Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sam Sykes - Black Halo

To those reading who enjoy stories that end with noble goals reached, lofty morals upheld, and mankind left a little better for the experience, I would suggest closing this journal now, should you have stumbled upon it long after it separated from my corpse.

It only gets worse from here. (p. 9)

Black Halo is Sam Sykes's second novel. His first, Tome of the Undergates, had many interesting elements, but had an annoying or disappointing feature to match each of them. It was a new kid striding onto the dance floor with a bizarre style that was intriguing but didn't always work. Black Halo is him coming back the next year with not only his original maneuvers but also the skill to make them succeed. All of which, of course, is not to say that those maneuvers (or the preceding tortured metaphor) succeed all the time.

Black Halo is not a book focused on plot. Though there's a lot of action, the characters never advance significantly towards their goals. In my review of Tome of the Undergates, I said: At the beginning of the book, the characters have a magic book, hate each other, and have a series of interesting internal debates. At the end of the book, the characters have regained their magic book, still hate each other, and still have several philosophical puzzles to grapple with. Black Halo doesn't even cover that much ground. The characters start with a magic book, lose the magic book, and have yet to regain it by the time the book ends.

But that's not to say that the book stands still. When it comes to the overall plot, Black Halo doesn't so much move forwards as move sideways. That probably sounds like a condemnation, and it no doubt is to some extent, but the expansion in scale is massive and elevates the book above its predecessor. The majority of Black Halo follows the same adventurers as Tome of the Undergates did, but now there are numerous perspectives that give us further information on the Venarium, the Netherlings, and other groups. Tome of the Undergates was like following a specific, albeit important, sub plot of an epic fantasy. The events seen were interesting, but we were too close to them to grasp their importance. Black Halo, on the other hand, is like witnessing a widescale conflict – with a certain rogue group of adventurers running around in the middle of everyone's plans and wreaking delightful havoc.

The pace is half sprint and half crawl. Within scenes, events often move at a rapid clip, and circumstances often change drastically from one page to the next. In terms of the overall plot, however, it's not unusual to find a thirty or forty page segment that doesn't seem to move the characters in any particular direction. Overall, it's like sprinting into every nook and cranny on a long run and so not getting particularly far at all. The occasional faux-cliffhanger also makes its appearance, chapter endings where the tension would have been resolved with another eighth of a second (or sentence), but where, due to the book's multi-pov structure, the answer doesn't come for three dozen pages.

Still, such things are ameliorated by the general awesomeness of all the aforementioned nooks and crannies. Sykes's world is bizarre, varied, and, above all, interesting. Characters encounter friendly and talkative lizardmen, debate hallucinatory monkeys, antagonize gigantic sea serpents, piss fire and vomit acid after magical mishaps, and get into a dozen other varieties of trouble, trouble solved as often by further catastrophe as by the endangered's quick thinking of skills.

Most of our unmerry adventurers are more fleshed out this time around, and Sykes allows us to peer inside them a fair bit. Lenk, the group's leader, in particular comes into much clearer focus, and the conflicting voices in his head are ominous and speaking of great and dark things. His relationship with Kataria, too, advances, or at least goes deeper.

Of the other characters, Denaos grows the most. Interesting facts about his background come to life, and our glimpses inside the rogue's skull serve to make him more fascinating than despicable – or, at least, a mixture of both. Dreadaleon spends most of his time suffering rather badly from his overuse of magic in Tome of the Undergates. He's got some funny scenes, but his portions only get really interesting at the end.

Asper continues on her path of gods-doubting and strange-powers-experiencing. She's by far the most moral character of the bunch, and the question of the group's rightness (let alone righteousness) rests primarily in her evaluation, but she herself is still mostly an enigma. We get the broad outlines of her conflict, but she probably has the least sections of any of the major characters and reveals little in those she does have. Gariath spends most of his time alone or conversing with a certain ghost. Like in Tome of the Undergates, I found myself enjoying his character far more from other eyes than his own; his perspective is interesting in small doses, but his doom-drowned monologue can grow grating.

In addition to being amusingly written, every one of the character arcs above also share a major trait: repetition. Sykes has a deft hand for characterization and for momentous decisions, but his characters have the annoying habit of making those same decisions again and again.  The first time Lenk surrenders control to the voices in his head is a powerful moment. Every time after that, however, suffers from the law of diminishing returns, and further debates on the issue feel redundant once an answer's been reached time and time again.

Sykes's prose is powerful and irreverent, and it's easy to imagine the malicious grin on his face as he sullies the most romantic and solemn of scenes with messy realities: The firelight bathed her sweat-slick skin in gold, battling the pervasive moonlight's determination to paint her silver, both defeated by the smudges of earth and mud that smeared her pale skin from where she had fallen more than a few times. (p. 350) That being said, Sykes does not just render all moments coarse. His writing is often even poetic, reveling in the edges of human experience and turning flaws into virtues, such as his characters' often "sweat-kissed" skin (p. 32). Furthermore, when it comes to his creations and environments, Sykes is capable of summoning grace and atmosphere to the scene:

The wind picked up, sending the mist roiling about her ankles and her torch's light flickering. It carried with it a stink of salt and the faded coppery stench of dried blood. The moon shifted overhead, exposing a scant trace of light over her.

And with it, a shadow. (p. 143)

There are still quite a few issues that bug me with Sykes's writing, but those issues have been, for the most part, relegated to a background role. If the Aeon's Gate series is a long stretch of road, the end of Black Halo leaves the reader with the feeling that they can still quite clearly see the beginning of the book – and, perhaps, even the beginning of the first book. But the stretch of ground covered was, nonetheless, an exhilarating journey filled with misadventures so preposterous that they cease to be anything other than freaking awesome. Black Halo is messy, meandering, funny, gory, exciting, and fun – all at the same time, all the time.

1 comment:

  1. And so my wish list keeps getting longer...

    Ever read Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward? That was an artfully irreverent book that played around with the fantasy tropes without seriously breaking anything.