Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan
With Age of Myth, Michael J. Sullivan begins a prequel series to his RIYRIA CHRONICLES and RIYRIA REVELATIONS series. The good news for newcomers to his books is that, since this series takes place about 3,000 years earlier, you don’t need to be familiar with either of those series or the world of Elan to enjoy this new LEGENDS OF THE FIRST EMPIRE series, so I was in good shape. I know pretty much zero about the other Riyria books, except that many epic fantasy fans are very enthusiastic about them, but I really enjoyed Age of Myth and am anxious to start the next book in this series, Age of Swords, which will be published July 25, 2017.
In Elan there are five major races, but Age of Myth focuses on just two of those races. Humans are known as the Rhune, and their society is at primitive, pre-Iron Age stage (a copper sword is a Very Big Deal), living in clans in villages. The lives of the Rhune people have similarities to early Celtic society during the Neolithic period (4300 – 2000 BC). The Rhune live near but entirely separate from the Fhrey race, who the humans think of as immortal gods. In actuality, the Fhrey are an extremely long-lived race ― reaching 3000 years of age is not unusual ― with highly advanced technology, and some of them, the Miralyith tribe, have the gift of tapping natural forces to perform immensely powerful magic, which they call the Art.
The status quo is upended one day when a human father and son, caught on the wrong side of a river defining the borders of human land, clash with a Fhrey. The Fhrey swiftly kills the father, but is then killed in turn by the son, Raithe (with a little help from one of the Fhrey’s slaves, Malcolm, who’s been chafing at his bondage). Raithe and Malcolm take off to hide themselves in human lands, while the Fhrey mobilize to revenge the death of one of their own, and perhaps also to try to quash the humans’ knowledge that the Fhrey are in fact mortal beings who can be killed. And now all bets are off, though the humans are at a terrible disadvantage technologically and magically.
Raithe, who has now garnered the appellation of the God Killer, eventually joins up with the Dahl Rhen village, which is undergoing its own internal upheaval. Reglan, the chieftain of Dahl Rhen, has just been killed in a conflict with Grin the Brown, an immense bear with an unfortunate taste for human flesh. Reglan’s widow Persephone, who participated equally with her husband in governing Dahl Rhen, is having a hard time taking a back seat in clan matters, particularly when the new chieftain, Konniger, clearly needs her advice … but is flatly unwilling to accept it. Perhaps as a result, Persephone’s life is threatened by some of the villagers. The arrival of Raithe and other strangers at Dahl Rhen may affect both the internal conflict and the larger one looming with the Fhrey.
Age of Myth is epic fantasy based on familiar European culture and folklore, though from an earlier era than most fantasy novels. But the folklore created here has some unexpected twists, and Sullivan tells a compelling tale, weaving together several different plot threads as the storm of war coalesces and the cast of characters assembles and begins to touch one another’s lives. Sullivan’s writing style is for the most part straightforward, with occasional deeper insights and dashes of humor. Using details of characters and their lives, he immerses the reader in this clannish world, where life is difficult and precarious. The plot is complex and layered without tipping over into confusion and opacity. Though magic plays a role, it can be an elusive one: some events that at first appear to be magical are eventually revealed to have a more mundane explanation, and vice versa.
The characters in Age of Myth are well-rounded, not always what you might expect, with human flaws, and there are several great woman characters. One of the main characters is Persephone, an attractive 37 year old widow with a gift for leadership. Her Fhrey counterpart is Arion, a strong-willed wielder of magic who is navigating the treacherous political scene in Fhrey society and teach the spoiled young son of the fane, the Fhrey ruler, to be a better magic practitioner and a better person. Suri is a young teenager, with mystical abilities that are apparently unique among the Rhune and with a dislike for human society, preferring her white wolf Minna and the company of friendly trees. Raithe is one of the best human warriors, but is leery of his new fame as the God Killer and longs for a more peaceful life with a family (he has his eye on Persephone, even though she’s ten years older than he is). The antagonists in the story ― Konniger the Rhune chieftain, Gryndal the Fhrey First Minister, the young Fhrey prince, and others ― tend to be more one-dimensional, though that may change as the series progresses.
Age of Myth begins a five-novel arc, but it ends with a natural break (i.e., it’s not a frustrating cliffhanger), though there are several mysteries left to be answered and conflicts to be resolved in future volumes of this series. I found it absorbing reading, and jumped straight into Age of Swords, the next volume, as soon as I was done with this one.
Age of Myth is fun and entertaining, even if many plot points are predictable and it isn’t terribly deep. I read the paperback edition which came out in 2017. This is Book One of THE LEGENDS OF THE FIRST EMPIRE, Michael J. Sullivan’s latest second-world fantasy series.
Sullivan was best known to me for his RIYRIA series. You do not need to have read those to follow or enjoy Age of Myth, but a lot of the things that made those books successful also work in this book. There’s an odd-couple partnership, snappy banter, hateable villains, plucky kids, strong women and magical animals. There is a beautiful, magical, scary forest where much of the action takes place. I loved that forest. And, as an aside, I loved Marc Simonetti’s gorgeous cover.
Because it’s Book One, the story focuses largely on drawing people together and often having individuals reminisce about how things used to be, giving us the backstory. There are at least three races: humans, who are just like us; the Fhrey, long-lived magical beings who are worshipped by the humans as gods; and the Dherg, who were vanquished in a war with the Fhrey. Humans are confined to the less hospitable areas of this world, like next to the creepy forest, and live in palisaded villages. Most of the Fhrey rarely leave their home except for one clan that has been sent to guard the frontier and keep the humans in line. We soon learn that there are schisms among the various Fhrey tribes, because only one group of them, the Miralyith, can actually wield magic. Some of the Fhrey want to bring the Instarya, the frontier clan, home, but others do not, and they fear them. There is an overarching story for the Fhrey concerning a Door which cannot be opened, so that’s something to look forward to.
When Raithe, a human, kills a Fhrey, he knows he’s in for trouble but probably doesn’t realize that he may have started a war. He’s not happy with the new nickname God-killer. He and Malcolm, an escaped slave of the Fhrey, flee into the forest and make their way to the village where Persephone, who is newly widowed, lives. Her husband was the chieftain, but he died in a hunting party against a demon bear in the forest. Now Konniger is the new chieftain. Persephone immediately butts heads with him when she takes in Suri, a strange girl from the forest, and her wolf companion. Suri is a mystic and she predicts a cataclysm, but Persephone can’t get Konniger to listen to her. Persephone, who is a strong character, seems a little thick at times, particularly about the new chieftain.
Meanwhile, Arion, a Miralyith, is in a political struggle with Gryndal, another Miralyith who is ambitious above his station, and he connives to have her sent to the frontier to take care of this God-killer business. Arion pursues a group of Instarya mutineers and soon collides with the people of Persephone’s village.
We meet a lot of characters, from the villagers to the defiant Instarya. If you’re someone who lacks patience with complicated, morally ambiguous characters, you will be happy with Age of Myth. There’s little doubt ever who is a Bad Guy, even within the village. This, like the naming convention — or, more accurately, complete lack of a naming convention — is a signal to the reader. There’s going to be magic, and cryptic pronouncements to be decrypted; there will be battle scenes and chase scenes, and it isn’t ever going to get too deep or too hard to figure out. The Fhrey live for three thousand years barring a fatal accident, and they wield incredible power, but they don’t think or act any differently than humans (except to assume they’re better than humans). This is a world where the humans in one village have this collection of names: Persephone, Sarah, Suri, Maeve, Malcolm, Raithe. That really tells you all you need to know.
This isn’t a story about a complex, organically-developed world; this is a big entertainment with alliances, betrayals, magic and fighting, all set against some great scenery. Judged on those factors, Age of Myth delivers.
This is probably the last book I’ll finish in 2020 and it was a great way to end the year! 4 stars.