Sam Sykes plays or has played D&D. I don’t know if this is true but I’m going to believe it anyway. While your average roleplayer might hope that their party of adventurers is something like the companions from Dragonlance, or Drizzt and his coterie, what they end up with is something more like the adventurers of Tome of the Undergates; a group whose only commonalities seems to be their contempt for one another and a willingness to kill just about anyone or anything. At least that is the case in any game I’ve played in or ran; which, if I think about it too hard, might say something more about me and my friends.
As Lenk, the nominal leader of the group in Tome of the Undergates, writes in the opening of the novel being an adventurer boils down to being the lowest of the low. Skyes casts adventuring as something one does when all other options are exhausted; a task undertaken by people who typically lack the moral fortitude for other work and whose personalities exist at the borderline of psychotic and beyond. There is a slight tongue-in-cheek quality to that portrayal, or at least a deadpan sell of the idea, that what the reader thinks they know about adventurers is completely and horribly wrong. Skyes takes that idea and runs with it. There is no-one in this novel that I would ever really want to know and their banter, near constant, oscillates between amusing and grating.
Tome of the Undergates is decidedly old school in its approach to fantasy. We learn next to nothing about the world it takes place in outside of what is integral to the characters and the action. Indeed having been reading Swords and Dark Magic of late I’d argue that Tome of the Undergates falls firmly into the Swords and Sorcery camp. The story itself centers around Lenk and a motley assortment of cantakerous and capricious individuals including Kataria (a savage vaguely elf-like creature who hates humans called a shict), Deneos (a human assassin who seems to hate just about everything except money and drink), Dreadaleon (whose massive intellect and dedication to magic places all other beneath him), Gariath (a dragonman who sees everything that isn’t a dragonman as less then himself and free for killing), and Asper a healer with some secrets of her own. This group is tasked with finding the titular Tome which is stolen at the start of the novel during a lengthy attack by pirates, fishmen, and a horrid demonic sea born abomination.
As somehwat mentioned above each of the characters has a secret or interesting facet to their personality: Kataria’s fascination with Lenk, Deneos’ past, Gariath being the last of his kind, Asper’s arm, Dread’s infatuation with Asper, and the fact the Lenk is seemingly possessed by a powerful spirit of some kind. Despite the Gollancz edition’s surprising 600+ pages the typeface is pretty large and the action so swift that most of these little facets get only a few moments to shine and those moments typically only occur during the course of the story and never really detour the plot. Individual secrets and haunted pasts asside Sykes’ spends a lot of page time examining the push and pull between Lenk and Kataria. He does a brilliant job in capturing the sexual tension between the two characters while keeping both characters and readers cognizant of the violent nature of their liftestyle and the years of hatred between shict and a human. That relationship is particularly important to Lenk and serves as a grounding post as the voice inside his head becomes increasingly dominant. Kataria is the more difficult case as her fascination with and attraction to Lenk is obvious but the reason why less so.
Of the others I gravitated most strongly towards Gariath and Asper. While Deneos gets some interesting moments and some hint at his history that I’d like to see explored Dreadaleon felt the most underdeveloped and walked closest to the cliche line. The same might be said for Gariath right up to a scene towards the end of the novel that was perhaps my favorite in the entire book that opened up new avenues to explore in the big dragonman. Asper is the biggest mystery of all. While readers get a hint early on that something is not quite right with the priestess it isn’t until late in the novel that the nature of that wrongness is revealed and the past tragedy that exposed it barely hinted at. I want to know the how and why of it; a sentiment that I can express for just about everyone and everything in Tome of the Undergates and a sentiment that will have be back for the next novel.
As I mentioned the unrelenting banter, and the lack of just about any redeeming qualities amongst both hero and villain can grow a bit wearying. The pace is something near frantic with barely a breath for something that isn’t a fight. Of courses it should be noted that this is a debut novel and the few moments in the novel, particularly towards the end when things did slow down, the man-to-man conversation between Deneos and Lenk, the Wilson-like stand-in for Lenk during a scene with Kataria, and Gariath’s scene towards the end are wonderful character moments that I’m hoping there are more of in future volumes. Tome of the Undergates is a novel I wanted to like more than I did and one I enjoyed probably a bit more than I ought to have. A fascinating debut with vibrant dialogue, colorful characters, and a penchant for violence and viscera that exceeds most genre novels on the market today Tome of the Undergates is a difficult novel to recommend. That being said if you’re curious about the novel I highly recommend you check out a sample as Skyes’ tone is consistent from start to finish; thankfully US publisher Pyr has one up here. I’ll be checking back with second book of the Aeon’s Gate series, whenever it arrives, see what happens next and if those final, deeper character moments carry through the bulk of the next narrative.