The Legends of the First Empire is a fantasy series written by Michael J. Sullivan that is set within the Riyria universe. No prior knowledge of the Riyria books is required to enjoy this series to the fullest, but those who read both will find the truth in various myths and legends and see for themselves how The First Empire was formed.

Fantasy has been my constant companion during some of the most trying periods in my life. No matter how crazy things got, there was always fantasy – a fantasy world I could lose myself in. A journey through Michael J Sullivan’s fictional world of Elan is one that will always have a special place in my heart, and will remain on a pedestal, generally reserved for some of the most beloved fantasy worlds such as Cosmere, Middle Earth, Westeros and the Stillness.

While there are three different series that all take place in the fictional world of Elan, they happen at different historical times. I wasn’t aware of these multiple series, and had started with Legends of the First Empire, which turned out to be a great starting point considering it’s the chronological first book.

The first thing that struck me about this wonderful series is that it is familiar to many fantasy books, but in a very endearing way. There are elves and dwarves, dragons and magic, heroes and gods, age-old secrets and prophecies, fellowships that embark on epic journeys, and as is obligatory with any good fantasy, it has some amazing cool-sounding locations (Alon Rhist, Avempartha). Another aspect that surprised me was the ability of MJS to concoct a full-fledged fantasy epic within 500 pages, when traditional fantasy books tend to ramble into 1000+ tomes.

While the six-book series is a sprawling high fantasy with many interconnected storylines, it is never bogged with exposition. MJS is a fantastic storyteller, who gets the narration, pacing and structure absolutely spot on. We are given tantalizing pieces of the puzzle only to realize later that it was only a part of a bigger piece. I loved how the stakes increase gradually, evolving from the threat of a rabid bear to immortal gods and a journey into the underworld.

While the plot keeps you invested, it’s the immensely likable and diverse ensemble cast that makes this series extra special. Despite having so many lead characters – courageous Moya, steadfast Gifford, selfless Raithe, intelligent Roan, hopeful Brin, powerful Suri, and the keenig herself Persephone – MJS ensures that each character has a befittingly epic character arc. Even some of the more despicable characters are given beautiful redemption arcs.

Themes of racism and abuse are covered with an authentic touch. MJS deserves credit for concocting the most wondrous love story between two of the oppressed characters, who are as unlikely a pair you will ever come across. It wouldn’t be a big leap to proclaim I have rarely seen a better portrayal of love in any other fantasy series. There are some amazing action sequences, but the magic system and the fights fall short of the lofty standards set by Brandon Sanderson. I found MJS’s writing endearingly similar to Tolkien and I cannot recommend this series enough. As the pandemic rages, we have never needed fantasy more in our lives as a source of escapism, and MJS immersive world of Elan is a great world to teleport to.