else who's around when the dragon comes to call—things do not go as planned. Meanwhile, Hadrian is teaching Thrace's father how to fight, and Royce is visiting the elvish tower to find the magic dragon-killing sword (and get in touch with his roots) at the behest of the wizard Esrahaddon. The Princess Arista and some church knights are also around to pontificate, scream, weep, and be killed or kidnapped by the dragon. The general arc of the Plot Coupon Monster-Killing story is obvious to all, and where Avempartha diverges even slightly from the cliché, it's only to descend to new and even more cringeworthy depths of excruciating clunkery, which includes such dialogue as:

"No one is going to kill that thing," Hadrian told him. "Listen, I have been here for 3 [sic] nights. I have seen it and I know what it can do." (p. 359)

and such political theory as:

The feudal system so prevalent across the four nations held them back, chaining the kingdoms to a poverty of weakness and divided interests. What they needed was a centralized government with an enlightened ruler and a talented, educated bureaucracy overseeing every aspect of life. (p. 385)

and such glittering description as:

Elaborately decorated in silver and gold encrusted with fine sparkling gems, the pommel caught the starlight and sparkled. (p. 431)

In the ultimate showdown, Arista, kidnapped by the dragon (who, like Esrahaddon, speaks fake Early Modern English) bursts into tears as she's rescued by Royce and Esrahaddon; Hadrian and Thrace's father fight the dragon; and Thrace? Well, Thrace watches her father die and goes Inigo Montoya on the dragon.

"Daddy!" she screamed, running to him. She scrambled up the slope, crying as she came . . .

She would not let him go. She could not; he was all there was. She sobbed and wailed, clutching his shirt, kissing his cheek and forehead . . . (p. 447)

Unfortunately, her You killed my father; prepare to die moment fails to bring the win. We later learn that the death of her Daddy! has driven her into suicidal depression. This is really not a positive representation of women with agency.

For our conclusion, Esrahaddon acts mysterious, and engages in patently obvious foreshadowing—ominous and intriguing hints are neither ominous nor intriguing if you can immediately point at the people to whom they refer, a fact of which Sullivan seems entirely unaware—the scheming churchmen want Thrace, now semi-comatose from grief, for a Lost Heir figurehead, and sundry elves are, in an amazing and suggestive non sequitur, having a "congress of nations."

Theft of Swords is the kind of book that is so bad that it infects other perfectly innocent books with its badness. It is a screaming black hole of the very worst influences of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, mixed with naïve stereotypes, Dept. of Redundancy Dept. levels of word repetition, and prose that doesn't have much further to go before it plumbs the uttermost depths where the Eye of Argon dwells, down in the turgid, purple caverns of the deep. I finished it out of sheer disbelief at its badness, and my advice as a result is Don't follow my example.

If you see this book, run, do not walk, in the opposite direction. Your brain will thank you.


Liz Bourke is presently reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. She has also reviewed for Ideomancer and Tor.com.