TOME OF THE UNDERGATES by Sam Sykes

It’s been a long time since I’ve been as thoroughly disappointed by a book as I was by TOME OF THE UNDERGATES.

Part of this was because of my expectations. The good people at Fantasy-Faction.com gave Sykes’ Aegons’ Gate series glowing recommendations, describing the book as a cross between Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch. Lynch’s ‘Gentlemen Bastards’ series has a chance to become one of my favorite fantasy series of all-time, so that’s pretty high praise. ‘Gentlemen Bastards’ is the funniest fantasy series I’ve ever read, and the first book in the series is simply tremendous with a plot twist that still knocks me on my ass more than a year after I read the book. Abercrombie’s ‘First Law’ series is just a notch below ‘Gentlemen Bastards’ in my eyes, with painstaking character development mixed in with all the action so that the books — and the series itself — become a character study of the protagonists. It’s really unlike anything else I’ve read in fantasy.

So when the forum members at Fantasy-Faction.com, who to the best of my knowledge have no reason to lie to me, tell me it’s a cross between these two fantastic authors, it was enough to convince me to go ahead and order the first two books in the series.

Now, in ordering these books one of the first things that stood out to me was that in every blurb I saw reviewing or previewing the book, Sam Sykes wasn’t merely referred to as Sam Sykes, he became “25-year-old Sam Sykes,” so we were all aware that he was a young phenom with a long future in the publishing industry. But after reading the first 400 pages, I had no reason to believe that this book was actually written by a 25-year-old. Maybe a 14-year-old. Maybe.

Through the first 400 pages, the plot goes like this — our five antihero companions are all on a boat that gets attacked by pirates and a sea monster. These five companions, who all come from different races and backgrounds, hate each other, and they bicker constantly. They don’t trade witty insults like the characters from Scott Lynch’s novels, and they aren’t charming antiheros like Nicomo Cosca from Joe Abercrombie’s books. They just bicker like 12-year-olds, with most of the insults centered around racist comments and criticisms of one another’s intelligence, courage and personal hygiene. And it goes on and on. The plot continues so that the sea demon steals the Tome of the Undergates and the priest onboard hires them to get it back. So the five antiheros go to the island where the sea creature is hiding, find a whole army of demons hiding in the caves on the island, and decide to sneak into the caves to try to get it back.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, ‘But that doesn’t sound like 500 pages’ worth of plot.’ Well, that’s because it’s not. The rest of the book is filled with the five main characters arguing amongst themselves. Occasionally Sykes makes reference to some dark past in each characters’ backstory, but mostly they just argue unimaginatively as Sykes hops from perspective to perspective within the same scene, a pet peeve of mine.

The main character, who, by the way, seems to be a Legend of Zelda rip-off (he’s a long-haired, lithe young lad named Lenk), spends most of his time either lusting after one of his companions (despite the fact that through 487 pages there is not a single tender moment between the two — they’re constantly fighting, both verbally and physically, and in the final scene between the two she climbs on top of him to stab him in his sleep, but instead they have sex) or talking to a murderous voice inside his head. He gets separated from his companions and then (I’m not making this up), gets bitten by a demon shark. As he struggles to free himself, his hand miraculously touches the satchel containing the Tome of the Undergates and he grabs it. He also grabs a sword while he’s under the water getting his leg bitten by a shark, and he kills it. For the next 50 pages or so he seems to forget that a shark was chewing on his leg as he fights more bad guys, then at the end he remembers again and everyone decides to hang out on the island for a few more days. Miraculously, despite a huge battle, none of the main characters are killed.

Strangely enough, after the bulk of the book is totally preposterous with no attention to character development whatsoever, Sykes spends the final 50 pages developing each of the characters and setting things up for what could possibly be a decent second book. To be honest, if I hadn’t already bought it (It’s called BLACK HALO), I probably would have just skipped it altogether, but I do hate to have an unread book on my shelf, so I’ll probably get around to it eventually. I’m just not holding out much hope. The first 400 pages had already burned me out.

BLACK GATE MAGAZINE: ISSUE 15

There really aren’t all that many magazines for short fantasy fiction that are still up and running, so that by itself makes BLACK GATE special. But it’s the willingness to make each publication an event and the strength of the storytelling that have made BLACK GATE my favorite magazine for years now, even though it occasionall goes through long breaks in between publication dates.

To explain — BLACK GATE is a magazine, but probably not in the way you’re thinking. In actuality, it’s more like a book. This issue came in at 384 pages (8.5 x 11) with a full-color, fantastic cover. It’s all adventure fantasy, and this month the magazine went with a theme for the first time — women warriors.

As always, the packaging was fantastic and the stories were exactly the type of short fiction I enjoy reading, but unlike most of the previous issues, there really wasn’t anything that knocked me on my ass on this one.

“Groob’s Stupid Grubs” by Jeremiah Tolbert has an interesting setting and set-up, so it stood out, and Harry Connolly’s “Eating Venom” was also strong. Rosamund Hodge’s “Apotheosis” was very cool and John R. Fultz’s “The Vintages of Dream” was amusing even if I found it fairly predictable. “The River People” by Emily Mah and “World’s End” by Frederick S. Durbin were the two “warrior women” stories I liked best.

The novel excerpt, “The Desert of Souls,” features some likeable characters in Dabir and Hasim, but I don’t know if it was enough to convince me to buy the book. The author, Howard Andrew Jones, is a managing editor with the magazine, so his novel got a back-cover ad, a very positive recommendation in the reviews column and what amounts to a 30-page ad for his book.

Looking through the Table of Contents now, I’m not really finding any stories I disliked so maybe this was a better issue than I initially gave it credit for. It was an enjoyable read, but I just don’t know if there are more than one or two really memorable stories out of the 20-25 in this issue.