One of my favorite authors is Michael J. Sullivan. In one of my first ever posts on the site I described his work as “the comforting home cooked meal of fantasy” and I stand by that statement. I would not describe his work as boundary pushing, but his classical fantasy stories have always been something I look forward too as I never get tired of them. He currently is working on his third series set in the same world, set of five “Ages” that set up the world for his other books. You can find my review of the first book in the series, Age of Myth, here – but today I want to talk about book number two that just came out, Age of Swords. This review has mild spoilers for the first novel.
Age of Myth is set in a time in Sullivan’s world that is almost prehistoric, where humans have barely invented fire. The world he has created is dominated primarily by three races, humans, elves, and dwarfs. The first book shows that the power structure between these three is decidedly one sided: with humans at the bottom of the food chain worshiping the elves (and the dwarves somewhere in the middle after losing a war to the elves badly due to powerful magic). The aptly named Age of Myth sees a shift in this power structure as the humans stop revering the elves as gods, and instead see them as powerful oppressors that need to be thrown down with an Age of Swords. The story in book two is about answering the question: how do we beat a race of semi-immortals who have magic that can shatter mountains?
Age of Swords expands Sullivan’s series a lot from the first book in a variety of different ways. First, we are introduced to a large number of new characters and POVs that tell the story. While some of these new characters had minor appearances in the first book, they are much more fleshed out in Swords. Sullivan states in a foreword at the beginning of Swords that his cast for the series was simply too large to introduce in one book, and I find I agree with him. While I like almost all his characters, the cast is enormous and I found myself a little overwhelmed by it at some points. However, while it was a lot to take in at first I eventually found myself adjusting to, and appreciating, the number of characters.
On top of expanding the cast, Age of Swords does a fantastic job of fleshing out the world and culture of Sullivan’s world. In his previous novels and series, he focused heavily on humans and left the culture of the other races a bit to your imagination. In Swords we get to dive a little more into the elves, but more importantly into the story of the Dwarves. Something interesting about Sullivan’s writing is that what often feels like lazy copying on other authors, feels like intentional tribute with him. The plot lines around the Dwarves in Age of Swords surrounds them being ousted from their homeland by essentially a Balrog. While that sounds like he ripped of Tolkien, it feels like more of a reimagining of the classing LotR story that Sullivan has made his own. It was by far my favorite part of the story and it left me wondering why we don’t spend more time with dwarves in classic fantasy and why everyone is so obsessed with elves.
On the the other hand, while I had a lot of fun with Age of Swords, it definitely had some issues. The first and foremost is that while the book does a good job continuing to develop the plot, it definitely feels like a bridge book that just exists to set up the sequels. The actual movement of the plot in the story felt extremely small compared to Sullivan’s other work – and some of the character development felt forced. In addition to this, I did not enjoy one of the key plot devices of the book. Humans start the novel in the stone age, with nothing but basic tools and knowledge of various crafts. Age of Swords see humans go through a period of innovation where about three people invent about 100 things a piece that radically change the level of technology for humans. These things range from major inventions, such as the wheel and bow and arrow, to smaller things like belts and pockets. The innovation itself feels like it is a bit too much too quickly, and the discoveries that lead to the various inventions can often feel forced and repetitive. This becomes a serious issue for me because inventing these things felt like it took up almost a third of the page space.
In the end I enjoyed Age of Swords, though I think it is unfortunately Sullivan’s weakest book to date. This has not made me think any less of him as one of my favorite authors, and I am hoping that the hiccups that I experienced in this novel will only serve to expand the plot further in the sequels.
Rating: Age of Swords – 6.0/10