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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tomes of the Undergates - Sam Sykes

Super cheesy cover, but
it makes sense right?
Who is Sam Sykes?  Parts of Tome of the Undergates would suggest he might be to fantasy what Douglas Adams is to science fiction or what Christopher Moore is to whatever the hell genre Christopher Moore writes.  Other parts make me think he's a glorified AD&D Dungeon Master who decided to write down his most recent campaign in painstaking detail.  And still others make me think he might be the next great voice in epic fantasy.  So I guess my answer to my opening question is - I don't have a freaking clue, but I really want to find out.

Tome tells the story of a band of six adventurers (pejoratively) none of whom particularly like one another or themselves.  Led by Lenk, a charismatic warrior with some sanity issues, the group is hired by Lord Emissary Miron Evenhands to recover a stolen tome that has the power to return the demon goddess Mother Deep from the depths of hell (or its reasonable approximation).  To accomplish their goal all they have to do is kill a few fish-men, a couple demons, and some purple longfaces, while not killing each other in a fit of pique.

Most seriousest map EVAR!
Now does that sound like a AD&D campaign or what?  Making up Sykes' party of adventures are the aforementioned Lenk, Kataria the shict (elfish) archer, Gariath the dragonman barbarian, Daenos the craven rogue, Dreadaelion the powerful yet sleepy wizard, and Asper the whiny cleric.  I do believe that's the perfect mix.  Healer? Check!  Tank? Double check!  Backstab and traps? Check!  Ranged Damage? Check!  I'm not being remotely critical either because I actually think AD&D shenanigans is what Sykes was trying to do.  Tomes is a caricature of a pen and paper role playing game with six players, a deranged DM, and maybe a few bong hits in between battles for comedic purposes.  I mean, look at the map Sykes gave to his German publisher and tell me I'm wrong.

It's in this activity where Sykes frequently calls to mind Douglas Adams or Christopher Moore.  His dialogue is snappy and clever.  He makes fun of the misuse of the term irony, and then displays lots of proper irony.  Embracing the unexpected, Sykes' barbarians have a gentleman's courtesy and a professorial vernacular.  Half of his main characters hear voices, hinting at best mild schizophrenia and at worst full blown demonic possession, while the other half are chicken shit or oblivious.  Even his most hard-boiled killer at one point dances a jig while teasing someone about being a pansy.  The whole thing reeks of satire and frequently induces belly jiggling laughter.

While the satire works (for the most part) that doesn't mean there aren't significant flaws in the narrative. Most noticeable are the first 160 pages of the novel which consist almost exclusively of an extended fight scene that left me cold and more than a little bored.  Excising, shortening, or perhaps relocating the entire section would have done a great deal for the novel's first impression on this reader.  Beyond the early struggles Sykes also frequently falls into the trap of allowing his band of adventures to break character for humorous asides.  Sure the humor nearly always hits the mark (Sykes is a funny dude), but I found that oftentimes it took me out of the story and reminded me I was sitting in my living room reading a book.  All in all the novel's missteps felt like a debut author finding his way into his characters and the story he wanted to tell.

German cover is cooler,
but not as... apropos?
And then... the strangest thing happens.  Sykes puts the laugh track away and closes out the novel with 100 pages I'll hold up against anybody in the genre.  Wouldn't you know it, Sam Sykes has heart.  I won't go into detail here about these pages because they are frankly a gem that should be enjoyed without any expectation placed on them.  I will say though that one chapter in particular featuring Gariath could be an award winning short story.  In addition to these later pages, Sykes divides the novel into three acts beginning each of them with an entry into Lenk's journal.  Similar in style to his concluding pages these entries set down the opportunity to explore more serious themes should he choose in future novels.

Tome of the Undergates is a difficult book to rank.  I purposefully don't give ratings as a reviewer (on the blog anyway) because I think they're misleading and any star rating on this novel wouldn't do it justice.  Strictly as a narrative, I didn't particularly enjoy it.  For it's comedy and irreverence toward the AD&D paradigm, Tome is a breath of fresh air.  In terms of being able to watch a potentially brilliant, and wholly unique voice in the fantasy genre come of age? It's priceless.  And I mean that in the least lame way possible.

I look forward to reading Sykes' sequel Black Halo soon.  To anyone reading this, who is not following Sykes on twitter @SamSykesSwears stop right now, open up another window, and follow him.  He's better than Shark Week (not really).

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At August 9, 2011 at 9:02 PM , Blogger Bastard said...

I think this was pretty much my overall take, though admittedly I'm a bit sleepy and glossed over the review.

I have the sequel with me, so hopefully I'll give it a try by the end of next month.


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