Tuesday, October 05, 2010
Review: Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes
Tome of the Undergates (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is the debut novel from Sam Sykes, a relatively young writer with a rather distinctive public persona. This tome combines classic Sword & Sorcery with a bit of epic fantasy while inverting the noble band of adventurers as is the first book of the Aeon’s Gate Trilogy. It’s violent, witty, foul-mouthed, and unpleasant – and depending on one’s perception, it’s either perfect or horribly wrong.
Tome of the Undergates could read like the standard Sword and Sorcery adventure quest – there is wizard, a priestess, a shict (elf equivalent), a dragonman (troll/orc/ogre equivalent), and a talented man all following an inspirational leader. That’s where it ends because this merry band of adventures hate one another – not in the we don’t really get a long way, but in the I want you to die a brutal death as I carve out your heart with a spoon kind of way. Most of the characters are morally reprehensible, all are greatly flawed with mysterious pasts full of violence, pain and punishment, and it’s really hard to figure out how they haven’t already killed each other. Under the leadership of Lenk, who is slowly going batshit insane, the band is bonded not by noble mission or even the desire for a big paycheck – the band is bound by their own self-loathing. The only thing the hate more than each other is probably themselves, so the company, however unpleasant, is actually better than the alternative of being alone. And at least together they seem to get the chance to kill a lot.
All of this is told in the distinctive, dark wit of Sykes’ writing. It’s funny, it’s snarky, it’s sarcastic, and it’s over the top. The only thing more over the top is probably the violence – typically described in visceral detail. The violence is in your face from the beginning – not quite gratuitous, but so close it becomes semantic. Let’s be honest – in this, Tome of the Undergates is something a 14 year old boy would love. Or someone with a sick sense of humor. Or someone who wants to read an extended Dungeons & Dragons campaign. But it would be a mistake to dismiss this book simply because one of those doesn’t apply to you.
Sykes displays strong potential with his writing. Under all of the over-the-top humor and violence, there is some real talent. The adventure is one that I couldn’t help but follow – I needed to see it through. I became strangely devoted to the characters in spite of their questionable morality, rampant racism (err….speciesism?), reprehensible ideas, repeated blasphemy, and awful love stories. I wanted them to live, I wanted them to win, I wanted to see them kill some more creepy beasts. And I wanted to know more about their pasts – why are they so devoted to Lenk, why don’t the kill each other even though they really want to, why do they hate themselves, why don’t they kill themselves. And in the moments when Sykes provides glimpses into their pasts, he excels. Sykes underscores this as the real point by continuing the story well past the climactic battle with his most impressive bit of writing, particularly the section from Gariath.
Unfortunately, the writing has a few more downs than ups. This is Sykes’ first book and as a relatively young writer (only 25 at publication) his youth and inexperience show through. The pacing is off – the battles are too drawn out, a bit too clever, and the dialogue can be equally drawn out and overly clever. The points of view tend to shift both gradually and abruptly without warning or break in the text (this is one of my biggest pet peeves). Many will feel the violence is too much, the language too coarse, and the characters too nasty (in fairness, I think a good many people will consider this a positive). He keeps his characters a bit too mysterious, unrealistically so. And this nearly 500-page book could be much shorter without losing anything. But ultimately, these issues diminished in the face of a fun story.
Some books aren’t for everyone, and that is certainly the case for Tome of the Undergates. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t for some people – it succeeds well within its goals. It’s a book full of violence, adventurers with questionable morals, nasty creatures, with an interesting out-right inversion of the noble quest. And really, that 14 year old boy who doesn’t like books (but likes comics and/or video games) just may think this is the coolest thing ever. I liked it – with reservations – but overall I think it’s a great start for a promising young writer (and in spite of what my wife may claim, I’m no 14 year old boy and I think this book will appeal to a wider, if still limited audience). 7/10
Related Posts: Sam Sykes Answers Questions Five
Full Disclosure: Sam Sykes lives in the same city I do and I have met him on a few occasions, including one in which he bought me a beer and introduced me to George R.R. Martin as we gossiped about writing, publishing and blogging.