You can’t help but admire an author with the audacity to open a book with an almost 200 page battle scene. No, that wasn’t a typo. The sprawling fight that opens Sam Sykes’ ‘Tome of the Undergates’ is as long as some novellas. It takes a certain kind of chutzpah to ignore the rules like that, and I tip my hate to Mr. Sykes for it.
In fact, I tip my hate twice, because unconventional as the opening was, I enjoyed every second of it. This surprised me, because I have a tendency to skim over fight scenes in books, even when I’m already attached to the characters. But Syke’s prose is crisp and tempered with a unique kind of humour that my interest was held from the get go, even though my investment in his characters was zero. I actually really liked the way each character was introduced mid fight. It was a change from how these things are normally done, and watching how each adventurer reacted to life threatening danger provided deep insight into them right from the get go.
Sykes' characters are definitely on the Abercrombie end of the Tolkien/Abercrombie character morality scale. I wouldn’t say unlikable, although plenty of people have, but certainly they have their flaws. It might be because they all claim to hate each other so much that their worst traits keep showing up, or maybe it’s just because they’re adventurers. Still, I found there was something to like in each of them, which stopped all their bad sides from being too much. On the downside I would have liked to see more character growth as the book progressed. They went from hating each other to…. Still hating each other. From being happy to let each other die to… Being happy to let each other die. Plus, man, the self pity! They hate each other, they hate themselves, come on guys! It’s not all bad!
Enough about them, let’s talk plot. The book opens at a hurtling pace and continues on that way. There are no pauses to let the reader no what’s going, you have to figure it out for yourself. Which might bug some people, but I am a fan of working shit out for myself. So, we have a team of adventurers (who rank somewhere below cockroaches in this universe) who are on a ship providing protection to some priestly fellow and his tome. Or should I say Tome with a capital 'T,' because this is one important book. The ship is best by adversaries, the Tome is stolen, and the adventurers must retrieve it against all odds. Now there’s nothing wrong with a simple plot, but I think ‘Tome of the Undergates’ was too simple. Some obstacles or complication to the adventurer’s quest would have been welcome.
Furthermore, while I hugely enjoyed the action filled opening to the book, once that battle ended and the gang set off in search of the Tome my enjoyment began to slip. Sykes handles scenes of high action extremely well, but he seems lost when it came to quieter, more introspective moments. It seemed a bit like the characters were just standing around, waiting for the next fight start. Instead of skimming the battles, I found myself skimming all the stuff between battles, which was certainly a first for me. Overall the book felt like fight scenes linked by filler, like a d-grade action movie.
Honestly, I think if I hadn’t enjoyed the actual style of Sykes’s prose so much I would have given up on this one. There’s a really unique, almost visceral quality to the way he writes, and an almost total lack of clichés. Plus, and I know I mentioned this earlier but I’ll say it again for emphasis, Sam Sykes is wicked funny. Every sentence drips with cynical humour, but the it never comes across as too joke heavy. It’s an overall air of cleverness, instead of joke after joke.
I will give the next book in this series, ‘Black Halo’ a try. I feel like even though ‘Tome of the Undergates’ may have neglected character growth and plot, there is real potential there. And if nothing else I know it will be written with style.
This book: I bought