A motley assortment of adventurers, led by Lenk, find it difficult to do anything but bicker with each other as they travel the world in search of pay. In fact, there seems to be not an ounce of goodwill between any of them. You’d think when their ship is attacked by pirates, they’d band together, but the insults just fly more furiously. As Lenk attempts to round the characters up and point them all in the same direction — towards the demon that threatens their lives and souls — he realises that he is having a very bad day. What follows is a rollercoaster ride as Lenk and his band are sent to take back the Tome of the Undergates from the demons that need it to open the very gates of hell. Green-haired fish women, purple-skinned Amazonians, and the manifestation of all evil stand in their way as they try to fulfil their task.
The description above really doesn’t do justice to the action-packed Tome of the Undergates. Sam Sykes kicks off the action with an immense sea battle and rarely allows the reader to pause for breath as he sends his characters into almost-certain-death time and time again. He appears to revel in putting the characters through some of the worst imaginable scenarios: madness, mutilation and murder. If you’re looking for a a fantasy book filled with political intrigue or farmboys discovering their destiny, this might not be for you. For anyone who enjoys their fantasy daubed in blood and filled with crotch-stomping incidents, I would urge you to give Tome of the Undergates a try.
The writing is demanding, breathless, and very, very aggressive — even the romance is conducted in an aggressive fashion. Once you’ve started, it’s very hard to extricate yourself from the world that Sykes‘ characters inhabit. You’ll be dying to find out what exactly motivates these people, but Sykes keeps an admirable poker face and waits until the end game to really start revealing some of the secrets about his characters. For some people, it might be difficult to read a book that is so stingy on the big reveal, but I actually found this refreshing. No horrible info dumping moments here! The reader discovers pretty much everything as the characters do.
Despite the monumental battle scenes that send the pulse racing, I actually think that Sykes’ greatest strength comes from the quieter moments that find his characters talking genuinely to each other. The dialogue is effective and allows the reader to really get a handle on each of the ‘voices.’ In fact, some of the dialogue is very funny in an extremely dry manner. Take this for example:
“Of course we’re going in there,” Denaos snapped. “It’s completely brainless, bereft of any logical reason and totally suicidal. Why wouldn’t we go in there?”
Considering the “gritty” style of the majority of the book, it is also surprising and distinctly pleasant to read some very poetic moments that indicate that there is more to come from this author than just bloodshed and mayhem:
The dawn was shy, too polite to come and chase the stars away, contenting itself with slowly creeping into the twilit conversation one wisp at a time.
Tome of the Undergates has issues. The setting is a little D&D and the customary mismatched band of characters (rogue, archer, magician, etc) and their constant bickering also give that impression.
Until the plot really grips, you can find yourself a little lost and wondering why these characters are spending time together. In fact, Sykes drops the reader right into the very middle of a battle without explaining what is going on or how the characters got to this point. You have to take on faith the fact that you will find out what you need to know later.
Some of the prose is a little rough but, given Sykes’ age, I’m willing to forgive this, knowing that he will improve as his career progresses. Certainly this would not deter me from picking up further writing from this author.
In conclusion, Tome of the Undergates is a debut novel with faults, but the faults are easy to overlook in exchange for the fun that is on offer. You certainly cannot deny that Sam Sykes is breaking the fantasy mould and stamping on it in the process! It is unique and cataclysmic, and deserves to be read.