Adventurers. Long loathed for their knowledge of nothing beyond murder and thievery, they are the savages, zealots, heathens, monsters; the thugs of society. And Lenk, a young man with a sword in his hand and a voice in his head, counts them all as his sole and most hated of companions.
His otherwise trivial employment under an esteemed clergyman is interrupted when bloodthirsty and eloquent pirates, led by an ageless demon risen from the depths of the ocean, pilfer the object of their protection: the Tome of the Undergates, the key to opening a door that guards the mouths of hell. A hell the demons want out of.
Against titanic horrors from the deep, psychotic warrior women, and creatures forgotten by mankind, Lenk has only two weapons: a piece of steel and five companions who are as eager to kill each other as they are to retrieve the book.
Sam Sykes is a very funny man. Reading his tweets and his blog makes this abundantly clear. He’s not just funny, he’s extremely likeable. When Tome of the Undergates was released the reviews were mixed. Some people thought it was wonderful and funny, others decried the pacing and crude humour. So, while eager to read the book, I approached it with a bit of trepidation; especially since Sykes has repeatedly stated that a reviewer’s first duty is to be honest. What if I didn’t like it? Luckily, despite some hiccups, I had a great time with this book.
Right from the first few pages, it’s clear that this book isn’t your regular story. In the prologue we’re not just painted a quick sketch of where we will find ourselves once the curtain lifts and with whom, but we also encounter the dry humour that pervades this novel throughout. This humour has been the subject of much criticism and even though I can see why it might not be for some people, it had me chuckling more often than groaning, even while rolling my eyes. The prologue also firmly grounds the novel in the Sword and Sorcery tradition, something only strengthened by the sequence that follows, a battle lasting well over a hundred and sixty pages. Said battle containing both a lot of sorcery and huge amounts of swords, knives, knuckles and arrows. Starting out with that battle and sticking with it for so long was a gutsy move on Sykes’ part. It sets a roiling pace, which leaves the reader little time to find their footing in the novel as the hits keep coming.
One of the complaints I’ve seen a lot is that the furious pace in the first third of the novel leaves little time for the character development of the main characters. I have to say I don’t totally agree with this assessment. Yes, the character development is sparse and we certainly don’t get a lot of motivation for the actions and decisions of our protagonists, but Sykes does have snippets of information in the narrative that made later revelations click even more for me. In a way it’s very subtle, since it’s easy to be distracted by the bickering, the gore and the action. Still, in some cases it would have been nice to have had a bit more background, such as in the case of the Serrant. I still haven’t completely figured out what she is and how she got to be on the Riptide with Lenk and his crew and their charge. Why was she cursed and how does it work? Hopefully though this will be explained somewhere in the series.
The last one hundred fifty or so pages the pace finally slows down and I really enjoyed them most because suddenly a lot becomes clear(er); every character gets his or her back story explained to a point, though some more than others. While Denaos is my favourite of the bunch thus far, you know what they say about women and bad boys I guess, the vignettes that touched me most were Asper’s and Gariath. Asper’s because it shed such an unexpected light on her piety and Gariath’s because it was truly a beautiful and evocative scene. It was such a soft, fragile scene, which was surprising given the way Gariath is portrayed as a maniacal, murderous monster during most of the book.
The Tome of the Undergates is not a book to read in bits and pieces. I found this out the hard way, as I usually read in snatches – over lunch, during the baby’s nap, in the evening after dinner and before bed – and I often found it hard to get back into the story. To find my feet again and to re-orientate myself on where we were exactly. It reads quicker and more enjoyable in larger chunks, as I found out when I got sick and had to stay in bed all day and I fairly flew through the remaining four hundred pages of the book.
In all, I enjoyed this author’s debut novel and I’m curious to see where Sykes will take the series, both in terms of character development and of solving the quest. I’m looking forward to its sequel, Black Halo, due out next year. If you’re not fazed by blood, bodily excretions and bickering and you like a fast-paced, action-packed story, The Tome of the Undergates is definitely worth the read!