Author: Sam Sykes
Genre: Fantasy (Epic Fantasy)
Publisher: Gollancz (UK)
Publication date: April 15 2010
Hardcover: 612 pages
Stand alone or series: 1st in a planned trilogy
Lenk can barely keep control of his mismatched adventurer band at the best of times (Gariath the dragon man sees humans as little more than prey, Kataria the shict despises most humans and the humans in the band are little better). When they’re not insulting each other’s religions they’re arguing about pay and conditions. So when the ship they are travelling on is attacked by pirates things don’t go very well. They go a whole lot worse when an invincible demon joins the fray. The demon steals the Tome of the Undergates – a manuscript that contains all you need to open the undergates. And whichever god you believe in you don’t want the undergates open. On the other side are countless more invincible demons, the manifestation of all the evil of the gods, and they want out. Full of razor-sharp wit, characters who leap off the page (and into trouble) and plunging the reader into a vivid world of adventure this is a fantasy that kicks off a series that could dominate the second decade of the century.
Why did we read the book: Numerous reasons, really. First there is the incredible hype surrounding its release: Gollancz, the house that found and published Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, and Scott Lynch amongst others has publicly declared that this is THE book to read in 2010. We also happen to be quite friendly with Sam Sykes: Ana met the guy at the Gollancz party last year, he has guest blogged for us here during our Smugglivus celebration. In turn, Sam interviewed us at his blog, not to mention, we are avid followers of his on Twitter.
Needless to say, we really wanted to read this.
How did we get the book: Review Copies from Gollancz
Thea: When I started Tome of the Undergates, I was excited. Really excited. Like, really gorram, gonna pee my pants excited. With publisher name drops like Rothfuss, Abercrombie, and Lynch, the hype around Tome of the Undergates grew a life of its own – and I happily lapped it all up.
Unfortunately, as almost always seems to be the case with hype, the let-down was brutal. These publisher comparisons are more than a tad….licentious.
Though undeniably imaginative and featuring a band of characters that amusingly hate each other, I found myself growing tired, very quickly, with this book. Unnecessarily long, unfathomably repetitive, and ultimately pointless, I could not find much to love in Tome of the Undergates (and this hurts me to say, since Sam Sykes is a stand up guy).
Ana: Like Thea, I approached Tome of the Undergates with excitement and yes, high expectations coming not only from the hype surrounding its release but from experience as well: I have read a short story by the author in The Dragon Book anthology and well, I loved it.
Thea is right though, hype can be such a pernicious device when publicising a book, because it can create unreasonably high expectations and when those are not met, when the promise is not upheld, the fall from grace comes from a much higher place.
Regrettably, that’s exactly what happened to me when I finished the book for the same reasons that Thea stated. I did however enjoy it a little bit more than she did and that’s because I dig Sam Sykes’ writing style and I actually liked the characters – when they were on their own (more on that later).
On the plot:
Thea: The plot is simple – a group of adventurers (not to be confused with their more reputable siblings, mercenaries) is traveling across the seas on a mission to protect the equivalent of a high priest, and to find a hoity-toity sounding gateway. The pay sucks, but hey, they’re adventurers. Hence, they can’t really complain as they’re the dregs of the by-the-sword wage earning community. Then, their ship is attacked by pirates and a formidable demon. After hacking a lot of the crew down to so much mincemeat, the demon shakes down the emissary and steals the titled Tome of the Undergates – the book that will, well, unleash hell. Lenk and his band of…er, colleagues (they aren’t really “friends”) are given the opportunity to hunt the demon down and save the Tome and the world – for an exorbitant sum.
The biggest problem with Tome of the Undergates is how wasteful the book is. It is a tome in itself, yet despite its substantive girth, nothing really happens in this book. It is literally much ado about nothing. Allow me to explain with an example. The first two hundred pages of Tome of the Undergates details a single battle sequence.
That’s right. ONE battle. Two hundred pages.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – if this was some scintillating Steven Erikson or Paul Kearney style of epic battle or something. Unfortunately, it’s not. The first two hundred pages are just a lot of pointless, poorly-conceived action. The whole concept verges on the ludicrous; these characters are snarling at each other about how they are going to run away/kill each other, meanwhile what sounds like a never-ending pirate hoard is seizing the boat. (How the boat stays afloat in this chaos and supposed onslaught of destruction is quite beyond me) Even worse, however, is that this battle doesn’t even provide the visceral entertaining thrill that such hyperbolic carnage should otherwise offer! What begins as a mildly entertaining skirmish at sea becomes a protracted nightmare of bland tedium – and that, dear friends, is a hard thing to do when you’re racking up a body count.
This is basically the story of the entire book. Characters trade insults (humans suck! shict suck! I will stab you in the back!) – the same insults, mind you – over and over and over again, only to have that constant stream of monotony interrupted from time to time with sporadic, uninspired action and plot progression.
On the plus side, Sam Sykes does have a sense of humor which translates nicely in his writing, and there are the sporadic glints of promising plot seeds throughout the tome. Too bad the humor wears thin very quickly – there are only so many jokes one can make about making water – and while I very much liked the watery setting (as I do like the general feel for the cover), any interest sparked by a glimmer of background mythology, geography or politics was immediately squashed under the unrelenting weight of mindless tedium (humans suck! non-human monsters suck! KILL!).
There were also some odd, offsetting writing choices and awkward, cliched descriptions. For example, “Despite the oppressive heat, Kataria felt her blood run cold,” or “Asper could feel Lenk’s eyes with such intensity they threatened to crack her skull,” or “He had felt it once before, so keenly, when he held two bodies not his enemies’ in his arms, stared into their eyes as rain draped their faces in shrouds of fresh water,” or “The journal fell to the sand. The sound of it crashing upon the earth echoed through the dawn,” (how exactly does a book make a reverberating crashing sound on sand?), etc. You get the picture.
And for a book so obsessed with the most tedious of minutae, I have to remark that I only saw the characters eat and sleep once (on page 395). Just sayin’.
Ana: There isn’t much to be said about the plot – as it is very simple: there is a Tome which opens the doors to the undergates and this bunch of adventurers must try and rescue it before all hell breaks loose. Of course, there are complications (and unexpected twists) and gritty battles and adventure in their way to get the tome. For what it is, for what it proposes to do, yes, Tome of the Undergates is a wasteful book in need of serious editing.
Going back to the first two hundred pages and the infamous battle scene that lasts forever. When I started reading it, I actually enjoyed the opening sequence. I thought it was a clever, ingenious idea to start the book by showing us the characters doing what they do for a living – “here, there is a bunch of adventurers and this is what they do and this is who they are.” I liked that, I liked getting to know the main characters in the thick of battle and seeing what they thought, how they reacted to what was happening and to each other. But the novelty wore off really soon. How many pages does one really need for this exposition without becoming repetitive? Furthermore, the battle itself reads…not entirely right. Mostly because at times, the characters would start having lengthy dialogues in the midst of it all, cutting the action off.
After the battle ends, the story progresses a little bit further but again, it is bogged down by repetition – dialogue, motivations and even the bad guys, repeat themselves in their discourse. I grew tired of it all pretty soon. Which is a shame because as I mentioned before, I quite enjoy Sykes’ writing and sense of humour. Some of the interactions between the main characters were downright hilarious and amusing but again, how many times does one have to read the same thing to realise the author’s point: that the characters are together for reasons other than camaraderie and friendship.
Which brings me to my main point: is the book really about the search for the Tome of the Undergates? I don’t think so – to me, the book is about the characters and what motivates them. The second part of the novel reads more like a character piece than anything else and that was actually what kept me reading.
Through the fog of repetition and seemly pointless scenes I saw sparks of true brilliance. In my opinion, if you cut away about 100 pages from the opening battle scene, edit out another 100 pages or so here and there voila, this book would have been much better. The premise, the general idea of the book is good, the interesting background of different peoples (a dragon man? Cool! ), mythologies, religions and politics are there: it is just really, really hard to actually see and care about them.
Having said that, a couple of interesting developments towards the ending of the novel (again, character-driven ones) , guarantee that I will be back for seconds.
On the characters:
Thea: Like the plotting, the characters of Tome of the Undergates begin this journey as interesting, only to grow tiresome in a hurry. Our introduction to the characters is good fun, and I loved the initial wit and banter between the snarky adventurers – they clearly hate each other, which is a welcome novelty in a group of traveling adventurers. Lenk, as the leader, is clearly mentally unstable from the outset, struggling with the commanding voice in his head. Kataria (whom I cannot help but compare to Neytiri from James Cameron’s Avatar) is a strong, vocal character that discriminates and feels discriminated against by disgusting humans. There’s a pacifistic priestess, a hotshot wizard, a cruelly powerful dragon-man, and a funny coward. It’s a ragtag team that has a lot of potential.
It all becomes the same. Repetitive. Monotonous. Everyone sounds identical – which is to say, they are funny and witty and hate each other and the snark is cool, but when it’s nonstop hundreds upon hundreds of pages of the exact same conversations, it’s coma inducing. I hate to be so harsh, but someone’s gotta say it. No one develops, no one grows, and these characters feel very much like caricatures. I just could not bring myself to care, after the four hundred page mark.
Ana: Now, this is what I really liked about Tome of the Undergates: the characters and I will have to disagree with Thea. I don’t think they sound identical, quite the contrary. I thought they were unique and interesting, each having different issues to be dealt with. Even though they all fit into Fantasy stereotypes, they each have something that marked them as different. Lenk, their leader is struggling with a voice inside his head and what exactly does it mean – his inner battle to accept it or not is rather interesting. As interesting is his relationship with the non-human Kataria – there is a budding romance there even though, they are supposed to hate each on principle. Kataria’s race absolutely abhors humans and I loved to see how she too, struggles to accept herself as someone who doesn’t really hate them all as her father hoped. Denaos (who is probably my favourite character) is the “rogue” and obviously someone who has a carefree façade that is far from being true. There is Asper, the Healer (or is she?) hoping to find a place in the world, then there is Dreadaeleon, the magician and Gariath, the dragonman, possibly the last of his race.
Individually these are rather complex characters but their complexity is undoubtedly simplified when they spend any amount of time with each other. The premise is this: they are adventurers – they have freedom and they work for whomever pays them more. They belong to no place and uphold no ideal. They have been together for about one year, even though they hate each other. We are told that they hate each other, every other page. They bicker and they snark and they fight. The humans hate the non-humans, the non-humans want the humans to die a miserable death. Yes, it is monotonous and some of the conversations are exact replicas of previous conversations. As much as I loved the Lenk-Kat interactions for its potential, every single time they are together reads the.same.way.
And yet. Their animosity is not what is shown all the time. In fact, they all present, at one point or another, loyalty to the group and especially to Lenk (in the end of book, I understood why) . I am not sure if this difference between what they seem to think or feel and what they do is on purpose as part of their development. I prefer to think so. Or in the words of Fox Mulder: I want to believe.
Final Thoughts, Verdict & Rating:
Thea: Tome of the Undergates is a victim of its own hype – because while Sam Sykes has a lot of potential, The Name of the Wind this ain’t. The book feels very much like manuscript from an exuberant young author, attempting to write epic fantasy for the first time. There are moments of creativity and flashes of what might one day be brilliance (especially towards the ending of the book) – but they are soon lost to so much noise and nonsense. In my opinion, Tome reads like a decent first draft – but one that needs a lot of cutting down, cleaning up, and development of a sharper focus. And for this, I don’t blame the author at all. Rather, I wonder how did someone not step in at some point and blow the whistle? Is it like Entourage when the guys were making “Meddellin” – being too close to the source material, not seeing the forest for the trees sort of deal?
Bottom line, I wasn’t crazy about Tome of the Undergates. Though it ends on a high note, by that point I simply did not care. I won’t be reading the sequel, but I will give Sam Sykes another try in the future.
Ana: I agree with Thea’s final, overall assessment to a “t”. But even though I didn’t fall in love with the book as much as I hoped and wanted to, I do think there is still great potential in the trilogy. I love the idea that the characters choose to live as adventurers because of the freedom it provides them whilst at the same time they are basically chained by their past and beliefs – this is super compelling to me and I do want to see how it all progresses.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: From the official excerpt:
“Contrary to whatever you might have heard in songs and stories, there are only a few productive things a man can do once he picks up a sword.
“He can put it to use for his country, if he’s got any pride. He can use it to defend his loved ones, if he’s got any. And if he’s got any intelligence at all, he can put it down.
“For those who are lacking all three, the only viable option is to embrace that meanest and most disrespected of professions: adventuring. Falling somewhere just below the rank of mercenary and just above the classification of scum, adventurers are chiefly a source of cheap labor, providing with violence and misfortune what they lack in standards.
“And I count myself among the cheapest.
“Amongst my allies I count a murderer, a zealot, a heretic, a savage and a monster. Amongst my problems I count demons that shouldn’t exist, pirates with a loquaciously murderous bent, a society that wouldn’t care if I was rotting in the earth and my allies. Amongst my dreams…
“I count survival.
“I’ll get to the others after that one’s taken care of.”
Thea: 5 Meh, take it or leave it
Ana: 6 Good, recommended with reservations
Reading Next: The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan