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Self-Published Fantasy Redux: Riyria. Revelation.

My favorite fantasy books of 2015 have been self-published. For a guy that wrote “Self-Published Fantasy and Me” for this very website, that is quite an admission. And while I don’t for one moment regret that previous article, I do admit to one colossal miscalculation.

The Crown Tower (cover)I should have read Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations years ago.

After writing the aforementioned article, I decided that I needed to give a self-published work a fair shake. So I went with what, in my completely unscientific survey of the Internet, seemed to be the most popular. It isn’t like I hadn’t heard of Sullivan or his books prior. I had. I just…had no desire to give them a go. There were other, traditionally published books to read. I’ve felt the same way about Hugh Howey’s Wool for years. In fact, Wool was a close second to the Riyria Revelations. But Wool didn’t have dwarves or elves. Riyria did. Choice made.

I was floored.

According to my Goodreads history, I blew through Theft of Swords in 15 days, Rise of Empire in eight, and Heir of Novron in seven. That’s technically six books in 30 days, considering each paperback contains two full novels. I’m a fast reader, but for a father of three small children and full-time lawyer, that is a torrid pace. I couldn’t stop reading. I was captivated. I had to know what happened next.

RiseOfEmpireReading a great novel is rewarding in and of itself, but the fact that these books had been self-published blew my mind. So I took to the Internet and began to look for interviews, podcasts and any other info on Sullivan I could find. Imagine my utter shock when I learned that Michael J. Sullivan grew up in the same place I did. The same place I still live today. The same landscape of steel mills, auto plants, concrete and occasional excursions to the verdant north. He was from Detroit and he wrote these books. And it all started to make sense.

I’m going to respectfully decline to provide an in-depth analysis of the socioeconomic and intellectual chameleon that Detroit has always been. I’ve lived here my entire life and every day I hate it and love it in equal amounts. It is a strange place, one completely unlike any of the versions of Detroit that are lauded or lamented in the national and international media. Murder capital, hipster mecca, American wasteland, cradle of industry—Detroit is all of those things and none of them. Trying to explain Detroit to someone that doesn’t live here is difficult at best. But one thing Detroit is, and has always been, is a crucible of creativity. Whether talking about art, engineering, architecture, music or industry Detroit has a prominent place in the conversation.

Like many people from Detroit, Sullivan got discouraged. For a time, he quit. He did other things, but he did them on his own terms. And eventually he returned to writing, finding success on his own terms. It isn’t an uncommon story around here, and although Michael J. Sullivan no longer lives in Detroit, I’d hazard to say he’d agree that you can never truly leave the lessons learned here behind. His success and perseverance are proof positive of that. As an aspiring writer myself, the story behind the books gives me hope.

Heir of Novron (cover)The Riyria Revelations do not read like the other self-published novels. There is nothing amateurish about them in either presentation or execution. They are as meticulously written, edited and presented as any novel published through one of the major houses. The characters and plot jump off the page. Over the course of six books, Sullivan weaves a tale that is equal parts subtlety and bombast. The books are funny. They are action-packed. They occasionally tug at the heartstrings. And above all they are entertaining. The progression from The Crown Conspiracy to Percepliquis is exponential. Each book builds and expands upon what came before, adding layers of backstory and complexity without ever meandering.

Sullivan trades in an economy of word that many “traditionally published” authors would envy. His prose is clean and simple yet still evocative. The language of his characters is unadorned, but not lacking in weight. Sullivan’s writing is confident and utterly without pretense and exhibits none of the awkwardness the self-published fantasy I’ve read previously struggles with.

In my prior article, I wrote:

Poor musicianship can be shrouded by volume, emotion or a lyrical deftness. A great writer can redeem poor comic art. A visually repulsive film can be rewarding if the story is captivating. But a novel? A fantasy novel? The deck is stacked against it.

I stand by that statement. A poorly written novel sticks out like a sore thumb. But a well-written tale can be entertaining, gripping, harrowing and yes, even inspiring—regardless of how it was published. Michael J. Sullivan taught me that.

Author’s Note: Michael J. Sullivan has recently announced that he will be embarking upon a Kickstarter campaign to facilitate self-publishing the third volume of his Riyria Chronicles series, a prequel series to the The Riyria Revelations. Due to traditional publishing commitments, The Death of Dulgath needs to be published by the end of calendar year 2015. Information regarding the Kickstarter, as well as Sullivan’s many other works, can be found at www.riyria.com. I say this not to encourage donations (although I definitely do) but to illustrate Sullivan’s commitment to getting his stories into the hands of fans.

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8 Comments

  1. Avatar G R Matthews says:

    I’ve read Michael’s books and will agree 100 – fantastic stories of high adventure.

    And, there are a lot of good Self-pub’d books out there – Mark Lawrence’s self-pub’d blog off (#spfbo on twitter) is going well – many good books (*cough *cough *hint * hint) getting excellent reviews from reliable and respected bloggers.

  2. Avatar Davieboy says:

    Excellent article Zach; I listened to all the Riyria audiobooks recently and confirm they’re fab. I particularly liked how the ending really came together so well. Also listened to Hollow World by MJS too – quite different but thought-provoking and entertaining.

  3. Avatar Rhod says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the books. I read Theft of Swords and while he’s a decent story-teller his prose is pretty poor.

  4. Avatar Zack (@perch15) says:

    Thanks Rhod. I think that the evolution of the prose from Book 1 to Book 6 is impressive. Very Butcher-esque in that way, but over a condensed time frame. While I never viewed the writing as poor, the quality definitely trended up over the course of the books.

  5. Hey Zach, thanks for making my Saturday a bit brighter. Yes, people from Motown are an inventive and resilient group. My father worked in one of the steel mills you referenced and I think he forged it me a sense of independence and persistence that is greatly needed in the turbulent world that is publishing these days.

    I do think there are a lot of fine tales to be found that either started or remain in the “indie scene”: Anthony Ryan, David Dalglish, Mitchell Hogan, Hugh Howey and many more have taken their work and parlayed it to lucrative traditional deals. But there are just as many who have CHOSEN to self-publish for creative control, better pay, and an aversion to contracts that highly favor the publishers. I do hope you give some others a try. I think you’ll like what you find.

    Oh, and thanks for mentioning the Kickstarter. The one down-side to self-publishing is the inability to get the books carried in stores. I’m hoping that with some help from others (to do a hardcover print run) I’ll be able to keep it in the bookstores along with all the other titles. Time will tell if my little experiment works or not.

    • Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

      Thanks Mike. I appreciate that. Your comment regarding choosing to stay independent really hits home. Creative control, control of the business aspects of publishing, etc. – it has worked in film and music for years. I think what is happening for me, personally, is I’m just realizing it is no different for books. Quality art stands on its own merit, regardless of how it is distributed. I’m late to the party, sure, but better late than never. And regardless of how a book is published, what is between the covers is what is important. Can’t wait for the Kickstarter to go live.

  6. Avatar Tristan says:

    Those look good! Long live self-publishing!

  7. I was basically in the same boat as you. I’d heard of MJS, but because his books were originally self-published, I was a little hesitant to give them a go. Then when I did, I read the whole Revelations series in less than a month, and now consider it one of my favorite fantasy series.

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