Sam Sykes’ first book Tome of the Undergates belongs to a select group of debut novels that takes familiar fantastical tropes and transforms them into something completely new. Knitting together great characterisation with bloodthirsty adventure and shameless humour, Sykes’ debut made itself a tough act to follow.
The sequel, Black Halo, sees our band of socially-challenged rogues stranded and separated on a tropical island with only tubers to eat and their consciences for company. A pleasant change of tack from Tome’s seafaring antics, this instalment sees the motley crew at the mercy of one-eyed lizardmen, purple warrior women, various deep sea monsters, and most pertinently, themselves.
To say we’re given some intimate time with Sykes’ stars here would be a monumental understatement. The author holds nothing back, laying all their demons (literally and metaphorically) to bear. It’s a privilege to see the anti-heroes humanised (or shictisied and Rhegasied respectively) and the unearthing of their deepest insecurities, identity issues and conflicting opinions on life and death is a truly exhilarating experience.
Like with Tome, they are the main attraction, and, whilst not engaged in the obligatory mauling, gut-spilling and bloodletting, they fight their own, very personal, battles: Lenk struggles to keep a hold on his sanity; Gariath is confronted with the ghost of his grandfather; Denaos’ drinking hits new heights; Asper’s faith continues to degenerate at a dangerous velocity; Kataria fluctuates between wanting to kiss Lenk and kill him and Dreadaeleon fights to maintain his precarious control of his flammable urine.
Every character is as interested this time as the first, though it’s the silver-haired, sword-swinging Lenk who edges out in front of the others. For the first time in his life he envisions a future not birthed through bloodshed, and the clash of his dreams with reality is heartrending to witness as he is ultimately forced along an all too familiar path (now with a homicidal female with in tow!).
A number of new characters also make an entrance here though it’s the ‘Librarian’ (a job title that has little to do with books) Bralston who causes the biggest stir. Introduced early on as a sensitive and dutiful wizard of the Venarium, he then disappears for a large chunk of the novel before returning towards the end for the big finale. An intriguing and strangely sympathetic character, it’s a shame he doesn’t feature more prominently.
Almost everyone’s sanity takes a beating here, and at times this includes the reader’s. The protagonists’ continued discussions with themselves, their spectral companions and/or the various flora and fauna gets monotonous and often feels confusing.
Love (and lust), faith, and death play are huge part in Black Halo, commanding much of the narrative’s stage. Sykes dissection of death is truly marvellous; proving as thorough an examination of it as Jesse Bullington’s The Enterprise of Death. Though the characters deal it out so deftly, it also consumes them to the core, enabling some insightful and occasionally quite profound prose.
The author’s unique grip on the gory continues to tighten here with plenty of gruesome battle scenes. Hacking, slashing and severing their way onto the pages, the netherlings wreak as much havoc as possible, littering the story with corpses in a superbly imaginative display of death dealing.
The book’s weaknesses lie primarily in its structure, with the extended periods of procrastination on the island holding back the plot progression and the heavy emphasis on characterisation slowing down the overall pace of the read. A more frequent injection of sanity into the crazed island environment would’ve lessened the mental load that accumulates on the reader as the pages turn.
That being said, Sykes’ wry humour is as prevalent as ever and Halo offers much for fans by way of world building and character progression. While there are significant developments in the individuals’ alliances and relationships, the inherent distrust and paranoia that’s so fundamental to their addictive dynamic remains intact.
It was always going to be difficult to out-do Tome of the Undergates, but Black Halo proves to be an absorbing, exciting and often poignant tale of feudal friendships that won’t fail to haul you in hook, line and sinker.
Review by Alice Wybrew
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