Tome of the Undergates was first released I decided to give it a miss. Then not long ago I stumbled across a review of it which led me to look it up on Amazon UK. Tome of the Undergates garnered quite a few mixed reviews. I was intrigued that people either seem to love it or hate it. There was lot of talk about a battle at the start of the book which lasted for 200 pages, give or take. I decided I needed to form my own opinion. Buy button clicked!
Tome of the Undergates tells the story of Lenk and his motley crew of adventurers. Lenk is a human warrior. Katriana a shict, think elf archer. Denaos is a human rogue. Dreadaeleon a young human wizard. Gariath is a dragonman, capable of ripping the limbs of a person. Asper, a human healer and priestess of Talanas. It sort of reminds of me of my RPG days and how we bickered about who had to play the boring cleric, Cure-Light-Wounds-dispenser.
Here are the players:
Lenk - The leader of the group. A rather short man who fights with a sword and is stronger than he looks. Silver coloured hair. Sykes does not give up much of Lenk’s past, but his village was destroyed along with his family. He keeps the secret that often during melees he hears a voice telling him what to do.
Kataria - The archer and hunter of the group. No one can match her for speed or marksmanship. Very brave and usually the first to follow Lenk into battle. Shicts hate humans and the two races have fought many wars against each other. She has long flexible ears and excellent hearing. Her prominent canines give her a savage look, but her athletic body and bare midriff still earns her many a look from her male companions. She is fighting herself and her heritage. She knows hanging out with humans is just wrong since she should be killing them. Even worse, she does not know what to do about Lenk, shag him or kill him. Possibly both.
Gariath - A 400-pound bipedal reptile with a terrible dislike for everyone and everything. Fights without a weapons, but his incredible strength makes him very dangerous. He prefers to start off with charging on all four like a bull and tear into a enemy with his horns. Searching for a glorious death to escape the pain he carries with him. (Our DM never let us play as something as powerful as Gariath.)
Dreadaeleon - A young student of magic with the classic powers of burning shit up or freezing it. He is desperate for acknowledgement and feels unappreciated. He has a crush on Asper and follows her around like a puppy hoping she will notice him and that he will perform some heroic feat to gain her affection.
Deanos - Described as a very tall dark man. The knife is his weapon of choice and he never charges into battle. He prefers to hide while the others take care of business. If he has to fight it will be on his terms. A knife in the back or a slit throat is his favoured approach.
Asper - The lawful good priestess with a heart of gold who’s not in it for money or fame. She is starting to feel there must be more to life than just cleaning up other people's mess. Healing people so they can go out and kill or be killed is not good enough. She also carries a terrible curse.
We are not given much explanation as to why they are all together or even how they met, but this does not seem important. What is important is that they have been given a mission to escort Miron Evenhands, Lord Emissary of the Church of Talanas. As the story open, they are on a ship, the Riptide, which is about to be attacked by pirates. Lenk and his group are the only trained fighters aboard as the sailors are mostly armed with staffs and whatever sharp or blunt implement have on hand.
Thanks to Kataria’s archery, the first probing attack of the pirates is rebutted and the comrades can rest. It struck me as funny that the pirates might be tattooed and armed to the teeth murderers but they are certainly well spoken.
'Astounding congratulations should be proffered for so ruby a sport, good sir!'
The Riptide cannot escape, however, as the pirates have anchored an enormous grappling hook into the deck of The Riptide. When the pirates attack again Gariath finally joins the fray. Only he has the strength required to dislodge the grappling hook. Dreadaelon uses his magic to give Gariath enough time to free them from the massive chain so The Riptide can make its escape.
They won’t get away that easily, though. Pale shapes are spotted beneath the waves and they are fast closing in on the Riptide. Whatever they are, they disable the ship allowing the pirates to catch up. The pale creatures climb aboard launching themselves at the crew with long knives. They are Humanoid but with frog-like heads, a mouth full of sharp teeth and black pin-prick eyes.
I did not like Tome of the Undergates as much as I wanted to. There are two main problems. First, lack of pacing, both during combat and when trying to move the plot forward. I prefer my fight scenes to be quick and fluid. I do not need to know much about a character's inner thoughts or having the flight path of a droplet of blood described to me. I lost all sense of urgency during these times. This is not the time to think of why you were bullied as a child. There is a flipping sword being thrust at your head!
When it came to moving the plot forward it all got a bit sluggish again. There were several rather long interludes where each character would have a moment to his-or-herself to think deep thoughts about their past and future. It felt like in Big Brother when a contestant would walk into a room with a camera and talk nonsense. I think Sam Sykes’ intention here was to try and explain why and how the characters are troubled by events in their past but I thought it all got into the way of the actual story. Surely it could have been explained a little quicker and in fewer pages.
Second, the interaction between the characters really bothered me. They argued constantly. It's not the kind of banter and jibes between comrades that Steven Erikson and Glen Cook so successfully use in their books. This is more menacing, often followed by threats and even fighting. There seemed to be no reason for them to react the way they did. It went too far and you cannot help but think it was unrealistic.
Let’s not forget about the infamous 200-page battle that was criticised so much in reviews. It’s not actually 200 pages of fighting at all. What it turns out to be is a series of skirmishes with the pirates that have captured their ship. There is enough interaction between characters interspersed with the melees that I did not have a problem with the length of the scenes at all.
Luckily, there are many redeeming qualities to be found. Sykes has put all the right ingredients in the pot, he just got the measurements wrong. I read an interview with him where he said he started writing this book when he was 17. He was around 25 when it was published and maybe that’s part of the problem. Too much polishing by adding things trying to achieve a fantasy book of epic length. The banter might feel too brutal and sharp, but there are times when he gets it right and it's funny and edgy.
'Hold that thought. This sounds like the kind of conversation I'll need pants for.'
Another good thing with Tome of the Undergates is the characters themselves. They are actually quite interesting and likable. I have a thing for characters with a tortured past and dark secrets. (Must be all those crime novels I've read.) It's not all just angry arguments and fights. Sam Sykes explores every character’s past and how they struggle to come to terms with whatever haunts them. At times this was actually very touching. I was somewhat surprised at the end of the book by how much I liked them. My curiosity was not yet satisfied and I want to pick up the second book, Black Halo, to find out more about them.
The story works as well. It's a pretty standard RPG quest. Item is lost and our heroes need to find said item. It brings me back to the Dungeons & Dragons books I used to read in my teens. It is worth noting is that Sam Sykes really does not see his characters as heroes. The characters themselves agree. It's more Joe Abercombie in that there is nothing glorious about what they do. They are not here for the greater good, they want money and power. There is nothing glorious about battle. It's just scary as hell and you are lucky if you are still standing afterwards.
In the end, the good things about Tome of the Undergates outweigh the bad. Sam Sykes shows potential with his first novel. Not a must read as it does suffer from being over the top, but good enough for me to keep my eyes open for more books from Sykes.
Tome of the Undergates weighs in at 704 pages and is published by Gollancz.