I don’t do reviews here very often. And this will likely be a bit more of an essay than a review (fair warning). But the reasons are complex. As a fellow writer and professional who is friends or (at least) acquaintances will a lot of other professionals/ writers, I know how hard writers work and how hard bad reviews can be to hear. I also, generally, try and stay mostly positive on this blog, so negative reviews don’t add to that. Plus, if I don’t feel I can compliment the writer and book, there’s a risk of alienating people from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat or in my professional network, and I’m just not at the point where I feel that’s worth the risk or a good move for my career.
That being said, you should also know Sam Sykes is a friend. We have only met in person once, two years ago at World Fantasy in Columbus, Ohio. But we have talked online and emailed back and forth and even scuffled over one of my Adventures In SF Publishing posts when we disagreed. We do it with respect and admiration (at least on my part). There’s still a lot we don’t know about each other. We don’t share the same worldview, but we do have a mutual respect and that transcends differences.
Okay, enough disclaimers.
Because if you have not read Sam’s Aeons’ Gate trilogy from PYR, you really should. I reviewed the debut here (Tome Of The Undergates), and I read the Middle book last year and put it on my popular 70 Most Memorable Science Fiction and Fantasy Books I’ve Read To Date post. But you shouldn’t read this series just because of those things, nor because he’s my friend. The two best reasons to read them are: 1) Sam Sykes is one of the most inventive fantasy writers to come along in a while. And 2) Sam Sykes is an example of an author growing as he writes in a way that is both encouraging and inspiring to writers.
If you’re not a writer, the second reason may be of little interest, but since my blog tends to cater toward the creative crowd, I’ll stand by that as a significant thing. In his first book, Tome, there was a rawness and roughness that showed it was a debut. Much like my own debut. In Black Halo, the second book, he moved a bit beyond with his craft, developing his world, characters and even style a bit more in areas where it had been criticized in the first book. However, the book suffered a bit from feeling, as middle books often do, a little less focused and going off on some tangents which took the core characters to separate places, depriving us of some of the fun we had in Tome with their banter and internal conflicts. But now that I am fortunate enough to get a sneak peek at The Skybound Sea, volume 3 in this sword and sorcery saga, I can say with confidence that Sykes is really starting to come into his own.
The Skybound Sea is an even better read than the first two. Although the group gets separated again, Sykes wisely brings them together early on and then again for the climax. The groupings are a bit different this time and aid in the development of subplots involving the character relationships. I have to be careful what I say, because I don’t do spoilers, but those awaiting a satisfying Lenk-Kataria connection will probably be most pleased with how that storyline develops and yet, even saying that feels fair because it develops in ways that are not predictable and which demonstrate Sykes’ inventiveness.
At the same time, the world-building here really steps up a notch, especially in terms of inventiveness. Sykes is not writing typical fantasy or sword and sorcery here in regards to characters or settings, in particular. I jokingly teased Sykes on Twitter that ” I’m pretty sure when @SamSykesSwears wrote The Isle of Jaga sequences mushrooms were involved of a hallucinatory variety. Just saying.” But Jaga is an amazing world with some startlingly unique aspects. And no, I can’t tell you without spoiling the fun, so I won’t. But half of this book takes place there, allowing plenty of time for its many aspects to be revealed and play a part in the story. Sykes uses the setting here, more than in either prior book, as a character. And that’s what I mean by watching him grow. He did an ample job with setting and description from the start, don’t get me wrong. But the milieu was less important than other factors much of the time. Here, in Skybound Sea, the milieu almost becomes inseparable from events, so significant is its role. And thus, like Tolkein’s Middle Earth, Sykes’ world because as inherent to his story as the characters and themes.
Another point of growth is the use of lots of bodily functions in Tome, particularly during the opening battle. Those elements don’t disappear entirely in later books, but, in The Skybound Sea, they become far less prevalent and Sykes even manages to evoke humor in regards to past incidents of them from his characters. There’s a certain sophistication developing here for this young writer, one of the younger adult fantasy writers I’ve come across (mid-20s). And Sykes has plenty of book writing years ahead of him. So I’m quite certain we have a lot more to look forward to.
The Aeons’ Gate trilogy is the tale of a band of ragtag adventurers led by Lenk, a human with a mysterious past, who’s haunted by an internal voice that often argues with him, manipulates him, criticizes him etc. Aboard a ship attacked by froglike creatures from the depths, Lenk becomes caretaker of The Tome Of The Undergates, a magical book that holds the key to unlocking the Aeons’ Gate, a gate essentially between hell and earth. The frogmen are part of a conspiracy by demons (in essence) to set their master free to terrorize the earth again. When the tome is stolen, Lenk and his band are sent to capture it back and save the world. That road takes them into a lot of conflict and trouble they hadn’t counted on, encountering all kinds of various dangers and creatures along the way. The saga has lots of action, some romance, good interpersonal drama and politicking, some betrayal, scheming, magic, and good v. evil with some serious stakes. The characters are anti-heroes, but several possess a sense of moral core many antiheroes seem to lack these days. Ultimately, they may be flawed, but it’s understandable and their response to those failings is very admirable and believable.
One thing Sykes does here which is not so common is to really dig into the psychology of his characters. That means we go along with them to some dark places, which may be heavier than some readers would enjoy. But it also makes them more interesting, believable and real than a lot of characters because we see so much of the internal conflict behind their decisions. At times, I do think it can distract from pacing a bit, however, as I mention in the next paragraph, still, Sykes does this really well overall.
Are there weaknesses? Well, I’ve mentioned some in the first two books. There’s definitely some graphic violence here, although my contention is it serves the story and Sykes also gets better about how he uses that throughout the course of the trilogy. And the series is a bit dark, which may or may not be to your taste. But those aren’t genuinely weaknesses per se. Also, I found it a bit hard to envision characters until I got really further in. With book 3, the publishers finally include one of Lenk’s companions, and his love interest, with him on the cover with helps. I also found the netherlings and some of their co-antagonistic groups blended together a bit at times making them hard to distinguish. There are layers to all of them, and it wasn’t always easy to discern who’s who. I also felt some of the POV breaks using those characters didn’t add as much and slowed down the pace at times. However, those become minor quibbles in the end, because of the series’ overall strength.
The trilogy also holds the distinction of having one of the longest battle sequences I’ve ever read. I believe the first 100+ pages of Tome Of The Undergates all take place during the same battle. Sykes pulls it off in stunning fashion. In any case, I really think this is a series that fantasy fans young and old, new or ongoing will enjoy and should take the time to discover. And I have no doubt we are just hearing the first of many to come from Sam Sykes. Highly recommended.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.