An interview with Michael J Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan is a full time author whose self published series, The Riyria Revelations, hit the big time selling more than 70,000 copies in a very short time. Picked up by Orbit in the middle of last year just after the release of his fifth book, Wintertide, his six book series was repackaged into three omnibus volumes with the third volume, Heir of Novron, hitting the shelves on 30th of January this year.

Here at Fantasy Book Review we have reviewed the first omnibus volume Theft of Swords and will be publishing reviews of the other two volumes in the near future. Reviewer Ryan Lawler caught up with Michael to chat about writing, the switch from self publishing to traditional publishing, and much more.

Ryan Lawler: Hi Michael welcome to Fantasy Book Review. Can you start by telling us a little about yourself and what it is that lead you to a career in writing?

Michael Sullivan: Hello back, and thank you for having me. As far as writing goes, I’ve always made up stories and wanted to be a writer. Even when I was very young (seven or eight), I would create books on my sister’s manual typewriter, bind them with string, and give them to friends.

When I was planning for “my career” I didn’t think writing would be possible, I knew I could create good stories, but my spelling and grammar were terrible. This was long before computers and wonderful things like spell checkers. My friends (who were about the only ones reading my books) coined the term “Sully Speak” and chided me about how they had to decipher my many misspelling. Believe it or not, even though it’s only four letters I routinely misspelled evil. So I pursued art because I thought I would at least have a chance doing that.

Once I was married, and we started to have kids, we wanted one of us to be home to raise them. My wife Robin made much more money than I did, so she went off to work while I took care of things on the home front. When the kids napped, I went back to writing, striving hard to study other’s works and improve my skill. I wrote thirteen novels, over the course of ten years. When I made no headway in publishing, I quit completely, and fully intended to never write creatively again.

During the ten years I wasn’t writing, ideas for stories kept filling my head, and when I eventually relented, I decided I would do so on one condition…that I wouldn’t be concerned about publishing. I decided to write books I wanted to read, and the only audience would be my friends and family. Ironically it was those books that actually ended up getting published.

Ryan Lawler: You made a name for yourself as a successful self-published author, selling more than 70,000 copies of your Riyria series. What lead you down the path of self publication?

Michael Sullivan: It actually wasn’t intentional. As I mentioned above I had tried traditional publishing, spent my years on the query-go-round. Actually I took two trips on that ride (one with me at the controls and the second time with my wife, Robin). The first time lasted about a year and occurred just before I quit writing. Robin couldn’t convince me to try again, so when she got infatuated with Thee Riyria Revelations she took over. I actually got an agent after more than two hundred rejections, and Kat shopped the books for about a year and a half. After she had exhausted her contacts, she suggested we look into small presses.

Robin sent the first book out to four indie presses that specialized in fantasy, but she also started looking into what it would take to self publish. A small press in Minnesota, Aspirations Media Inc.(AMI), signed the first book, The Crown Conspiracy and brought it out in October 2008 and even before it was released they had signed the second book, Avempartha. They had planned on putting them out on a six month release cycle, but as April approached we knew something was wrong, since we hadn’t seen the printer proofs. They finally confessed they didn’t have the money for the print run. The book already had appearances planned (book clubs, bookstore signings, etc.) so we had to hit the April release date and the only way to do so was to self-publish.

Ryan Lawler: Publishing houses do a lot of work with regards to story editing, copy editing, cover art and marketing. What was it like managing all those aspects of publishing world for yourself?From that point on, continuing to self publish was the only way to keep on the six-month schedule. Robin decided if she was going to do publishing anyway, she might as well expand, so now her company has about twenty other authors who sell really well.

Michael Sullivan: For many people I’m sure that can be a challenge, but Robin and I are pretty uniquely qualified for this work. We had previously run an advertising agency that we had founded, so we already knew a lot about layout, graphic design, illustration, and had the tools for making websites and such. I designed all the covers for my books, as well as the other titles in the Ridan Publishing brand. Robin is an ex-programmer so she figured out pretty easily how to convert to ebooks, and she is a marketing genius. Between the two of us we have most of the bases covered. But I should discuss editing a bit more.

Every author has different needs when it comes to story editing. I had written thirteen novels before The Riyria Revelations so I was already pretty seasoned on aspects such as pacing, limiting exposition, building characters, and the like. I had always had a talent for creating compelling plots, so I might not need as much developmental editing as some. Still, authors need an objective critic, and I’m fortunate that my wife is very good in this regard. She really puts my books through their paces, and I’d match her talent with anyone employed by the big-six.

Copy editing is probably the area that we have the most problem with. We hire freelancers, and have used many, but it seems that there were always little mistakes that were missed, even though the same book may be gone over by as many as five people. Personally I think if you are self-published the copyediting of your book has to be three times better than the traditional published works, and will still get criticized twice as often. People expect editing to be poor in self-published books and they love pointing out any little mistake and hold it up as proof of poor quality. In comparison, the same number of mistakes in a book from a large press will not incite ire, as they know professionals are involved. The reality is, in 100,000 words there are going to be mistakes here and there. You just have to do the best you can.

Ryan Lawler: From all accounts you were doing quite well for yourself before Orbit made their offer. Do you feel that the switch to traditional publishing is meeting or has met your expectations?

Michael Sullivan: I absolutely couldn’t have been happier with the transition, and that is saying a great deal. Self publishing is amazing in that you have full control. For some authors this is a burden, for me, nothing makes me happier. I know that when I’m in charge of doing things, they will be done in a way that suits me. Notice I didn’t say “right” because in many respects it’s not a matter of “right” or “wrong” and many decisions could fall either way. Of course professionalism is important and Orbit has proven time and time again that they have a lot of dedicated, smart, hard working people that really can get the job done.

One thing I should mention is that I had a fair amount of trepidation going in. There are some very vocal authors that have left traditional publishing who have a lot of negative things to say about the experiences they have had. When you have no firsthand experience, it’s hard to ignore insights from people who have been where you are going. Even authors that are still deeply wedded to the traditional publishing system have lamented that their books, were not treated as well as they would have liked, and that little or no promotion had been performed on their behalf.

As I mentioned, Orbit has treated me exceptionally well, which proves that I selected the correct partner. Most authors don’t have a choice, but there were seven or eight publishers that expressed an interest in The Riyria Revelations, and Orbit had moved quickly to make a pre-emptive offer. They weren’t the biggest, but they had a good eye for quality, and I have been really impressed their roll out of several other authors. They have made the New York Times Bestseller List several times and each award season finds one or more of their titles short listed or as winners. My thought was that even if another publisher came in with more money, it wasn’t going to turn my head. I was already offered a very generous advance from my top choice, so it made the decision to sign with them pretty easy.

Now what I don’t know, is if all projects are treated as well as mine was. It could be that Orbit gave me some “extra loving” I really don’t know as I have no insights into other releases. But I can say that I don’t think the series could have been rolled out any better. Orbit fast-tracked the release and worked hard to get them out in three consecutive months. They created an exceptional facebook page, and augmented the release with advertising in Locus and on goodreads and facebook. They’ve gotten the books premium placement in stores across the country. They even released a Percepliquis only version so that existing fans could complete their sets. At this point I think the onus of responsibility is on me and the books to take it from here. If they don’t make it, it won’t be because Orbit didn’t launch them well, it will be because the books, “just weren’t good enough.” Orbit has held up to their end of the bargain, now it’s up to my writing to connect with people. If they like the books enough, word-of-mouth will take them to the next level.

Ryan Lawler: You have been a big proponent of the "ebook revolution". With ebooks doing so well, where do you see print books fitting in to the new publishing landscape?

Michael Sullivan: I don’t think print books will completely disappear, but I do think they will continue to lose ground. In the future I’m sure print books will be a subsidiary right and the majority of a books income will be made from the ebooks. The reason for this is simple…convenience. When it’s 2:00 in the morning and you’ve just finished a fantastic book, you don’t want to make a mental note to look for that author the next time you are at the bookstore. The instant gratification of having that book in your hands in just a few seconds can’t be beat, especially for a genre like fantasy where series are so popular.

It’s unfortunate, but in many ways bookstores are already becoming showrooms, where readers browse to find new books to buy, but they leave he stores without spending any money. They go home and buy discounted books online or download to their readers. In many cases, the bookstores are getting their sales from heavily discounted books which are on the bestsellers lists. I can imagine that in the future the shelf space for print books will continue to decrease, and it will only be the biggest names being produced and selling in that medium. Midlist authors will probably be hit the hardest. But hopefully some publishers will embrace print-on-demand technologies for their lower print sellers. This will keep their costs down, and eliminate returns, warehousing costs, and costly print runs for titles that don’t sell well.

While we are on the topic of ebooks though, I do want to bring something up…and that is price. I truly feel that authors are at risk from a race to the bottom. In the old days, a year or two ago, few big publishers ever dabbled in the low price pool. Now I see this occurring pretty regularly. The volumes required for any author to make a living at $0.99 is very high, and only a very few can do well there. As to $2.99, this does provide a good income for self-published, authors, but when traditionally published that generally means about $0.52 a book (verses $2.09 for self-published). I would worry for all authors in a world where all books sell for $0.99 and $2.99. To me a reasonable price for an ebook is $4.95 - $9.99 and the $0.99 and $2.99 should be used on occasion for promotional purposes. I think that strikes a good balance between providing authors a living wage, and not asking too much of the reader’s pocketbook.

Ryan Lawler: The Riyria Revelations is quite different to many large fantasy series I have read with each volume telling a self-contained story while an overarching plot weaves in and out of each story. Did you deliberately set out to subvert the traditional epic fantasy tropes, or was this subversion just a by-product of the story you wanted to tell?

Michael Sullivan: Ha! It’s really not easy to “subvert traditional fantasy” when you have no ambitions on publishing. Your second assumption is correct in that it really was about the story I wanted to tell. I had been very impressed with J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 because he had written all the episodes for a five year run, even though he had no guarantee past the first few episodes. I liked that he had planned out the entire arc from beginning to end and as a storyteller I was drawn to the opportunities that doing so much upfront legwork could open. I loved trying to unravel where the story might go – it was a great deal of fun. So really all I was doing is creating something similar. The downside, of course, is that you have to write all the books before letting anyone read even the first one. I often found myself adjusting an earlier book because I came up with a great idea when writing one of the later ones, and if I had the earlier ones “out there” I would have missed out on some exceptional twists.

Ryan Lawler: Royce and Hadrian are two very capable characters and you don’t shy away from explaining their amazing feats in detail. Did you have to do a lot of research into their various skill sets before you could employ them in the books?

Michael Sullivan: I’ve had some people who are “in the know” ask me if I’m a fencer, as they say I describe various hand-to-hand scenes well. The truth is I’m not trained in anything remotely similar to that, so most of what I know, or at least think I know, comes from research rather than firsthand experience. But knowing techniques is only a fraction of the equation. For fighting scenes to be interesting, you have to treat them like little plays in and of themselves. If you were to just list who did what when, it would be very boring. You have to create a little story within the fight with its own drama and high and low points.

I probably spent the biggest chunk of my research time not on fighting aspects, but on learning about ships and sailing because a portion of one of the books, The Emerald Storm (2nd volume in Rise of Empire) is set on a ship. I’m a huge fan of Horatio Hornblower, and I did a lot of reading on maritime life and enjoyed every minute of it. This is a good thing, as only a fraction of what I learned or absorbed ever got into the book. Like all world building, the rules of the iceberg should apply. The amount of information that the author knows should only be barely exposed to the reader. All the rest just provides a nice foundation.

Ryan Lawler: What is the next project on the horizon? Can we expect to see more from Team Riyria or the world of Melengar?

Michael Sullivan: I always have ongoing projects in the works. I have three books written, and am about half way through another. The next project to hit the street will probably be Antithesis, which is a modern day fantasy. Another interviewer asked me to describe it in thirty words or less and this is what I came up with:

Antithesis: Two opposing individuals possess limitless magic, providing the universe balance. An unexpected death transfers this power to an unsuspecting bystander who is clueless of the consequences of his newfound abilities.

I also tend to try to come up with “the back of the book blurb” or “elevator speech” early on to help me articulate what a book is about. This is what I have so far:

Have you ever wondered how the world will end?

No? Well don't sweat it. Most people don’t, and the few that do expect the cause will be a dramatic change in climate, a pandemic, or mostly likely war. That's what we've all been taught to believe, and we’re comfortable with rational explanations. But people weren’t always so quick to accept the facts provided by so-called experts. There used to be a time when we believed in myth and magic. Our minds were open to the idea of believing in what can’t be seen…the fantastical.

I had been like you until I met Winston Stewart; the day I learned to believe that there are other forces at work—not the least of which is fate. Fate is an amazing thing. It put Gandhi in South Africa, Nelson at Gibraltar, and Winston Stewart on that train in Alexandria Virginia.

You don't know who Winston Stewart is? You will.

As for more Riyria books…I’m playing that one by ear. The Riyria Revelations was carefully designed, and I won’t “tack on” to it as the series was designed to end where it did. I’m afraid that doing so may ruin something that I think is quite special. That being said, I have left the door open for prequels, and if there is demand, I would be more than happy to comply. What I do want to be careful of though, is to not have my characters “overstay their welcome.” We have all seen television series, or read books, that kept coming out long after their prime. I don’t ever want to see people saying that Riyria should have quit some time ago. The bottom line is that in order for there to be more books with these characters or in this world, I have two caveats: first, an audience that really wants them, and second a compelling story that I would like to read. I’m pretty sure I have the second part, time, emails, and sales numbers will determine the first.

Ryan Lawler: Finally, can you name three of your favourite fantasy books?

Michael Sullivan: Well it’s boring, but true, so I have to say that first and foremost would be Tolkien’s The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings. These books were instrumental in turning me from a kid who hated reading to a lifelong fan of the written word. Prior to them, you would have to beat me to read a book. Without their influence I’m sure my life would have been much different than it is today, so I have to give them the first nod.

Secondly is the Harry Potter Series it also played a major role in getting me to write, because I had forgotten just how much fun an adventurous tale with characters you love can be. I had been writing a lot of literary fiction, with well structured prose, deep themes, and complex characters, and quite frankly had found that writing them was more “work” than “fun.” After reading Potter I decided to write The Riyria Revelations, and to do so as a fun, fast-paced romp. It was a catalyst for getting me back to the keyboard, so how can I not acknowledge this fine series.

The last may come as a surprise to many, and some won’t even consider it fantasy, but to me it has all the earmarks: a tale of adventure, great heroes, frightening villains, and deep bonds of friendship (notice that the other two also share these same characteristics). The book is Watership Down by Richard Adams, and is about a bunch of rabbits who leave their home and go off in search of a better place to live. Hazel and his smaller brother Fiver are great characters (as are everyone in the supporting cast) and the story is filled with examples of standing up for what is right, banding together, and what it means to be a leader of men…or even rabbits.

Ryan Lawler: Thanks for chatting Michael.

Michael Sullivan: Well again, thank you for having me. I had a great time.

Our Michael J Sullivan reviews

Age of War by Michael J Sullivan

The alliance of humans and renegade Fhrey is fragile - and about to be tested as never before. Persephone keeps the human clans from turning on one another through her iron will and a compassionate heart. The arrogant Fhrey are barely held in check by their leader, Nyphron, who seeks to advance his own nefarious agenda through a loveless marriage that will result in the betrayal of the person Persephone loves most: Raithe, the God Killer. As the Fhrey overlords marshal their army and sorcerers to crush the rebellion, old loyalties will be challenged while fresh conspiracies will threaten to undo all that Persephone has accomplished. In the darkest hour, when hope is all but lost, new heroes will rise... but at what terrible cost?

"In the end, Age of War serves to exemplify why Michael J Sullivan is one of the greatest living fantasy authors, a master of his craft who has excelled at both character and plot, emotion and action, fantasy and fiction. For some, Age of War might represent the walking of a very fine line between failure, but for Sullivan it seems he walks a bridge a mile wide."

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Age of Empyre by Michael J Sullivan

While Age of Empyre and the whole Legends series may struggle to top ‘The Riyria Revelations’ – for the simple sake that it does not have Royce and Hadrian – it is only by the barest of margins.

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Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan is one of the most talked about authors around the fantasy community at the moment. His independently published six book series, The Riyria Revelations, has sold a bucket load of ebooks, and these big sales lead to a lucrative offer from Orbit. The first two volumes, The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha, have been combined into an omnibus edition called Theft of Swords that introduces us to the world of Melengar and two thieves who somehow manage to become entangled in every wrong place at all the wrong times. Theft of Swords is a excellent addition to the fantasy genre, one that tells a fun and modern story with a traditional Tolkien styled setting, and one that you should not hesitate in adding to your library

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Age of Death by Michael J Sullivan

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.

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The Death of Dulgath by Michael J Sullivan

Three times they tried to kill her. Then a professional was hired. So was Riyria. When the last member of the oldest noble family in Avryn is targeted for assassination, Riyria is hired to foil the plot. Three years have passed since the war-weary mercenary Hadrian and the cynical ex-assassin Royce joined forces to start life as rogues-for-hire. Things have gone well enough until they're asked to help prevent a murder. Now they must venture into an ancient corner of the world to save a mysterious woman who knows more about Royce than is safe and cares less about herself than is sane.

"I’m tempted to jump straight back into The Riyria Revelations – I just want more Royce and Hadrian. Being back in their world is at once wonderful, and fraught with agony as I know I’ll soon have to leave. The Death of Dulgath was not only a fine addition to Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria world, but a great book all on its own. This would serve as a great starting point for anyone wanting to find out about Riyria, and will open the door to other great books."

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The Rose and the Thorn by Michael J Sullivan

A dear friend is brutally beaten. Two thieves want answers. Riyria is born. One year earlier, two thieves were saved from certain death by the compassion of a stranger. Unable to forget the woman who saved their lives, Royce and Hadrian now return to Gwen DeLancy and are shocked when she refuses to speak to them. Baffled, the two thieves discover Gwen has been brutally beaten by a powerful noble - beaten so badly she can't face them. But Gwen doesn't know about Royce's past, doesn't understand how much he cares for her, and doesn't realize what he is capable of - but she's about to find out.

"The Rose and the Thorn is another brilliant prequel, shedding lights on important events that really open up the wider world of these stories, and explain much of some of its most important characters. While maybe not as good as The Crown Tower on its own, together the two books make up an absolute killer-combination."

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The Crown Tower by Michael J Sullivan

Two men who hate each other. One impossible mission. A legend in the making. Hadrian, a warrior with nothing to fight for, is paired with Royce, 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 prized possessions. But it isn't gold or jewels that their employer is after, and if he can only keep them from killing each other, they might just get him his prize.

"It’s fast-paced, at times funny, at times violent, and the two lead characters (as well as a few supporting ones) are so immediately fascinating that it’s somewhat hard to believe this is fiction. Add to that Sullivan’s absolute mastery of the writing craft (there are some lines which are so brilliantly phrased that it leaves me at once astonished and laughing out loud) and volume one of the Riyria Chonicles is an absolute must for anyone who reads fantasy."

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Heir of Novron by Michael J Sullivan

The New Empire intends to celebrate its victory over the Nationalists with a day that will never be forgotten. On the high holiday of Wintertide, they plan to execute two traitors (Degan Gaunt and the Witch of Melengar) as well as force the Empress into a marriage of their own design. But they didn’t account for Royce and Hadrian finally locating the Heir of Novron—or the pair’s desire to wreak havoc on the New Empire’s carefully crafted scheme.

"Fun, action packed, and for me – someone who doesn’t inherently attempt to solve the book by the end of the first chapter – surprising right up until the final page (literally). If you’re looking for a fun and easy read this new year break, make sure to check out The Riyria Revelations – I’m sure you’ll love it."

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Age of Swords by Michael J Sullivan

Raithe, the God Killer, may have started the rebellion by killing a Fhrey, but long-standing enmities dividing the Rhunes make it all but impossible to unite against the common foe. And even if the clans can join forces, how will they defeat an enemy whose magical prowess renders them indistinguishable from gods?

The answer lies across the sea in a faraway land populated by a reclusive and dour race who feel nothing but disdain for both Fhrey and mankind. With time running out, Persephone leads the gifted young seer Suri, the Fhrey sorceress Arion, and a small band of misfits in a desperate search for aid—a quest that will take them into the darkest depths of Elan. There, an ancient adversary waits, as fearsome as it is deadly.

"Age of Swords marks yet another entry into evidence detailing Michael J. Sullivan’s captivating storytelling. The characters are beautifully fleshed out, the story flows with a pace that never lets you stop, and yet never borders on frantic or slow. With every addition to this universe, Sullivan proves he is one of the most talented and captivating authors currently at work. It’d be a shame to miss out."

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The Disappearance of Winter's Daughter by Michael J Sullivan

A daughter vanishes. Two rogues are paid a fortune to find her. It isn't enough. When Gabriel Winter's daughter mysteriously disappears and is presumed dead, the wealthy whiskey baron seeks revenge. Having lived in Colnora during the infamous Year of Fear, he hires the one man he knows can deliver a bloody retribution - the notorious Duster. Ride with Royce and Hadrian as the cynical ex-assassin and idealistic ex-mercenary travel to a mysterious old-world city filled with nobles claiming descent from imperial aristocracy. Riyria's job appears easy: discover what happened to the missing duchess and, if she lives, bring her home . . . if not, punish those responsible. But nothing is simple in the crowded, narrow, mist-filled streets of Rochelle, where more than one ancient legend lurks.

"The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter may not be as tight as The Death of Dulgath but it is nevertheless in good and close company. I can’t help but simply want more of Royce and Hadrian, and the world that Sullivan has painted leaves me ever intrigued by the various factions and intrigues. For Sullivan readers new and old, Winter’s Daughter is a fantastic tale told with the trademark class that only Michael J Sullivan brings to the table."

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Age of Myth by Michael J Sullivan

Since time immemorial, humans have worshipped the gods they call Fhrey, truly a race apart: invincible in battle, masters of magic, and seemingly immortal. But when a god falls to a human blade, the balance of power between humans and those they thought were gods changes forever. Now only a few stand between humankind and annihilation: Raithe, reluctant to embrace his destiny as the God Killer; Suri, a young seer burdened by signs of impending doom; and Persephone, who must overcome personal tragedy to lead her people. The Age of Myth is over. The time of rebellion has begun.

"Age of Myth left me spellbound from the moment I got past the first chapter having actually read the bloody words on the page. (I’m not going to quickly forgive myself for that one.) I missed out on reading a great book for a couple of months while it sat on my shelf. Michael J. Sullivan satisfies my desire for intimate, character-driven stories, and regularly manages to keep me reading well into the wee-hours of the morning."

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Rise of Empire by Michael J Sullivan

War has come to Melengar and once more Royce and Hadrian are hired to make a desperate gamble and form an alliance with the Nationalists whom are fighting the Imperialists in the south. As the power of the Nyphron Empire grows, so does Royce's suspicion that the wizard Esrahaddon is using the thieves as pawns in his own grab for power. To find the truth, he must unravel the secret of Hadrian's past--what he discovers may end their friendship and break Riyria in two.

"While Rise of Empire isn’t as tightly knit as the previous book, the excellence of the second story makes up for it. Michael J Sullivan is an author I would recommend to just about any reader of fantasy, containing well-written tropes and a bountiful supply of fantasy goodies to keep anyone happy."

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Age of Legend by Michael J Sullivan

So while I may have minor qualms, they are just that – minor. And maybe, in the same way, that no author is able to maintain a perfect reputation, so too do I think that maybe neither does each new entry in a series have to yield the same heights and depth and intricacy. Stretched and thin, maybe, Age of Legend is nevertheless tremendously compelling, and a continued reminder of Michael J. Sullivan’s breathtaking imagination. 

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