Last week, I was looking for something to read and as I was hunting through my shelves, I came upon Michelle West’s Sun Sword series. I had picked up the first volume (The Broken Crown) when I was about to head to Central America for 6 months of volunteering, and had wanted to have a few fat books with me.
The Broken Crown was a lucky pick back then. Firstly, it was fat, clocking in at an epic 764 pages, but it was also really good. The thrust of the whole series is that a very competent general has staged a coup and killed an incompetent king and all his family. So far, no problems. I like the General.
But there are always problems.
The symbol of kingship in the south is whether the king can take up the Sun Sword, which happens to be really really useful against demons. There was one last son of the old king’s who was serving as a hostage in a northern court, and the agent sent to kill him was not successful. So, we have a lost prince deprived of his thrown, and only he can wield the Sun Sword.
So, civil war, with the prince being helped by some loyal provinces and the northern country.
But there are more problems. The general had conspired with demons to carry out the coup, with the plan being that when the old king’s lines was extinguished, he would take up the Sun Sword and turn on his allies.
There are other players, arguably the major players yet to fill out. The larger plot rotates about the axis connecting the general and the prince, but both north and south have their own kinds of wizards, as well as seers and bards, and I have to say, they are deftly created with a sense of cultural and social detail that is sometimes breathtaking.
The south especially is created in this level of cultural detail, and the best way to describe it would be to take a bushido ethos and aesthetic sensibility and insert it into a desert horse warrior culture. And we have a large window into the culture West has created, because the principal hero of the first book, of the five or six on offer, is the daughter of one of the wizards in the south, and women in the south must be more socially astute, just to survive, so her viewpoint is perfect for peeling the onion.
One of the things I also loved about this series was the cosmology and the feel of deep time. It became a much more prominent part of the story in later volumes, but it reminds me of Moorcock’s cosmology from Elric and Corum, with other places and the pathways leading between them. And the north and south are ancient, with so much forgotten, including older kinds of lost magic that are slowly recovered as those threads of peoples who carried these knowledges forward into today.
The Broken Crown was published in 1997, and West followed it up with The Uncrowned King, The Shining Court, The Sea of Sorrows, The Riven Shield, and The Sun Sword, which finished the series in 2004 with the last 957 pages. Here’s the complete publication details:
The Broken Crown (July 1997, 764 pages, $6.99, cover by Jody Lee)
The Uncrowned King (Sept 1998, 687 pages, $6.99, cover by Jody Lee)
The Shining Court (Aug 1999, 737 pages, $6.99, cover by Jody Lee)
Sea of Sorrows (May 2001, 830 pages, $6.99, cover by Paul Youll)
The Riven Shield (July 2003, 828 pages, $6.99, cover by Jody Lee)
The Sun Sword (Jan 2004, 957 pages, $7.99, cover by Jody Lee)
I read the whole series, and just reread The Broken Crown, and am about to jump back into the whole series. If you love epic fantasy, I highly recommend it.
Derek Künsken writes science fiction and fantasy and sometimes horror in Gatineau, Canada. He tweets at @derekkunsken.