Monday, 5 April 2010

‘Tome of the Undergates’ – Sam Sykes (Gollancz)

After a couple of lean years where I’ve ended up being the last one to turn up at the party (only to find that everyone else has already left for the next one...) this year has seen me up my game in terms of being there at the start when hyped new debuts arrive on the scene. At least this way I now know what everyone else is talking about when they mention a book!

Hype is a funny old thing and more than likely the subject of a post all to itself. Suffice it to say that you can’t blame publishers for hyping their work (they wouldn’t be doing their job otherwise) but I’m often left wondering why one particular book gets all the attention while another doesn’t. What makes a book ‘hype worthy’? Is it purely the book itself or do publishers also take into account the willingness of the author to get in on the act and ‘hype away’ themselves...?
The latter may well be the case in terms of Sam Sykes, a debut author who’s more than willing to get down and dirty in various corners of the internet and talk up his work. Gollancz are pretty excited about ‘Tome of the Undergates’ and seeing as they’ve got good form as far as picking up debuts go I was more than interested to see how ‘Tome’ panned out. As it turned out, ‘Tome of the Undergates’ was an enjoyable enough read but...

‘When one requires a herd of cattle guarded from rustlers, a young maiden protected, a family tomb watched over or an enemy driven away, all for an honest fee, one calls upon a mercenary.
When one requires a herd of cattle stolen, a young maiden deflowered, a family tomb looted and desecrated or an honest man driven away from his own home, all for a few copper coins and a promise, one calls upon an adventurer.’

If adventurers are the lowest of the low then Lenk’s own dysfunctional crew are certainly the lowest of these... A mix of non-human and human members in the band is no obstacle to them all hating each other with equal measure; the only thing that unites them is the promise of gold easily come by, a promise that never seems to apply to adventurers.
This is definitely the case when the ship they are travelling on is attacked by pirates. If this wasn’t bad enough, an invincible demon decides to get involved and takes the one thing that Lenk’s band didn’t even know that they had been assigned to protect. The Tome of the Undergates contains everything you need to know in order to open the Undergates, the portal that keeps boundless evil locked up and away from the rest of the world. Only a demon would want to open the Undergates; Lenk and his band are out to make sure this doesn’t happen...

As much as I enjoyed ‘Tome of the Undergates’, it ended up being a real struggle to get through at times. Sam’s author bio says that he began writing this book when he was seventeen and he is now twenty five; at times it felt like this was a reflection of how long it felt that the book was taking to read... This is a real shame as ‘Tome’ has moments where I found myself more than glad to have stuck around and continued reading.

It is clear from reading ‘Tome’ that it is a labour of love for Sam Sykes and a world that he really wanted to write about. I wonder though if he fell into the trap of wanting to spend too much time there at the expense of the story itself.
The bottom line is that the book is far too long (six hundred and thirty three pages in ARC format) to justify what is essentially a very short and snappy plot. Lenk’s crew are attacked by pirates and then find themselves taking a job to go to a deserted island and retrieve the Tome; that’s the whole plot summed up. What would make a decent 300-350 novel is unnecessarily burdened by an extra three hundred odd pages that don’t do much other than to tell us things that we already know. We know that Lenk’s crew all hate each other to the point of drawing blades on each other. We know all their little idiosyncrasies that stop them functioning as a team (although Sykes does well to show us how they all somehow manage to muddle through). We know that Lenk and another of his team are fighting an attraction that can only end in tears. We really don’t need to be told over and over again. What happens as a result is that ‘Tome’ comes across as repetitive and unwieldy in that the flow of the narrative is constantly being interrupted by stuff that we already knew. There’s nothing wrong with the plot itself but it’s crushed by the sheer volume of pages, making it come across as more shallow than it really is.

Other bloggers have already mentioned the two hundred page fight scene at the beginning of the book. I’d say that it was more like a hundred and seventy pages but whatever the difference in page count, I’d agree with those who said that this was a little too drawn out for what was essentially a skirmish between two ships. The ebb and flow of a city under siege (with lots of stuff going on in different quarters) might warrant such a page count but applying it to a confrontation between two ships leads to all the outcomes that I mentioned just now. Having all of this at the start of the book wasn’t a good move, there were times when I wondered whether to keep reading...

You know what though? I’m glad I did.

It’s not often that you come across an author so clearly enthusiastic about the world he has created as Sam Sykes. This enthusiasm is infectious and ultimately is what kept me reading. Sam loves the world he created and although he gets bogged down in needless detail he’s still very much out to give his reader the best time possible. Sam’s invested a lot of time in his world and I found myself wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt and do the same. This paid off for me with moments of swashbuckling action combined with world building that is deceptively simple.

When he really gets going, Sam Sykes can write moments of combat that had my heart in my mouth. His trick is get you interested in the characters first so that when they’re being throttled by a demon you really want to know if they make it out the other side! Lenk’s crew are the stereotypical D&D band but Sykes takes time to make his characters a little more rounded than this. This portrayal may end up being repetitive but there are still a lot of engaging characteristics, to Lenk etc, that I had fun getting my head around.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot to the world building at first but Sykes springs a welcome surprise on his readers by making it all about the culture rather than geography. The reader may not have much of an idea as to where they are, physically, but there’s no doubt that it’s an alien landscape that they’re walking on. The religion perpetuated by Mother Kraken and the superiority complex of the Longfaces are deftly handled with enough left unspoken to have me interested in reading what happens next.

‘Tome of the Undergates’ is an entertaining read, once you make your way through the morass of detail. I’d hope for something a little more streamlined in the sequel but there’s no doubt that I’ll be around to see what happens next.

Seven and Three Quarters out of Ten


TheSGC said...

Cool. I'll get to it as soon as possible, sounds like a good filler read. BTW have you gotten any work done into the Flesh and Iron and Black Tide competitions?

Graeme Flory said...

It's not a bad read at all once you get into it :o)

Thanks for reminding me about the competitions although I haven't forgotten about them! I should be getting internet access at home this week and that's when I'll be able to check my email and get things rolling. An announcement will be made shortly after that!