Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

Book Review: Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes

Genre: Sword and Sorcery
Paperback: 480 pages
Publisher: Pyr
Publication Date: September 2010
ISBN-10: 1616142421
ISBN-13: 978-1616142421
Author Website: Sam Sykes

“Now, the bottommost practice for a man who carried a sword, the absolute dregs of the well, the lowliest and meanest trade a man can possibly embrace after he decides not to put away his weapon is that of an adventurer.”

Tome of the Undergates, by debut novelist Sam Sykes, is, essentially, two very protracted battle sequences comma separated by a little travel and punctuated by a lengthy denouement. That is to say, this sword and sorcery novel is full of blood, guts, and wildly improbable swordfights – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl spread over 600 pages.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Sykes’ story of a band of misanthropic adventurers has some characterization as well, but the battle sequences are so long that they dominate the work. The tale follows a band of not-so-merry adventurers as they search for a clerical tome that is stolen from them. The team consists of: Lenk, the short stature, young-yet-grey-haired leader; Asper, a healer priestess; Denaos, the lecherous rogue; Dreadaleon, the teenage wizard; Gariath, the insane dragonman, and Kataria, the female elf-analogue who is all savage. None of the companions like each other very much, providing Sykes with ample opportunity for dark humor, something he includes to great effect.

The antagonistic relationship of these comrades has its roots in The Fellowship of the Ring, though where those complete strangers worked together for noble cause, Lenk’s band works together for love of money as much as anything else. The other thing they share in common is self-loathing. It is this, more than anything, that binds them together, though they don’t actually know it consciously. It is also what drives them to heights of heroism which they see as purely mercenary. They all hide behind some façade, and much of the theme of the novel is the revelation of that façade, the discovering of each other’s secrets.

Of course, this will lead some readers to feel that the work does not have enough characterization. Since the characters all share a primary motivation – secrecy – they can seem to be undifferentiated except in their roles in the band. The story is full of the standard tropes of sword and sorcery – the band of adventurers, the skills and roles of those adventurers, the slowly building madness of the leader (Lenk hears voices in his head) the romantic tension between the male and female characters – but in truth, these are the things I want in a sword and sorcery tale. If you like the same, you’ll find all your favorite tropes here.

Partly, the reason that the two massive battle sequences (one shipboard, the other under an island castle) that comprise the novel are of such length is because the characterization and world-building are taking place within the framework of the battle. The witty jabs and rejoinders of these characters towards each other and the supporting cast slow the action down considerably, and like any real battle, Sykes has periods of time wherein the characters are merely waiting for the next event to occur which they must then respond to as heroes. And too, Sykes uses all of the character perspectives over the course of a battle, so it takes several hundred pages of text to describe what happens in a mere few hours of actual time.

This style of writing is bound to be liked by some and hated by others. I suspect that some readers will find that the length slows down the action considerably. By making the battles the framework, Sykes places the action to the back of the mind. The reader knows it is there and is happening, but it does not consume the text. Rather it provides an odd background to the character and world building of the story.

This is something new, or at least unusual in writing, and though it reads rather oddly, I found that I liked it. Sword and sorcery novels are sometimes unjustly accused of focusing too much on action and not enough on character or vice versa by the fans of the genre. Sykes strikes a delicate balance by providing both in the same text, keeping the action tension high, while developing character relationships through witty repartee and intriguing and mysterious personal histories on the not-so-merry band. Sykes is often funny, fairly clever, and certainly entertaining if you are not looking for deep characterization or something truly fresh.

Tome of the Undergates is Pirates of the Caribbean with a darker, more cynical edge. Fans of Michael Moorcock and Glen Cook will find the same kind of cynicism and darkness, but so till will readers of David Eddings find the levity that was so characteristic of his work. It is juxtaposition, but Sykes treads the line well, making Tome of the Undergates recommended reading for fans of Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch.