Tome of the Undergates is a high quality production, packed full of very likeable characters.
The name never uttered without scorn, they are long loathed for their knowledge of nothing beyond violence and greed and their utter disregard for human life, least of all their own.
And Lenk, a young man with a sword in his hand and a voice in his head, counts them as his closest company.
Charged with retrieving the Tome of the Undergates, a written key to a world long forgotten by mankind and home to creatures determined to return, Lenk is sent after ancient evangelical demons, psychotic warrior women and abominations lost to myth. Against them, he has but two weapons: a piece of steel and five companions as eager to kill each other as they are to help him.
Synopsis sourced from the website of Sam Sykes (http://samsykes.com/)
A fantasy world completely different to our own, savage monsters that want to conquer the world, a magical artefact that holds the power to control the world, and a team of adventurers on a mission to retrieve the magical artefact from the savage monsters thereby saving the world. It sounds like a familiar story doesn't it. A story that you have probably read in some shape or form many, many times. But what if the adventurers were the bad guys? What if the adventurers were despised because all they do is run around the place messing up everyones shit? What if all the members in that band of adventurers truly hated each other, and I mean the sort of hate that goes right down to the bone? Well you would probably get Tome of the Undergates, a story that feels familiar due to the use of familiar fantasy tropes, a story that makes its own fantasy tropes to create an experience that is unlike anything else.
Tome of the Undergates is a violent, adrenaline fuelled, action-adventure story that uses a tried and tested plot to get from A to B. In a time where authors are writing books where every single back story has its own back story with convoluted connections to the main story, it is refreshing (and smart) to see an author strip away all of those excess complications and go for a solid plot that is fun to read and accessible to everyone. The plot is not the star of this story, and its not tryíng to be; its job is to provide a solid platform for the characters to work from, a firm foundation for the real stars to shine.
While the plot may say that this story is about finding the Tome of the Undergates, I say that this story is really about the complex characters and the unique relationships they have with one another. Adventurers are scourge of the world and for one reason or another each of these characters has chosen Adventurer as their profession, be it the natural choice given their upbringing or be it an act of self loathing. As the story progresses Sykes gives you a bit of insight into each of these characters from the brutish Gariath who is trying to come to come to terms with the destruction of his race, to the timid Dreadaeleon who has a desperate need to prove his worth as a competent wizard. These characters all have some very significant strengths but the nature of their occupation forces them to be defined by their weaknesses, and this story really focuses on how each character copes with this imposed definition and what they do to overcome it (if anything).
Their profession is all about the money, there is little loyalty between Adventurers and this particular band of Adventurers truly do hate each other. This variation may seem subtle but the end result is quite varied and unpredictable, and often times each battle seen as an opportunity to eliminate the competition. Despite this engrained hatred, the team has formed a very productive working relationship, and at times you get the feeling that they don't all hate each other as much as Sykes would have you believe.
With this story being all about the characters, Sykes has written his scenes with a very heavy emphasis on character development, a technique which can be quite absorbing at times, but a technique which really inhibits the story from progressing at a decent pace. The final 50 - 100 pages are a perfect example of this, I was completely fascinated by all the information I was finding out about each of the characters, but I found myself starting to get bored with the complete lack of progression; I just wanted the story to move on to its conclusion. Its a small point but a pertinent one as I find it very hard to read a book if start to get bored.
Tome of the Undergates is a book that just worked for me, a refreshing take on some of the more dated fantasy tropes. While the story may be slightly simplistic, it is backed up by a high quality production and is packed full of very likeable characters doing all manner of unspeakable things that I like reading about. I look forward to reading the second in the series, Black Halo, and all future works to come from this very talented author.
Ryan Lawler. 8.9/10
As Ryan points out above, Tome of the Undergates isn’t blowing apart the world of swords and sorcery fantasy and heading off in a radical new direction, but what did make it stand out for me is the apparent lack of cohesion amongst the group of adventurers we end up getting dragged along with as they come face to face with demons, elaborately eloquent pirates and shades from their own pasts.
A large proportion of this book is taken up with bickering, and quite often physical violence, within the group. I can’t bring to mind another fantasy novel where the merry band of heroes actively despise one another based on the light-hearted mix of religious zealotry, racism and genocide. However, where Sam Sykes and his storyteller skills really come to the fore is in the whip-crack of dialogue as they snipe, belittle and pour scorn on one another whilst cleverly revealing the beginnings of their back stories throughout the book, which show us why each of them in their own ways are defensive, scared and always ready for a fight.
Sykes is also clearly all for equal opportunities with several strong, mouthy and interesting women playing well fleshed-out roles within the plot who aren’t just there to be threatened with rape, though it is full of very brutal and visceral descriptions of torn-off body parts, excrement and the slog of battle. Sykes doesn’t entirely manage to evade cliches however, with the main bad guy who is clearly going to be the focus of the next book being introduced to us raping and killing a woman, just to make it clear that he is a bona fide piece of shit, but he does try and temper this with a quip about whether he really needed a throne made of the crushed skeleton of his demon enemy.
Yes, after the tenth argument where humans are called scum of the earth and one of them retaliates by threatening somebody with a knife I did end up skimming to get to where they actually do the thing they are there to do instead of bickering about it, and the plot itself I think was overshadowed to a degree by the focus on the group’s dynamics - I learnt very little about the world they are living in. However, I fair flew through the book, and when that book is just under 700 pages long, to keep the pace and fluidity is a point I think worth making when this is the first of a trilogy.
Cat Fitzpatrick, 8/10
Sam Sykes is the author of The Aeons’ Gate trilogy, a vast and sprawling story of adventure, demons, madness and carnage. Suspected by many to be at least tangentially related to most causes of human suffering, Sa [...]
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