Thursday, 11 March 2010

Book Review: Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes

[Buy this book on
Amazon in the UK]

"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 the gang are travelling on is attacked by pirates, things don't go well. They go a whole lot worse when an invincible demon joins the fray.

"The demon steals the fabled Tome of the Undergates - a manuscript containing all a body would need to open the undergates. And whichever god you believe in, you don't want the undergates open. On the other side are an array of additional, equally impervious demons; the manifestation of all the evil of the gods. And the Gods, well... they want out."

Tome of the Undergates is a behemoth of a book. At upwards of 600 pages, it's the sort of novel you could use to handily beat a man to death - and there's plenty of death herein, not to mention torture, dismemberment, crotch-stomping; I could go on. That said, with Tome of the Undergates, Sam Sykes - hot tip for the most promising new voice in fantasy fiction since Joe Abercrombie - hits the ground running at a pace more befitting the entrants of a short sprint than the half-marathon of his impressive debut.

When the Riptide is boarded by an army of menacing Cragsmen, there's little time for formal introductions to Lenk and the miserable band of misbegotten adventurers who will shortly follow him to the end of the world in search of an apocalyptic book. But there's time enough for some serious violence; there's at least one death in every chapter, alternately grim or comical. And there's time, too, for some witty banter between the fellowship of miscreants; the better to get to know an initially intimidating line-up of characters whose lives are on the line as the pirates attack.

They're a traditional lot, for the most part, the likes of which you'll be familiar with from countless decades of fantasy fiction, and sadly the first 100 pages of Tome of the Undergates doesn't do much to dissuade that suspicion. Sykes perhaps take too much on too soon: beginning his debut in full swing with an extended, high-tension battle is a great idea in concept, but in practice, as per the opening of Tome of the Undergates, the fight has worn out its welcome long before the last killing blow is struck. Add to that already-crowded introduction the worldbuilding Skyes endeavours to begin and intially, the apparently revolving door of characters he ushers in all fall rather... flat.

Save for some choice moments of murderous madness and the first flush of an impossible romance between the novel's hillariously diminutive hero and Kataria, a filthy Shict with more than a passing fondness for flatulence, Tome of the Undergates can seem a hollow reading experience for the first while, not despite the break-neck pace but perhaps, in part, because of it.

Before the great battle's over and done, though, a game-changing Lovecraftian horror descends into the chaos of the collision on the high seas: with the Abysmyth, in all its "emaciated, ebon-skinned splendour," Sykes hits his stride, setting the tone for the larger part of his debut that remains. Tome of the Undergates shortly becomes something like The Island of Dr. Moreau with hellish demons standing in for the evolutionary monstrosities of that latter novel's mad scientist.

And the Abysmyth is only the beginning. In their pursuit of the titular manuscript, Lenk and his lot are shortly tormented by a host of other unspeakable creatures. From Omens, bulbous bird-like beasts who parrot the voices of the dead, to dreadful Deepshrieks, skin-crawling Longfaces and on, Skyes conjures into existence a ghastly assortment of fauna with which to menace his foul-mouthed fellowship. They are the fantastic equivalent of an Inferno that Dante himself would be proud of - that is, were he not too busy spinning in his grave over the video game his likeness is busy starring in.

When they've room to breathe, the cast easily overcome the meek expectations the opening of Tome of the Undergates will leave readers with. Lenk is a long way from the untouchable hero of so many novels of the genre. He is, in fact, second-guessed at every stage by a darker personality than even his own that questions every action, every word with an almost schizophrenic persistence. Kataria, meanwhile, is plagued by her Shictish heritage - the words of her father come often to her, berating her for her decision to take up with a crew of low-down, dirty humans.

Gradually, Sykes reveals the origins of Daemos the rogue, the dragonman Gariath, Asper the healer and, in time, the other adventurers to accompany Lenk on his hell-bent quest; it doesn't take long for any fleeting impression of their shallowness to fall away. Superficially speaking, there may be little to seperate them from your usual assortment of fantasy folk, but Sykes renders each member of Lenk's party distinctly enough - through internal monologues and unique conflicts - that they quickly overcome and in some cases quite subvert the traditional tropes genre fans might anticipate.

Violence is far from in short supply throughout Tome of the Undergates, and there's also occasion for intrigue, conspiracy and, of course, adventure, but the most definitive characteristic of Sykes' debut is certainly its sense of humour. For every question, there's a witty retort waiting in the wings; for every seemingly imperfect turn of phrase, a sense of self-awareness to diminish it. Whales fart - not to mention Lenk's love interest - and dragonmen gallavant about in kilts.

At times, the comedy perhaps robs Tome of the Undergates of the profundity it should have strived for instead; there are lengthy chats in the midst of pivotal battles at the outset and the climax of the novel that rather detract from the impression of immediacy that such sequences would be the better for. But at its best, which is to say for the most part of Tome of the Undergates, Sykes' amusing exposition and endlessly cutting dialogue elevates his debut to a height not dissimilar to that his closest contemporary scaled in The First Law trilogy.

In the end, Tome of the Undergates doesn't put its best foot forward with its opening sequence, and it falters from time to time thereafter, but from the moment the Abysmyth claws its way onto the Riptide, things get very good, very quickly. This much-hyped first novel is an incredibly confident piece of work, and ultimately, Sam Sykes has good reason to be so full of himself. Fast, furious, funny and brilliantly filthy, Tome of the Undergates is one of the best fantasy debuts of 2010 from the most morbidly entertaining new voice in the genre since Joe Abercrombie - no shit.


Tome of the Undergates
by Sam Sykes
April 2010, Gollancz

[Buy this book on
Amazon in the UK]

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