Disclaimers up front: I’ve met Sam Sykes and talked with him at a party where Pyr bought the drinks. I like him and we have similar tastes in fantasy.
Let’s get the ‘A-word’ out of the way first. There are going to be inevitable comparison’s between Mr. Sykes Aeon’s Gate series and Mr. Abercrombie’s First Law series. Both are published by Pyr, both have very flawed –to borderline unlikeable- characters and both have torture and a bit of the old ultraviolence. And, to be frank, if Abercrombie appeals to you, you’ll love this book. I don’t like Joe Abercrombie’s books (I gave away my First Law books) but I enjoyed Mr. Sykes work with some caveats.
First the good:
Sam Sykes has a good grasp of story, I find. He excels at raising the stakes, in fact ‘then it gets worse’ seems to be tattooed on every page in this book. His monsters are tremendously imaginative and suitably monstrous. The action is mostly well-described and the races are inventive twists on archetypes you’d read in Dragonlance books. I liked the schict, his riff on elves, the most. They’re cold-hearted racist bastards but that fits the world. The purple amazons are very cool. One of the characters, a semi-cowardly rogue grows on you the more you read about him.
The cultures and world-building are first-rate. Mr. Sykes excels at creating a cohesive world with competing cultures. In fact, wanting to see more of the world is something that’s going to keep me buying the sequels. The plot is straightforward and the characters mostly succeed due to their merits and skills as opposed to Deus Ex Machina.
There’s some interesting passages on violence and the use of violence that I found intriguing. It reminds me a bit of David Gemmell in that respect. It’s something I think about and write about myself.
I’m interested in reading more.
Now the bad:
The characters are all more or less unlikeable. The protagonist is either insane or is a host for a greater power that likes to/needs to take over his body. He also whines a lot. He’s depicted as the leader of his un-merry band of adventurers but he lacks the qualities of a good leader. He seems to just have the ‘main character’ stamp on his forehead that allows him to be in charge without earning it. There is a lot of bickering and backstabbing in the adventurers group but there never seems to be an resolution or consequences. That undercuts the character development the author is working very hard at. No one seems to like each other, they’re constantly threatening to kill each other but…no one ever does. No one ever takes the step of acting on their threats and as a result the tension gets diluted. They also don’t work together well and that should be their undoing but…it never quite is.
Several of the characters have ‘hidden powers’, which weakens any actual heroism they could show. If just one character was like that, I could maybe buy it but the main character has it, the priestess has it, the dragonman seems to be made out of it.
I could nit pick a bit more but I’ll end with this: the characters don’t seem to react realistically. Its implied that several characters have sex near the end of the book but nothing changes between them afterwards. They don’t act or talk any differently towards each other, that I could see. This may be something Mr. Sykes is planning to develop in his sequel but it was a mistake to leave it out of this volume.
Summary: It was an entertaining read. Since I enjoyed it, I’m bumping it up a notch, despite the flaws. It bears some of the same sins as Erickson (no more whiny heroes, please!) and Abercrombie (just give me a hero, damn it) but it also has the same merits. This is not Tolkien, it is dark but adventurous. If it sometimes sounds like someone’s home-made D&D module, it’s a pretty awesome D&D module.
Recommended to people who like dark fantasy.