Book Review: Tome of the Undergates, By Sam Sykes

So…this review is a bit delayed, (well, more than a bit), as is my return to actually posting things here. I’d blame a combination of school work (nearing the end of my Master’s program) and focusing on my fiction (been querying a lot as well as working on a couple of books at different stages of progress), but in the end I’m also not the best at organizing my time. However, I don’t want to skip talking about books I enjoyed (there are still 2 more I’ve read but haven’t reviewed here), though it might not be as detailed a review as some others. (I really hope I don’t get anything completely wrong here.)

Alright, Tome of the Undergates. It’s the first book by Sam Sykes I’ve read, though I was aware of him for a while before I acquired this book. (Seriously, go follow him on Twitter. It’s a never-ending supply of enjoyment.) I should also say, for purposes of disclosure, that I obtained my copy of Tome of the Undergates for free, at a post NYC Comic-Con event at Random House, where I also had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Sykes, as well as seeing him interact with Myke Cole in real life in the same way they interact on Twitter.

That said, to the book itself. Once again, I’ll use my simple breakdown.

Setting: This will be the shortest section here, because the highlight of the book really is its cast of characters. The world seems to be your average low-tech high fantasy setting, though Sykes does inject some original, interesting ideas such as ‘Adventurer’ being a recognized profession, which holds an…interesting place in the world, demon fish-men, and the shicts (yes, the obvious joke regarding the spices name is made in the book, don’t worry–at least I remember it being made), who are best described as feral elves, though there’s more to it than that. If there was one thing I would hope to see in future books though, it’d be a bit more information on the setting, because it is potentially very interesting, we just don’t know too much about it.

Characters: The characters, simply put, are a ton of fun. I read Tome of the Undergates shortly after seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, and it felt like it had a similar vibe, especially regarding the interactions between our cast of ‘heroes.’ They work together, even have friendships within the group, but they don’t get along a lot of the time, and it even devolves into full on brawls at times. Each of them has a distinct personality, and is genuinely interesting. They all feel very real. They argue, they complain, and they’re very irreverent.  Let’s go over them all quickly.

First we have Lenk, who serves as our primary viewpoint character and protagonist. The book, or at least parts of it, are actually presented as his journal. He is the leader of the group, though he’s only the leader because they let him be. He’s a very competent fighter, and fairly level headed, apart from the voice in his head, that is. Then we have Gariath, a dragonman (yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like). He’s one of the quieter members of the group, who also happens to view humans as insects to be squashed; he only tolerates the others because he respects Lenk. He’s also the first to charge headlong into a fight, almost suicidally so. Later in the book, however, we learn more about what drives him, about his past, and by the end he’s far from the simple character he seems to be at the beginning. Next we have Kataria, a shict, who is largely a ranged fighter, but has no qualms getting in someone’s face. She is a lot of fun to read, particularly when she interacts with Lenk. See, she, as well as most of her people, hate humans and are vocal about it. But we also see that she actually cares about Lenk, but their relationship is hilarious. The level of sexual tension between them is off the charts, and they fight like a married couple while constantly coming close to actually having a relationship but they both keep pulling away. Never before have I wanted so much to tell two characters to just get a room and bang already. In some books this might be annoying, but the tone in this book such that it works. More on that later.

In the interest of space, I’ll be quicker with the others. Asper, a priestess, serves as the groups moral center. She is also the only religious person in the group (and her magic comes from her faith, if I remember correctly), and their healer. Many times Lenk wonders why she is really with them, seeing as she is so different. Later we get some hints that there is a darker side to her though, which is tied in to the magic and larger lore of the world.

We also have Dreadaeleon, a young wizard who yearns to prove his worth, while struggling with being a teenager. Finally, we have Denaos, a ‘rogue’, best described as a scumbag, though we see glimpses of something more, that he may have some moral code after all.

Plot: Interestingly, for an epic fantasy story, there isn’t a huge amount to say about the plot. The group is hired by someone important to recover the titular Tome of the Undergates, which, in the wrong hands, could release a great demon on the world. That’s it, really. The book is them moving gradually toward that, with plenty of in-group bickering and long, violent fights with those in their way along their path. It’s very simple (again the focus is on the characters), which could be a detriment, but Sykes manages to make it work, as I’ll discuss in the next section, new for this book (and possibly only for this book. Though if it’s needed for his future books, I might just call the section Sykes instead of Style.)

Style: For this book, which has limited use of magic, I’ll forgo my usual ‘magic’ section to talk about the writing style and tone of this book, as it’s notably different than that of most books I’ve read. Tome of the Undergates somehow manages to be both dark, gritty, and violent while also being fun, with a good deal of humor. Much of it centers around the main characters, but some is in the world itself, such as the fact that the pirates that attack them early in the book talk like you’d expect them to be wearing a powdered wig and sitting down to tea. And the best part is that none of the heroes really question that, because as odd as it feels for us, it’s normal for them.

The story and characters too feel like there’s also a sense of irreverence and tongue-in-cheek humor in their creation. I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons (though I’d like to some day), but I know enough about the general tropes and how it works to see that this book could easily be someone’s D&D campaign. You’ve got a warrior, a barbarian, an archer, a cleric, a rogue, and a wizard. It also read in a ways one might expect a game being played by friends messing around might go, which is part of why it’s so fun to read, and why I’d imagine Sykes had a lot of fun writing it. (It also really helps that the dialogue is spot on, which makes all the humor really work.) I can’t recall the last time I laughed so much while reading a book while also taking the story seriously. To be sure, there were some aspects of the writing I questioned, such as frequent head-hopping that at times forced me to reorient myself with who was talking, but then right after that Kataria and Lenk would start arguing or something and I’d forget I was bothered at all.

I think I’ll stop here, since there really isn’t so much more I can say that’d be useful and this is running too long. Plus  I want to be sure I finish this thing today. I really hope I did the book justice and didn’t get anything completely wrong, seeing as it’s been a while both since I read it and since I wrote a review. Final verdict is definitely check it out if your can.

That’s it for now, hopefully I’ll get the other late reviews up soonish and become more regular with posts again. But as I’ve proven, that’s easier said than done. So until next time, whenever that is, keep reading, and writing (and follow Sam Sykes on Twitter. Seriously what are you waiting for?)

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