By Sam Sykes
You have to feel just slightly sorry for Sam Sykes. He’s only 25 and yet Tome of the Undergates has been hailed as the biggest fantasy debut of 2010 and, as it comes from the Gollancz stable, he follows in the footsteps of writers like Joe Abercrombie, Pat Rothfuss, Scott Lynch and Tom Lloyd, pretty exalted company to be in and each one a damned hard act to follow. But then again he’s young and talented and has a book deal so, like I said, only slightly sorry.
Lenk is an adventurer, and he commands – in the loosest way imaginable – a band of not-so-merry men and women. A mismatched crew made up of a Shictish woman, Kataria, deadly with a bow and who regards any race other than the Shict as simply ‘less than’; a Dragonman, Goriath, a wall of strength, determined to die a glorious death in battle and who regards all humans as vermin; Denoas, a self-centered thief with far too many knives secreted about his person and who you don’t want to be left alone in a room with – especially if he needs to know something; Asper, a priestess whose calling dictates that she go out in the world as a healer and who gets lots of practice by staying with this crew and finally Dreadaeleon, a young Mage with impressive skills but who is still learning his art and has no people skills whatsoever.
This rag-tag mob is escorting The Lord Emissary on board a ship when it is attacked by pirates. Just when they think they have the pirates beaten, strange and demonic creatures rise up out of the sea, overpowering everyone and taking with them a book, The Tome Of The Undergates, a sacred manuscript that contains the secret of how to open the undergates. With no other options, The Lord Emissary engages Lenk and his crew – for a not inconsiderable sum of money – to track down the creatures and recover the tome before all hell breaks loose..literally.
I enjoyed reading Tome of the Undergates from the first page, Sam Sykes writes with real poetry in places and he has a knack for constructing sentences with rhythm and tempo that make the reading fun and the story flow. The characters are nicely drawn with quite distinct voices and despite the story taking place in basically two locations he has a created the beginnings of a world which hangs together pretty well while being populated by different races, religions and colours. The action too comes thick and fast and the pace doesn’t let up much for its 600-odd page length. Every battle is bloody and brutal and if you like your violence with no-holds barred then you’ll be in hog heaven reading this.
But it’s not all beer and skittles because despite everything that Tome of the Undergates gets right, there are a number of flaws. For starters Lenk isn’t much of a main character. Sure he’s the leader, brave, charismatic a good swordsman etc. but he isn’t a hero around which the story rotates, in fact storytime is divided so equally amongst the cast that the book doesn’t feel like it has a central character, it’s more of an ensemble piece, which is fine but doesn’t give the reader something to anchor on to, and while he has a mysterious element to him we don’t get to know anything about it, so we don’t know what he wants or have any clue as to what his arc might be.
Also, as a group, this lot despise each other. No really. Practically every page has one or other them verbally or physically abusing another of them which is fun at first but becomes tiresome. I can understand one of them being constantly like that but not all otherwise they’d have killed each other long ago, especially the non-humans who have no regard for the humans and no qualms about them dying. Also group dynamics are such that people usually buddy up with one another and so factions are created and partnerships formed but this type of behaviour too is sadly lacking.
Having said all that don’t be put off reading Tome of the Undergates because there’s plenty in there to enjoy. From the opening 200-odd page attack by Cragsmen pirates to the green-haired siren, the demonic fishmen, the purple-skinned Xena-like warrior women – I could go on – there’s so much plot crammed in there that frankly I’m really looking forward to the next book. There’s a blisteringly good story in there and I want to know how it ends!
So like I said up front, you have to feel slightly sorry for Sam Sykes – he’s got a lot to live up to – but he has talent in abundance and time is very definitely on his side and he will just get better and better, so only slightly sorry.