The Rose and the Thorn is the second book in Michael J. Sullivan’s RIYRIA CHRONICLES. Sullivan continues to share “the early years” of Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn.
The Rose and the Thorn takes place about one year after the events in The Crown Tower. The book opens, not with our two wandering thieves-for-hire, but with Reuben Hilfred. Reuben is soon to be made one of the royal guards in King Amrath, King of Melengar’s service, and is the son of a guard, but right now he is little more than a stable boy, the target of bullying by a group of young squires. Reuben’s life is sad. His parents were not married, and his mother committed suicide, throwing herself from a tower in the castle. His father, embittered by her death, is a hard drinker and takes his temper out on Reuben. Rueben is good with an axe but not so good with a sword, and he harbors unrequited love for the willful Princess Arista. Things could probably be worse for Reuben, but it’s hard to imagine how.
Reuben is curious about lights he’s seen in the abandoned tower in the castle, the same tower his mother jumped from and his curiosity leads him to uncover a mystery that will play through the whole book. Meanwhile, Hadrian and Royce take up with Albert, a drunken, penniless nobleman who says he will help them navigate the town of Medford, where they are returning. It’s been over a year since Gwen Delancey, a spirited young madam with magical abilities, rescued Hadrian and Royce, but Royce still has not stopped thinking about her. Now, though, when they return to Medford, Gwen refuses to see them. The two wanderers soon discover that Gwen was beaten, badly, by Royal Constable Simon Exeter. Exeter is searching for a young prostitute named Rose who was brought to the castle, and may have overheard something she should not have.
Royce is a basic kind of guy. Someone has hurt Gwen, so he plans revenge, and he does not care that the object of his vengeance works for the king. Reuben, meanwhile, finds Rose and tries to keep her safe. He struggles to make sense of what she tells him she heard, but in the end he can think of no one to turn to except his father. These two seemingly parallel stories intersect when Rueben uncovers a plot by a group of religious fanatics to kill all of the royal family. The group believes that doing so (in all the kingdoms, not just Melengar) will clear the way for a semi-divine avatar, the heir of Novron, to assume rule of the land.
The Rose and the Thorn is fast placed and clever, with a plucky boy being mistreated, not unlike a young character in The Crown Tower. Men who have father issues feature prominently in Sullivan’s work; in addition to Hadrian’s issues with his father, Reuben struggles to understand his. Gwen and the girls play a small but crucial role in the story. A large part of the book seems devoted to introducing Albert fully into the world of Riyria, which is elvish for “two” and is the name the two heroes have given themselves. Once all the players have gathered at the castle, the action steps up and the book becomes quite suspenseful.
Oh, and Note to Self; Never, ever, ever get on Royce Melborn’s bad side. Royce goes after Exeter with the focus of a natural predator, and he does not care that Exeter is the constable, that he has a whole force of men at his command, and that he is at a royal party, hosted by the king, in the king’s own palace. Exeter hurt Gwen. Exeter must die. That’s Royce’s analysis, and his approach to this mission is gruesome but fascinating.
“Rose and Thorn” will probably have some meaning for those who have read the RIYRIA REVELATIONS series.
I still don’t care much for the depiction of women as either prostitutes, markers on a game board, or tragic lasses who commit suicide in poetical ways without, apparently, a second thought for their children; but this rigid structure is the one Sullivan has chosen, for whatever reason. Within that framework he is doing a good job of creating an entertaining story. Gwen’s job may be eye-rollingly cliché, but she is plenty interesting, especially with her precognitive abilities. The overarching conspiracy to kill all the kings is fascinating and I will keep reading just to see what happens with that — that, and to enjoy the sardonic repartee between Hadrian and Royce.