Age of Death by Michael J Sullivan (Legends of the First Empire #5)

When Michael J. Sullivan’s 2018 Age of War arrived on our doorsteps we discovered within the first few pages via an Author’s Note that ‘The Legends of the First Empire’ trilogy would be expanded to six books – “two closely related trilogies under a single banner.” (p. xii, Age of War)

For Sullivan, he had simply not told the full story he had intended, and found he had written three additional novels which would further bridge the events of the first three books with the actual formation of the First Empire – a mythology which carries significant weight through ‘The Riyria Revelations’, Sullivan’s first and beloved series.

2019 saw the release of Age of Legend, the first of the new trilogy which continued to build on The Legends story and its wonderful characters. In my review I highlighted what I felt to be “stretch marks … resulting from the series morphing from three books into six.” I felt as if the book lacked some of the depth and intricacy which is normally evident in Sullivan’s books, and that its length did not match the size of the book – filled with so much backmatter, as it was.

Similarly, I always find it a little difficult to find myself transitioning into Sullivan’s prose style, which is in no way difficult or bad, but is nevertheless “low-er” than that of some epic fantasy authors.

When reviewing book five of any fantasy series I believe it is important to understand where we have been, so far, and whether the author has continued to improve and care, or whether they are just coasting on previous excellence and popularity.

When reading Michael J Sullivan’s Age of Death, published in early 2020 (and followed soon after by the concluding Age of Empyre), I was forced to reconsider my earlier notions of my experience reading The Legends of the First Empire series (which required further reconsidering as I reread ‘The Riyria Revelations’). Because, while Sullivan does prioritise specific backmatter – such as extensive Afterwords by both the author and his wife and primary agent and editor, Robin, and a list of all his Patreon backers – there was no sign of the stretch marks that I imagined in Age of Legend.

Moreover, if you happen to return to ‘The Riyria Revelations’ before writing the review for Age of Death, you discover that Sullivan never put a lot of focus on a book being a particular length, but rather told the story in the length required to tell the story – most evident in the final two Riyria Revelations books, Wintertide and Percepliquis (collected in Heir of Novron). 

I’m not ready to entirely retract my concern of stretch marks in Age of Legend – as there was evidence of some surface-level storytelling at times – but with Age of Death there is no such evidence, no wrinkles or stretching or thin storytelling. Instead we are granted the opportunity to experience a truly emotionally riveting tale of love and self-worth and sacrifice.

More than ever we are granted an opportunity to delve into the depthless heart of characters such as Brin, Moya, Roan, and Gifford. The freedom Sullivan builds for himself to finally reveal the true depths of character behind each of his creations hinges on their existing backstories – that which we have already seen and that which is as yet untold – and behaviour. Without that and attempted by a lesser author, Age of Death may have appeared as an exercise in self-aggrandising futility. Instead, true range and emotional weight continues to be built into towering images of heroism.

Combined with that, however, is a truly fascinating journey through the pantheon of the world in which we have already spent so much time – in both The Legends books but also the Riyria series. That which we thought we knew – and which the world of Royce and Hadrian thought they knew – is turned on its head, and reality is shown for the first time, allowing the reader to unravel the twisting of time and biased history.

It was also these two factors combined which necessitated I return to the original ‘Riyria Revelations’ so as to begin piecing together the larger story – but more on that another time.

Age of Death, then, sees Sullivan continue to solidify himself as one of the greatest practitioners of fantasy literature currently writing, and further builds the foundation from which he will be measured as a champion of the genre in decades to come. Sullivan is not just an author who can wring emotion out of his readers through beautiful character work but is also a first-rate imagination up there with the best. Combined, Sullivan outshines most of his peers and sends a challenge to all.

All my previous qualms and equivocation must be taken within the larger experience of Sullivan’s work, and pale into insignificance against what is truly a first-rate reading experience.

10/10 A first-rate reading experience

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