Review: Why You Should Read Sam Sykes Aeons’ Gate Trilogy from Pyr

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 PublishingGrasping 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.

Excerpt: Chapter One – The Relic Of Aken–My Sword & Sorcery WIP

Ordinarily I wouldn’t share something so early on but since this is a teaching blog, I thought it might be interesting to post an early chapter of this work in progress, a sword and sorcery book, and then perhaps look at it later when it’s published or at least further along. So for what it’s worth, here’s Chapter One (1st draft with a few polishes) of my sword and sorcery novel in progress The Relic Of Aken:

Chapter One:
Thieves

Bel made his way through the crowded market ignoring the stares. Father just had to send him to the market on traveler’s day. He could pretend it was the sight of someone like him in the brown monk’s cloak, but he knew better. The Degan locals were used to seeing him, a towering figure with greenish skin, slightly pointed ears and canine tusks protruding above his lower lip on each side. “Beast” was a word he’d often heard used to describe himself. “Sub-human” and “Perversion” were others. He had to be careful not to seem brutish. It wasn’t easy for a person his size to move through tight spaces packed with stalls and people without bumping into others, and, with his size and strength, even the slightest bump could leave a bruise. The gods had cursed him from birth, he figured.

He focused his attention back toward where he’d last seen Holly. The short human girl’s ability to easily blend into any crowd was a liability here. If it weren’t for Bel’s height, he’d never have been able to track her movements. She moved way too quickly. The smell of human sweat mixed with animal droppings, leather, fresh meats and dust. It was a smell locked into his memory, one he detected blocks ahead, every time he drew near the market.

A red-haired human head bobbed ahead as it ducked under a large basket being carried between them by two fat human males. As she returned to normal height beyond them, Holly glanced back and their eyes met. She smiled. Who’d have ever thought a human girl and a half-orc could be best friends? The warmth in her green eyes melted the tension of his frustration. She stopped and waited for him.

He weaved past a man arguing animatedly with a young cock-eyed vendor, then arced around a wagon where other humans were unloading fresh, round melons into a stall and joined his friend.

“Try and keep up, will you?”

Bel snarled at her. “Try being my size in a place like this.”

Holly laughed. “Just roar and they’ll clear the way.”

“Father instructed me to avoid drawing attention to myself.” The way the old priest said it had been more like an order.

Holly rolled her eyes. “Where’s the fun in that?” Then she was off again, leaving Bel with the same quandary as he hurried to keep up.

Pale skinned, with hair down past her waist, Hollyanna was beautiful by human standards. Bel had heard boys outside the monastery talking about her many times. Sweet as a fresh picked grape, the apprentice blacksmith had befriended him from the week he arrived at the monastery. It had been her more than anyone else who’d taught him how to feel at home amongst humans. He wouldn’t have survived without her playful guidance and cheerful encouragement. They’d become fast friends and spent every spare moment they could together. Bel often wondered if it was his presence alone which had kept her from having many suitors. She never groused about it but he imagined she got lonely. After all, many other girls her age were married or betrothed and Holly was the best pick in the entire village.

He heard a grunt and stopped as he bumped something soft, looking down into Holly’s crossed eyes. “Uh, pay attention. I’m standing here.”

“Sorry.”

“What are you so busy thinking about that you’d run me over like that?”

Bel shrugged. “Fresh grapes.”

Holly’s mouth twisted as it always did when she was sure she’d heard a lie. “You’re hungry already? Gertie stuffed us before we left. You really need to shrunk that orcan stomach of yours.”

From anyone else, Bel would have regarded it as an insult. But Holly accepted him for who he is and her honesty was one of the things he treasured about their relationship. Other than Father, she was one of the only humans with guts enough to speak honestly to him.

“How much further? Are we sightseeing or shopping?” he cocked his head so he could roll his eyes upward as he looked at her.

She laughed. “I’m scoping the best prices, Bel.”

“You haven’t spoken to anyone but me that I’ve seen.”

“I don’t need to. I have acute powers of observation.” She grinned and turned abruptly down a narrow corridor between stalls.

Bel followed, drawing immediate ire from vendors as their tents vibrated every time his shoulders rubbed against the overhanging tarps forming their roofs. Hanging fruits thumped softly, seashell necklaces jangled, and crystal strands twisted as he made his way through.

“Your short cuts are not meant for half-orcs,” he commented as he stopped at a stall beside Holly. He recognized it as one they’d passed earlier on their way into the market.

“You made it, didn’t you? Just relax and let me negotiate so we can go home.”

As soon as the vendor’s eyes met hers, she was off to bargaining. Every item he showed her was the finest quality, he said. Nothing satisfied her expectations though. Bel chuckled to himself as he watched the vendor’s face redden with rising irritation.

Three young human males nearby stared and chattered, but their eyes were focused on Holly not him. She’d taken off her leather smithing apron before they’d left and was dressed in brown c otton pants that stretched tightly over her waist and thighs and a loose, low cut blouse which showed more flesh than Bel remembered seeing before. Was she trying to draw attention? He stepped forward a foot and glared at the boys, who quickly disappeared to busy themselves with other tasks.

Okay, so he didn’t want her lonely but that didn’t mean just anyone was good enough for his best friend.

In a few moments, she’d purchased several herbs and potions and began winding her way back through the crowded masses. This time, Bel stayed close on her heels.

“You didn’t have to scare them off,” she said as they left the last row of stalls and moved along the wider, less crowded cobblestone street which led to the stables.

“Who?” A glance told him she’d meant the boys. “They were young and derelict. You deserve better.”

“It’s not like I’ve got men pounding down the shop doors, Bel. It wouldn’t have hurt to let them admire me.”

“Father sent me to protect you. I was obeying his wishes.”

She leaned over and punched him hard in the arm. “From danger, not harmless stares.”

“Staring’s how all the danger begins.”

They turned a corner and Bel saw two men in the shadows watching a store across the street. A woman appeared, dressed frilly from head to toe, beautiful white lace decorating every curve and junction of her very expensive dress and hat. She carried a large bag draped over one arm as she hurried across the street toward an alley near where the men were waiting.

“Someone’s about to prove me right right now,” Bel said as his eyes turned back to the two human males. They were about to do something very stupid, he knew the signs.

Moments later, as the woman entered the alley, oblivious to their presence a few feet away in the shadows, they slipped in after her and Bel quickened his pace.

“Where are you going?” Holly sounded annoyed. “We’ve got to get back in time for lunch or Krell will never let me hear the end of it.”

A scream came from the alley, and Bel ignored her and raced forward through the shadows the two men had just vacated.

Entering the alley, he saw the woman backed against a wall, her pale face even whiter as her brown eyes widened with fear.

“Give us the bag!” A hairy bulk of a man said as he skinny, taller companion grinned lasciviously at her.

“He can have the bag. I want more!”

The bulky man tore the bag free of her grasp as his friend lunged, ripping the dress with a loud snap as the woman screamed again.

Bel let the roar rise from deep within, a soft rumble at first that soon rivaled a clap of thunder. Both men spun, startled, as the woman’s scream loudened at the sight of Bel.

“Leave her be!” Bel growled it.

The men’s eyes widened and the bulky one both dropped the bag as they bumped into each other trying to get away from the woman and take off down the alley away from him. Their footsteps pounded the cobblestones, dust flying with every step.

Bel turned to the woman, trying to soften his eyes. “Stay here. I’ll be back for you.” The woman’s eyes widened again and she screamed as Bel raced off after the two men.

His own boots boomed on the street as he turned a corner, closing on the men. The bulky one glanced back, panting. He was slower and clearly less in shape than his companion. Both were dressed like farmhands, worn wool pants and pull over shirts stained with the dirt of their labors, now turning steadily to mud from their sweat.

“Hurry!” the skinny one mumbled as he lead the way into another alley across the street.

The bulky man squealed as Bel’s large hand wrapped around his neck and ripped him off his feet and over the half-orc’s shoulder.

“Struggle and I’ll toss you like a catapult,” Bel warned as he continued running forward after the skinnier man.

The bulky man fell quiet, except for a few whimpers each time Bel’s running stride jostled him against muscled shoulders.

The skinny man turned a corner and stopped, puzzled. Bel hurried toward him and the man spun, running back straight at them, a knife appearing in his hand. The blade was long but looked worn and dull, having no shine.

“Stop! Now!”

The skinny man waved the knife. “Let me go, orc, or I’ll hurt you good.”

Bel could smell the alcohol on his breath from several feet away. The stench just strengthened as he approached. “Go ahead. It’ll appease my guilt if I have to kill you.”

The man growled and swung the knife in a wide arc. Bel pounded a boot hard on the pavement, sending vibrations through the cobblestones and causing the human to lose his balance. He swung an arm straight forward, intercepting the swing ing arm at the wrist and twisting. The man cried out in agony as the knife dropped, clanging against the stones of the street.

“This is a human town! Your kind are unwelcome here!” The skinny man screamed it as Bel yanked him off his feet and swung him over the opposite shoulder from his bulky friend.

“Shut up or I’ll make you do it.”

“She stole from us! We were just getting it back!”

The bulky man mumbled in agreement.

With one motion, Bel yanked them off his shoulders and sent them hurling to the street. They landed side by side in a pile of refuse, heads banging against the stones, leaving them dazed.

“I warned you.” He grabbed them again, this time encountering no resistance and swung them back over his shoulders, carrying them back the way he’d come.

“I thought Father instructed you to resist your violent tendencies.” Holly was in the street, waiting, her arm around the crying woman, offering what comfort she could.

“They started it,” he said with a shrug.

“Let’s get them to the authorities and get on our way then, okay?”

Bel nodded and followed as she led the way.


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. His second novel, The Returning, sequel to The Worker Prince, is forthcoming in Summer 2012.

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