- Title: The Crown Tower
- Author: Michael Sullivan
- Series: The Riyria Chronicles #1
- Genre: Fantasy
- Format: paperback
- Source: library
- Reviewed by: Olga
- Rating: 4 out of 5
TWO MEN WHO HATE EACH OTHER. ONE IMPOSSIBLE MISSION. A LEGEND IN THE MAKING.
A warrior with nothing to fight for is paired with a thieving assassin with nothing to lose. Together they must steal a treasure that no one can reach. The Crown Tower is the impregnable remains of the grandest fortress ever built and home to the realm’s most valuable possessions. But it isn’t gold or jewels the old wizard is after, and this prize can only be obtained by the combined talents of two remarkable men. Now if Arcadius can just keep Hadrian and Royce from killing each other, they just might succeed.
This is one of those books that left me divided. Objectively, the writing is good, smooth and professional, the story absorbing, the world building – vaguely resembling medieval Europe – convincing, and the tension high and consistent. There is not a boring moment. But subjectively, the story didn’t speak to me, didn’t touch my heart, which is the only thing that counts with literature. And the fault lies with characters. The four major characters in this novel – the whore Gwen, the former soldier Hadrian, the assassin Royce, and the professor Arcadius – left me unsatisfied for various reasons.
Gwen is the most likable personage of this novel. Smart, brave, and caring, she is trying to improve her life and those of her friends, other whores. Like most young women, Gwen became a whore out of necessity, driven to prostitution as the only means to survive in a hostile land. I like and respect Gwen, but she has no connection to the basic plot-line. She takes about one third of the page space, but plot-wise, she dangles in limbo, linked to the protagonist Hadrian by a flimsy thread of some obscure foreboding, experienced by her dead mother long ago.
Besides, I have a bone to pick with the author regarding Gwen. Why are the only female characters in the story all whores? Where are the wives and mothers, the craftswomen and the noblewomen? Couldn’t the writer make Gwen a baker? A laundress? An apothecary – which would make much more sense in the context of the story? Why a whore, the most despised women’s profession through the ages. There is no logical reason for it in the book.
While Gwen exists on the sidelines of the tale, Hadrian is its hero, a young soldier tired of killing. Unfortunately, killing is what he is exceptionally good at. In the beginning of the novel, Hadrian returns to the land of his childhood after several successful years as a mercenary and a gladiator. He is searching for a purpose. He doesn’t want to kill anymore – his conscience rebels – but he doesn’t know how to do anything else.
I like Hadrian and I sympathize with him, but he is behaving like a naive orphan instead of a ruthless warrior or a disappointed man. He is supposed to be both, so I don’t really believe in his being so trusting and so kind; it doesn’t ring true considering his war-making past, although his feeling of being lost after several years of brutality is real enough. Many young soldiers feel disoriented after they left the army.
Adrift and lonely, Hadrian is traveling to see Arcadius, a friend of his late father, hoping for something – an advice, a direction, a goal. Instead, Arcadius saddles Hadrian with an unwanted partner, Royce, for a mission neither Hadrian nor Royce understand.
Royce is another major player in this story. A man without morals and zero trust in humanity, he is an unpleasant fellow. Hadrian doesn’t like him, and neither do I. According to the writer’s hints, Royce had a rotten childhood, but it doesn’t excuse his killing sprees or his disregard for innocent lives. He’s a sociopath; he kills because it’s convenient for him. I don’t see how these two young men with the opposite attitudes towards life-taking could be partners.
But Arcadius forces their collaboration. He tricks both participants into compliance by lies and evasions. Obviously, the old professor has a secret agenda, so secret he never explains it, not to Hadrian nor to the readers. To fulfill his agenda, he manipulates everyone around him with callous cruelty, toys with human lives and emotions without mercy.
His actions belittle Gwen’s accomplishments, make her doubt herself. He holds Royce’s metaphorical leash, as if Royce were his pet gerbil. He aims Hadrian in the direction he wants the young soldier to go, simultaneously removing all the other options Hadrian might have preferred. And he does it all with the abstracted air of a benevolent scholar.
Royce at least knows he was being manipulated, even if he doesn’t understand why, but Hadrian believes the old bastard. Hadrian is ready to put his life on the line for Arcadius’s senseless quest.
I really hate Arcadius, the undercover villain of this story. On his whim, without explanations, he shuffles people’s lives as if they were chess pieces but he never helps anyone. And the last chapter cinched the issue for me, proving once and for all just how depraved and pitiless Arcadius is to send his two proteges on such a dangerous fool’s errant.
Strangely, despite my tiff with the characters, I want to read the next book. I hope Arcadius doesn’t make an appearance in it. I hope Hadrian and Royce might learn something important from each other. I hope their adventures will be a tad more optimistic, and their travails a tad less pointless. I hope Gwen finds her place in the story at last. As always with a good writer, I hope for another good book.