Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sam Sykes - Tome of the Undergates

“I need more. I need …to know that I’m doing the right and proper thing.”

“You’ll never figure that one out,” he answered decisively. “There’s no way to know what the right and proper thing is, you see. Ask a Karnerian, a Sainite, a shcit and a dragonman the same question, they’ll all tell you something different.”

In a lot of ways, I think that we’ve reached the point where subversions have simply gone too far. Tome of the Undergates is about a merry group of adventurers, going off on a fetch quest. Except that they’re not merry, and, while they are adventurers, they’re far deeper than that cavalier title conveys. Each of them is a fair bit more interesting than they first appear. In a twist that is perhaps realistic for a group of severely flawed, violent characters thrust together, everyone hates everyone else. This is not the kind of hate that is eventually replaced by hugs and I Love You’s. No. This is the kind of hate where hugs and I love You’s are met with dialogue like:

“Is this the part where I’m supposed to cry?”

The thunder stopped with her heart; her face screwed up.


“After this delightful little chat about standing tall against the human menace, are we supposed to be charming little friends? Am I supposed to break down in your puny arms and reveal, through tears, some profound insight about the inherent folly of hatred as you revel in your ability to bridge the gap between peoples? Afterwards, we will go prancing through some meadows so you can show me the simple beauty of a spiderweb or a pile of deer dung or whatever it is your worthless, stupid race thinks is important?”

And, at first, I thought it was an awesome concept. But there’s a problem. When you have six people who fight constantly, and they never come to like each other, and they’re together for the whole book, it never ends. The standard arc of: Dislike -> Fight -> Tearful Make Up, which I’m confident every one of us is thoroughly sick of by now, is replaced with: Dislike -> Fight -> Ma-no, Fight -> Fight -> Make u-, no Fight -> Fight. Sykes’s characters seem promising to start, but, at the end, you realize that the promise is all there is. You never get a centimeter deeper than you were in the first half; their relationships never change one iota.

Besides characterization, the book’s other main element is combat. In this department, things are also a mixed bag. The fighting is, frequently, quite well done. Abysmyth demons are suitably powerful to scare the crap out of the reader the first few times they appear. Unfortunately, their appearance is rarely enough for character’s to shelve whatever witty remarks they were about to make. Now, these are frequently hilarious, but they sap all of the energy out of the fight. The book’s opening battle felt something like Obliveon’s dialogue trees, where everything freezes frame while you calmly discuss rumors with your companions until you’re ready to get back to the killing. Still, it’s not even close to enough to break the battle scenes, and some fights, especially toward the end, are great sources of visceral chaos.

In his interview with Aidan, Sykes said:

It’s actually a surprisingly philosophical book. Not the overt, beard-stroking, “what is a chestnut” kind of philosophy, but the sort that delves deep into the psyche of people without being boring. It takes the standard idea of the adventurer in fantasy and asks the questions that are presumed to be answered in the genre: what drives someone to become an adventurer, who is largely presumed to be a graverobber, thief and unprofessional assassin? Would a group composed of many different races, religions and professions really get along so well as to perform a quest? How can they presume a benevolent deity is on their side when they continue to suffer and die? How can they presume that they are in the right when they continue to cause others to suffer and die?

It’s true, Sykes does bring up several interesting questions. The problem is that, like with the characterization, a fascinating premise is all you get. None of the issues are ever explored. Instead, they’re simply voiced by one character or another. Asper questions how she can be doing good while she follows such a bloodthirsty bunch. At the end of the book, Asper still questions exactly the same thing. There are no answers here. Again, perhaps that’s more realistic, but it’s certainly not more satisfying.

The prose is the only great thing about Tome that I don’t have to qualify at all. It’s descriptive, and manages to be atmospheric when appropriate, but it’s also down to earth and always amusing. That being said, Tome has some of the most unflinchingly modern prose I’ve ever read in fantasy, so if you had trouble with Morgan’s ‘55s, you may have some issues here. It’s well worth acclimatizing yourself, though, because some moments are truly hilarious:

[When having a conversation with a Siren]
“I …I do not have a name, I am afraid,” she replied meekly. “I have never had a use for one.”

“Everyone needs a name,” Dreadaeleon quickly retorted. “What else would we call you?”

“Screechy.” Denaos nodded. “Screechy MacEarbleed."

Tome is quite big. Alright, it’s not quite Steven Erikson’s Dust of Dreams, but it’s a respectable 692 pages, hardback. And it should not be. Tome is not a sprawling epic fantasy; it is a book of a single group of characters that go on a simple mission. The pacing in the book feels fast, and there is generally always at least one character in mortal danger, but it goes on for far too long to be effective. The book opens with a (now infamous) fight scene. It could be a dramatic way to open the book, but it goes on for one hundred and sixty pages. It is not a massive engagement featuring thousands of soldiers and munitions that crack the earth. It is six adventurers killing some pirates. Then some more pirates. Then some more pirates. Then some frogmen allied with the pirates. Then some more frogmen. Then some more frogmen. Then things finally get interesting, but by that point I just wanted everyone to calm down and do something that doesn’t involve killing someone. Like have tea.

Essentially, Tome of the Undergates is a seven hundred page book that has the content of a novel half its size. If fifty percent of the fighting was removed, and seventy five percent of the infighting went the same way, it could be quite good. As it is now, however, it is a colossal exercise in maintaining the status quo. 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. Yes, it’s not quite the ordinary set up for adventurers, but, by that point, we’ve seen it before. At the beginning of the book. And I don’t think we needed to see it again.

I realize that this review is a bit harsh on Sykes. Tome of the Undergates is not a bad book. It’s entertaining, even laugh out loud funny on occasion, but I was expecting more. I haven’t given up on Sykes, but I can’t say that I wasn’t disappointed.


This review by The Book Smugglers does an excellent job outlining the faults of the novel. On the other side of the equation, Wert's review also does this quite well. On the opposite side of the spectrum, both the Mad Hatter and The Speculative Scotsman were fans. In addition to reviews, the three interviews (Mad Hatter, Speculative Scotsman, and A Dribble of Ink) were all fascinating and hilarious in equal measure.

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