Friday, 12 March 2010

The Speculative Spotlight: An Interview With Sam Sykes

Last month, the inaugural edition of The Speculative Spotlight shone on Alex Bell, author of Lex Trent Versus the Gods and a lovely young lady besides. This time out, the game has changed. Amongst threats of physical violence and discussion of bodily functions, foul language abounds in the second installment of this semi-regular interview feature here on TSS.

Today, for your pleasure and/or pain, I cornered Sam Sykes with a few questions, and I think you'll find much to enjoy in all that he had to say. I know I enjoyed hearing it - that is, in between dodging his occasional, unprovoked machette thrusts.

Hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen. And don't say I didn't warn you!


Hey, Sam. How does your garden grow on this fine day?

With silver bells and cockle shells and chickens in a row.

You’re all about the chickens, aren’t you? Is there... something I should know?

Chickens are an excellent source of protein! Lean protein is nearly as important to your body as fibre is for healthy bowels.

I’m going to politely refrain from segueing off the too-soon introduction of bowels to this interview. So, since we’re talking dinner already, if your near-as-dammit debut novel were a food item - and surely books are consumables too - what would it be?

TOME OF THE UNDERGATES is something very spicy, though a little slow to begin with. I'd suggest it's probably a nice curry sold to you by a one-eyed Indian fellow in a tiny shop in a back alley. Strangely delicious, exceedingly spicy and it lingers with you long after you put it down.

Having barrelled through TOME OF THE UNDERGATES last week, I’d quite agree. I do enjoy a good curry from time to time - although that one-eyed Indian fellow always puts mushrooms in mine, no matter what manner of awful things I threaten his children with. Mushrooms: surely the devil’s vegetable.

But a little slow? With treason on the high seas and a body count that builds by the chapter? And I haven’t even mentioned the crotch-stomping yet. What gives?

Well, TOME OF THE UNDERGATES is not the sort of book that deals with just one hero. There are six main characters and none of them are what one might call heroic. The beginning, I'm told, is a little slow, but it's worth it to establish their personalities and motives. And, given that said motives tend to be fairly diverse (everything from suicide to homicide to genocide and maybe a little theological doubt), I'd say it was the right choice.

Of course, for everyone who gripes that there's a 200 page fight scene at the beginning, another person squeals with delight over the possibility.

I’ll admit, I had a few reservations about the opening of TOME OF THE UNDERGATES myself, but by the time the Abysmyth entered from stage left in all its “emaciated, ebon-skinner splendour,” I was squealing with the rest of the piggies. It’s full steam ahead from there on out.

For the benefit of those readers who haven’t yet had the pleasure, Sam, do tell: what exactly are these adventurers adventuring after?

Ah, well, these adventurers (like all adventurers) find themselves starting, initially as cheap labour, adventurers being the people one looks up when they can't be bothered to deal with trivialities like fair pay, sanitary working conditions and ethical business practices. The story takes a shift, however, and our adventurers find themselves chasing the titular Tome of the Undergates, the written compilation of all mankind's sins and necessary key to opening the gates of hell and allowing the demons therein free exit from their prison. These being luckless adventurers, the actual pursuit draws them off their comfortable ship and into open waters as they hunt down the aforementioned Abysmyth, something of a titanic demonic evangelist, and draws them right into a collision course with the chanting, purple psychotic women who are also chasing the Tome.

There's an immense amount of happenings in the book and I think lovers of adventure, violence, the otherworldly and awkward romances alike will find a whole slew of stuff to like.

Awkward’s putting it lightly when it comes to the bloody-minded courtship between Lenk and Kataria, one of my favourite story threads running throughout TOME OF THE UNDERGATES. Speaking of Lenk, leader of the aforementioned adventurers, he’s not really your average hero, is he? He’s a short-arse, for one thing; something I can sympathise with, I might add. Might you also be a card-carrying little person, Sam?

I'm actually scraping six and a half feet tall and my shoulders are about as broad as well-fed sheep. Lenk's height was simply how he sounded to me. The more I thought about it, though, the more sense it made. He's prickly, snide and aggressive: all hallmarks of short people. He's disrespected, resentful and often ignored: further traits associated with those of diminutive stature. Also, I thought the image of a small guy leaping onto a larger dude and stabbing him in the face was one worth exploring.

Oh, burn. I’m sure there are some decent shorties out there somewhere, though I’m drawing a blank. Anyone care to suggest a few?

There’s certainly lots of stabbing in TOME OF THE UNDERGATES, as well as dismemberment, evisceration, I could go on. Lots of good, healthy violence, all in all! But for every crotch turned to pulp there’s a joke; for every demon beheaded, a witty retort. Your debut is certainly one of the funniest fantasy novels The Speculative Scotsman has read in a long while - a breath of fresh air after so much self-important gravitas.

Do you think the genre we all hold so dear could do with a kick in the rear by way of a decent sense of humour? Does SF&F take itself too seriously?

There was that Napoleon fellow, but as to your proper question...

The pain I feel at mentioning his name is soul-deep, but my answer to the question of whether or not such a thing is refreshing to the genre is: "Joe Abercrombie." Tangentially related, this is also the most common answer to "who replaced the cookies with mousetraps" and "why is that fellow on the lawn prancing about nude.”

But, anyway, the two phrases used to describe him are "darkly humorous" and "wickedly violent." He's also currently one of the bigger names in the genre. In fact, if you look at the stuff before him, there's very little action or humour to speak of. After George R.R. Martin, fantasy political thrillers became the "in" thing. This is not a bad thing, by any means, and we've got some truly great stuff out of the trend that continues today, if THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS by N.K. Jemisin is anything to go by. All the same, readership greatly benefits from having stuff like BEST SERVED COLD because it diversifies the genre.

Diversity, really, is the keyword here and we're extremely fortunate that it's the watchword for the current trends of fantasy. In addition to political thrillers and action/adventure, we've got new weird, destiny epics, magic innovations and all sorts of stuff that just defies labels entirely. To me, there's little more aggravating than someone saying: "I'm going to revolutionize this genre," because do we really need it? A revolution implies that what we've got is flawed. This is not the case. We've got plenty of good stuff. What we need is to encourage authors to give us their all because fantasy is one of those bizarre communal hiveminds where one person's success benefits all.

So you’re saying... TOME OF THE UNDERGATES might not have been published had it not been for the likes of THE FIRST LAW trilogy? I don’t entirely disagree, but I’ve had thought you would be shying away from the Joe Abercrombie comparisons. To my mind, he’s certainly among the greatest new voices in modern fantasy. Quite the imposing touchstone to be measuring your first novel against...

Of course, if the whispers of the little biography birdies are to be believed, you’ve been writing TOME for seven years - since well before THE BLADE ITSELF saw publication in 2006. That being the case, how do you feel your debut in its final form shapes up against what you might have imagined all that time ago?

Well, now, I didn't say that. The comparisons are unavoidable, though, since I am apparently his second coming... or he's my first coming. Who knows? I think TOME OF THE UNDERGATES still would have gotten underway since it's a good story and publishers have only gotten pickier since 2006, but Abercrombie certainly made it easier, as well as providing me one of my favourite series to boot.

Ah, see, I started this awhile back, it's true, but it was a curious sort of amalgamation. In the beginning, it was fairly straightforward fantasy: dark masters, people being heroic all the time, good vs. evil. Then, by the time I hit the end, I sort of crossed a threshold of reading puberty. If that doesn't immediately make you stop reading, I'll explain. By the end, it was a fairly well-told book, but it just didn't ring with the right vigour to me. I didn't think that anyone who actively chose to fight monsters and kill other people would be nearly mentally stable enough to be able to grasp concepts of higher powers and good and evil. Beyond that, the idea of having to choose sides is not practical in such a situation: righteousness comes to those who can afford it. People who have to survive can't be so picky.

So, I rewrote it and things began to take shape. This was one of my favorite and most frustrating things about the whole project: I couldn't stop having ideas. Some of them, like the talking dolphin, got scrapped. Others, like the Abysmyth's evangelizing, stuck and shaped their whole history. It's still incredibly fun and incredibly frustrating, especially now that I'm balls-deep in book two and having to choose which of my beloved babies to cast off a cliff to the hungry sharks below.

Oh, lots to get to in there, but priorities, I must remember my priorities. Tell me more about the talking dolphin!

Well, there's not a crapload to tell, sadly. This was when I was stuck in my "goodness must reign supreme" phase and what is more good and pure than a dolphin? Hot contenders were the sentient chimpanzee and the puppy of light, but the talking dolphin won out due to environmental bias. My editor at the time, Lou Aronica, said it was "unnecessary." It's worth noting that Lou and I think alike on several occasions and Lou is also immensely polite, which is why he probably didn't say what I was thinking when I looked back at that scene.

That being: "This is going to make people a lot more sympathetic to unsafe tuna fishing."

Tuna must... not die? Falling a little short of your ruthless image there, Sam.

So a full rewrite? Not to mention the dead alone know how many further drafts and revisions. For me, it’s more often a case of revising as I go. The thought of just scrapping a whole book’s worth of work... that must just kill a man.

How do you feel the seven years you’ve spent with TOME OF THE UNDERGATES, be it in one form or another, have informed your work on BLACK HALO? Is there a chance, do you think, that you’ll reach the end of the sequel and decide to start over, or has the hard time and all the baby-killing paid off?

I'm not unsympathetic to the tuna. Being beasts from the festering blue wound that is the ocean, they should die horribly, no doubt, but it needs to be a concentrated attack. Dolphins, being the rapists of the sea, should be rehabilitated.

Well, now, you're forgetting I'm published by Gollancz, the same house that put out Scott Lynch, who promptly vanished into myth and legend after his second book, and Patrick Rothfuss, who has been in a beard-off with George R.R. Martin for the past three years. Great guys with great books, both of them, but to say they're late is to something akin to saying that dolphins just get a little affectionate at times.

Suffice to say, my tremendously tall editor, Simon Spanton, put forth in no uncertain terms that he would sooner see me get my testicles put in the path of a wildebeest charge than see the book get pushed back... or least to the extent of THE WISE MAN'S FEAR and THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES. All the same, though, if a book needs a lot of polish and restructuring, then it'll take as long as it takes. Not nearly the extent that those fellows are doing, I hope, but quality is the chief concern here.

As it stands, though, BLACK HALO's biggest problem is that there's just a lot of fun stuff going on that we might have to cut out a few subplots. In which case, what do we choose? The killer librarian? The Serrant's disgrace? The religious fanatic lizardmen?

You tease! Well, if BLACK HALO is a match for TOME OF THE UNDERGATES, and from that description it certainly sounds to be, I’m all for done when it’s done. For my money, it’s the provisional dates the likes of Amazon insist on conjuring up out of nothing more substantial than a deadline - I mean, who cares about those? - that I think result in so very many panties all a-bunch.

Whatever you do, though, don’t cut the killer librarian! She’d better have horn-rimmed glasses, too...

So did you compose TOME OF THE UNDERGATES with the thought always in mind that there’d be sequels? Have you a great story bible secreted somewhere about your person that contains the inner workings of the whole trilogy, or --- wait, I know all about what assumptions can make of you and me (mostly me). Is this even a trilogy? Come to that, have you a name for the series?

The Librarian is actually male, sadly, part of an elite sect of wizard-hunters. But I've already said too much.

I know what happens, yes, for fairly far into the future. It all depends on how successful the books are, though. The series thus far is called THE AEON'S GATE. If TOME OF THE UNDERGATES does well and BLACK HALO does well and MOTHER DEEP does well, we may yet get to another. I'd advise, though, that people not instantly go berserk over the idea of a series spanning into infinity (it won't). I get terribly bored with just one setting, so any further stories would be self-contained duologies or whatever the fuck I feel like writing.

A male librarian? What is this, the 21st century? Cut it!

Besides fame and fortune and women dangling from your every heathen limb, Sam, what inspires you to drag yourself up out of bed and spend your days telling stories? Can you put your finger on a book or a film or hell, a video game that drove you to such an admittedly creative compulsion?

It was a peculiar blend of things, really.

For one, I always just wanted to tell stories. I was doing it since I was eight (though in those days, they called it 'lying' and you were frequently bludgeoned for it), but I didn't really think TOME OF THE UNDERGATES would amount to anything. I tried doing lots of other things: hotel and restaurant management, journalism, retail, cooking, witness protection, snitch killing, swineherding, nutria farming and bear wrestling. The fact that I'm easily distracted, wholly vain and totally self-absorbed generally prevented me from going forward with any of these.

So, generally, writing began because I was too incompetent to do anything else. But as I kept at it, I found I never had to force myself to do it and I could never quit it. I like to think I'm not just incredibly shallow, but I think 90% of authors out there spend the vast majority of time thinking about their own work. It's not a job you can really clock out of, since even if you're going grocery shopping, walking in the park or making tender love to a sweet woman as she tells you to finger the stump where her leg used to be, your thoughts are always: "could this character kill someone with a shopping cart," "that's a funny tree, could I use that," "how does a schizophrenic make love," that sort of thing.

In short, I write because there's pretty much no other option.

It must be tough to see the world as if it were an overcrowded garden of narratives, to go through life always with an eye for some sight that could make for a touch of exposition here, some sound that could become a bit of sparky dialogue there.

So when you switch off, when the well has run dry for a few hours or days or however long, what do you like to unwind with? I know from your interview with the lovely Aidan over at A Dribble of Ink that you’re a man who enjoys his video games, but beyond drooling over GOD OF WAR 3 and quibbling about whether or not to buy DANTE'S INFERNO - don’t do it, man! - how do you like to relax?

God, it really shouldn't be as difficult as it is to decide whether or not to buy DANTE'S INFERNO: there's just something about it in every instance where it goes just too far to be a game I would have ease buying (ie. killing unbaptised babies, a shirtless crusader, demonic clitorises, diarrhoea demons and Cleopatra's slurping nipples), but the style is slick as hell and the market is woefully short on GOD OF WAR games (with good reason; if you can't do it right, don't do it).

But, anyway, I try to exercise when I can as a form of relaxation. That might sound obtuse, but it does wonders for clearing one's head of distracting thought. Aside from that, I browse a lot of neat webcomics to keep myself busy (Penny-Arcade and PvP remain no-brainers, but I enjoy newer, stylized comics like Phoenix Requiem, The Meek, Supernormal Step and Finder's Keepers, as well. Hark! A Vagrant! and Beartato remain two of my absolute favorites). I have a low-scale passion for cooking (nowhere near the craft or skill of David Devereux), having once been a bit of a chef (nowhere near the style or level of David Devereux), so I indulge in that when I can.

Really, most of my relaxation techniques involve getting too worn out, mentally or physically, to feel angry anymore.

You are a rather angry man, aren’t you? Which dovetails all too neatly into something I noticed during my read-through of TOME OF THE UNDERGATES: whatever did the world do to you, Sam, to make you so deeply suspicious of humanity? Are we really such a lost cause?

Oh, no, I'm actually quite shy and affable, as anyone will tell you.

"Irritated" is just sort of my default state. If I'm not irritated by my immediate circumstances, I'm irritated by the fact that I soon will be. If nothing happens, I'll realize that Australian politics just piss me right the hell off. After realizing I don't have any stakes in Australian politics, I'll realize that I don't have enough money to go there and that just irks me even more. This sort of happens over the span of five seconds, my facial expression going from "frown" to "pants-shitting" in that time. It's quite neat to see, I'm told.

As for the book, well, humanity is pretty suspicious in it, isn't it? To every other race, they're a breeding, teeming race of sentient cockroaches who quickly took all the best land for themselves by virtue of the fact that they have more sex than anyone else. To themselves, they're deeply divided by their own faiths and religions and worship a surprising number of gods whose chief mandate is "kill those other guys right there." It's a breeding ground for conflict, though, which is what makes it a nice place to start a story.

Fair enough, on all counts. Well, except the Australian politics thing. I’m a Scotsman! Don’t you know we don’t vote?

What were we talking about again?

Your crafty attempts to derail this interview notwithstanding, what do you think the most important aspect of a story is? The setting, the characters, the central conflict? What exactly was it that you had in mind when you began TOME OF THE UNDERGATES?


Because character is the story. You have an event, sure, and it can be the greatest, most incredible, unique story that ever lived, but not having a good character is roughly equivalent to the author saying: "hey, look here! Here's a nice, fancy playground: it's got slides, carousels, swingsets, sandboxes and strippers. Looks fun, right? You can't play in it, but isn't it nice to look at?" Well, yes, it's nice to look at for all of a minute and then I feel the urge to build sand castles with ladies of ill repute and my options are painfully slim at that point.

Don't get me wrong, a plot and conflict are important, as characters don't really function well without purpose (you'd get awfully bored watching Superman and Batman make macaroni and cheese, for example). But the idea there is that the conflict comes from the characters. You can lay down a quest, say: "take this object from point A to point B." But if that's all there is, there's not much of a reason to read, because you already know what's going to happen. Now, if a villain jumps out to take the object just because he wants it, that's more exciting and if you go long enough with that you can get a good story. But if the villain wants it because his people need it more than the heroes, suddenly you've got a conflict that goes deeper, digging itself into the reader themselves and making them choose a side and suddenly the conflict is that much more palpable.

But how is the reader in any position to choose which side he or she is on without hearing the story told from the villain’s perspective? There’s certainly some of that in TOME OF THE UNDERGATES, particularly in the last act, but of late there seems to be no small amount of interest in the opposing front - Angry Robot, for instance, have packaged Kaaron Warren's wonderful WALKING THE TREE with a 20,000 word novella which retells her novel’s narrative from another point of view.

Without spoiling anything that hasn’t already been given away by the various plot synopses of your debut, can we expect to hear more from the villains in BLACK HALO and MOTHER DEEP?

It depends, really. How sympathetic are you to a mother trying to protect her children? How sympathetic are you if her children are emaciated fish-men with a violent streak? How sympathetic are you if the people opposing her are even more violent? It's a tricky situation, really, and one that I hope the reader will decide for themselves.

I will say this, though: BLACK HALO deals much more with a certain race of purple-skinned brutes and their charismatic, Darwinist leader. I hope they'll be as compelling as the demons.

Could I have asked for a more appropriate note on which to draw this illuminating conversation to a close than evolution? I think not.

One last question before I let you get back to your lizardmen and your wizard-hunters. My review of TOME OF THE UNDERGATES went up yesterday, but better, surely, that readers of The Speculative Scotsman have it first from the horse’s mouth. Publishing, I’m sure, is embroiled in as cut-throat and brutish a sphere as any other competitive pursuit. Given that, tell us why you and your furious debut are the fittest specimens of fantasy to survive the myriad evolutions of the genre that are surely to come?

In other words, Sam, tell us why TOME OF THE UNDERGATES is the best fantasy debut of the year so far.

I can't say anything for editors themselves, but I've never met another fantasy author I didn't like. To add to that, a veritable panoply of new releases (SPELLWRIGHT, THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, etc), all said to be quite excellent, can only be good for each author. Because, let's be totally honest: when have you ever known any reader, let alone a fantasy reader, to say: "you know, I think I'll only buy one book this year."

But, let me be a little more self-indulgent.

TOME OF THE UNDERGATES is basically your favourite fantasy on steroids. The characters are rich and thought out in violently exquisite detail. The combat is fast-paced and possessed of some truly creative action. The plot is a not-overly familiar tale, underscored and augmented by a festering crop of conflicts within and without the characters' relationships. The romance is suitably awkward and bizarre. The world is there and rich without being shoved down your throat or up your butt.

Really, I'd say just look at some other reviews: they've loved some parts, they've hated other parts, but there's no real in-between, is there? None of them have been bored. All of them want to see what happens next. I hope you, and the readers, do, too.

Well I know that I do, and now that I’m finished with TOME OF THE UNDERGATES, I’ll be anticipating the next instalment in THE AEON’S GATE as surely as any reader who dares peel back the first pages of your incredible debut.

Thanks so much for taking the time to tolerate my curious interrogation, Sam. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you, and I’d heartily recommend anyone with even a passing interest in high-octane fantasy fiction get their orders for TOME OF THE UNDERGATES in now. But more on that note in my review tomorrow.

For the moment, if there are any last words you’d like to share with those readers you’ve already seduced and the foolish few still on the fence, now’s your chance...

All threats aside, I dearly hope the book passes muster for you readers interested in it. Six editors believed enough in it to make it a very big part of their catalogues, the same editors who brought you Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, James Enge, Patrick Rothfuss and other such big leaguers. It's an incredible honour to have those same people believe I can stand with them.

Also, if you do buy it, I will give you a free hug.

You hear that? Free hugs for every reader!

Thanks again, Sam.


And there we have it. That concludes my conversation with the second guest to grace The Speculative Spotlight, although in fairness to the man, we conducted this lengthy conversation a wee while before I chatted with Alex Bell. You hear that, Sam? You win.

As ever...

Before we call it a day, how about a sneak peek at the next guest TSS is proud to present? In a little while, you'll be hearing from Kaaron Warren, Aussie author of Slights and lately, the wonderful Walking the Tree. Stay tuned!


  1. ha, you know I don't believe anything Sam says without proof right? When he towers above me resting his pint on my head I will accept that he is not actually a short angry man. And then I will punch his knee cap. ;)
    Good fun interview boys.

  2. nice interview.

    though I think I'll pass on the awkward man-hug

  3. Great interview! Interesting questions and some unexpected responses. Aways wondered what lurked under that scarf too, so win/win Mr Alexander

  4. Black_Dog_Diary13 March 2010 at 08:25

    Great interview. And yes Sam, I will most likely read Tome of the Undergates. Niall, I'm hungry for new books. Please feed me more ideas? :)

  5. Damn you, Scotsman. I'm meant to be soaking myself in Victorian Sci-fi and you - curse your eyes - you keep distracting me. Ran straight out to buy this yesterday. The lads in Forbidden planet hadn't got it in!!!! (they now have bruises and strict instructions - it turns out I too am an angry short-arse! Who'da thunk it.)

    Smashing interview.