Reviewed by Stephen Aryan
Lenk leads a band of adventurers, the lowest of the low. People who fight not for a cause but for their own monetary gain and gratification. This means the main cast are very unpleasant for the most part with bad attitudes, bad language and loose morals. When the going gets tough they demand more money or they walk away. These are not burly heroes who will stand against a monstrous horde of enemies because it’s the right thing to do. The world of Tome is painted with a hundred shades of grey.
The ship the adventurers are travelling on is attacked and I have heard some people describe what follows as a 200 page battle. This is not completely accurate but it does feel drawn out because in order to learn about each of the characters we are meeting for the first time, we see the battle from several points of view and this sometimes robs the battle of its momentum. There is no time for the characters to meet up at a tavern and gently swap stories about their shared lives. Instead the action comes thick and fast and it was a bold choice by Sykes to start in the middle of things. This means there is also no world building beyond what the characters can see from the deck and what they reflect on in passing or mention through dialogue.
The group of adventurers hate each other and constantly bicker and argue. Some of it is understandable, but as the story moves on and the danger escalates, it started to irritate me and also some of it stopped making sense after a while. Some of the differences between the characters are long-standing racial barriers which are not easily forgotten and the attitudes on both sides are so deeply ingrained I wouldn’t expect them to disappear overnight. One of the characters is a Shict, a notch-eared archer who despises humans for all that they’ve done to her people. In turn the humans view her kind as smelly savages and there has been a lot of bloodshed between the two races. Within that setting it was fascinating to see a growing friendship between a Shict and a human, with each analysing and agonising over the growing feelings they had for each other. At other times the bickering felt out of place as even in the thick of a battle when they are fighting for their lives, they had time to complain, which felt unnatural to me. If I was fighting for my life, the last thing I would have time for is thoughts or snappy comebacks about someone else. All of my energy and thoughts would be on my opponent and staying away from the pointy end of their sword.
Kataria, the Shict, is an interesting character, but if not for a fascinating and mostly hidden aspect of his personality, the main character Lenk is rather forgettable. He is the main narrator and central point of view, and all of the other characters look to him, sometimes, for guidance, but I’m not sure why as he is rather ordinary. The special quality becomes more apparent as the story progresses, at which point I wanted to know more, but up to that moment I was more interested in the Shict and dragon man who were unique creations. I also didn’t connect or warm to the rogue who runs at the first sign of trouble and has no problems with stabbing people in the back. There are hints at something more, a terrible tragedy, other times where he lived as someone else, but these breadcrumbs were too few and far between for me. So I judged the character by his actions in the present and found him lacking. I don’t think you have to like characters to enjoy reading about them, but you do have to care about or connect with them on some level and I didn’t have this with two of the main characters.
The overall story itself is not complicated, which is not a bad thing at all, but the actual novel is well over six hundred pages long, making it feel bloated and the pace lurches at times. The reason for this is that the story is told from several points of view, perhaps a few too many, and the result is a lot of repetition. The reader is told something they already know and, in my opinion, the author needs to trust the audience more, which would strip out some of this material making it a punchier.
Tome of the Undergates could be called blunt force trauma fantasy, as it is brutal, bloody and with plenty of severed limbs. It’s an enjoyable fantasy action romp from an author that has a lot of interesting ideas. Some of the later scenes in a temple were creepy and unpleasant and I felt as if Sykes was starting to get into his stride at this point. While the story also includes some traditional character archetypes (an archer, a priest, a rogue, a wizard) Sykes takes them and turns them into something very much his own. The combat is savage and there is a certain glee in some of the carnage to the point of comedy, which the characters are not unaware of. There was even a moment reminiscent of Legolas and Gimli killing orcs and keeping score. As a result I found myself laughing along with some of the characters at the worst possible moments and Sykes’ sense of humour is apparent throughout the story. The battles are well written and they feel realistic as there is no grace or poetry, just a lot of struggling and plenty of luck to ensure survival.
I think this is an interesting but uneven fantasy debut. I hope the sequel is a tighter and leaner book as I am keen to find out more about what has been hinted at and uncover some of the secrets that were teased. Sign me up for the next bloody adventure.