Friday 16 July 2010

Book review: Tome of the Undergates

Tome of the Undergates

By Sam Sykes

(Gollancz, 15 April 2010)

Tome of the Undergates does not open with a 200-page battle scene - let's get that clear right from the start. It's a criticism and accusation I've seen levelled at the novel in various reviews, and it's misleading. Yes, the book opens with a pretty huge brawl that only gets bigger as it progresses. Yes, the duration of the battle does last for around 200 or so pages. But it's not 200 pages of pure carnage; the battle ebbs and flows, with various breaks where other events unfold, and at times the battle rages in the background while scenes of rather different natures play out.

It might seem strange to start this review by making the above distinction, but I feel it's important the point is made - debut authors have a tough enough time as it is without having to sit there and helplessly watch as inaccurate statements about their novel are bandied around the interwebs.

The other primary criticism I've seen levelled at Tome of the Undergates - that its characters bicker and snipe at each other incessantly, to the point that it becomes tiresome - is much harder to face down, mainly because it's largely true. The first part at least: whether the constant arguing becomes tiresome is down to personal opinion.

There's no doubt that Sykes has created quite a colourful bunch of misfits - and misfits is exactly what they are: a small, silver-haired swordsman that hears voices; a snarling, wild Shict (think a female elf pumped full of steroids and you're halfway there), a red-skinned dragonman with a hedonistic lust for violence; a wise-talking rogue of dubious loyalty and even more dubious courage; a scrawny wizard with an alarming habit of setting people on fire (accidentally, much of the time), and a pious, slightly snobbish healer who can't help feel she should drop her bandages, pick up a sword and kick some ass like the rest of her companions.

Such a diverse group of individuals, with their various prejudices, beliefs and abilities, should be the driving force of the novel - and for much of the time they are. There's no doubt that when they're fighting (the enemy, as opposed to each other) they're capable of dealing out some serious damage, and their diverse natures create plenty of scope for the sniping and bickering that constantly breaks out between them, allowing for a number of amusing moments.

Yet the problem is that their backgrounds just aren't explored nearly enough to engage the reader's interest and empathy. There are hints here and there - flashes of traumatic events in their respective pasts that have set them on this adventuring road - but it's just not enough to build them into the three-dimensional figures they need to be. Fortunately the last fifty or so pages of the book goes some way towards rectifying this, but by then it's a little too late. The result is that - for all their dynamism and distinctiveness - for much of the book some of the characters feel a little hollow. Of course, Tome is the first novel in a series, so we can't expect every single revelation to be spilled. But a lot more was needed in this first installment. And with more regularity as well: having one brief glimpse at a backstory in the first third, then having a more significant one at the end isn't enough, and detracts from the desired emotional effect.

That's not to say that Sykes' charactersation is bad, as it's not. As mentioned, the protagonists are distinctive individuals, and he builds some believable relationships between them: the dynamic that exists between Lenk and Kataria is particularly well-wrought. But in the same way their backstories are reduced to unsatisfying glimpses, the same is often true of the characters' traits. Denaos has a lovely wit about him - and, you sense, a hint of self-loathing - but we don't see either of them often enough. Likewise, Gariath - who spends most of the novel rampaging about and cracking skulls - displays a quite poignant sense of anguish in the book's closing chapters, that adds a totally different dimension to his character. It's just a shame we didn't see a bit more of this facet to his personality throughout the book. An attempt is made to explore Asper's sense of inadequacy, and proves mostly unsuccessful until a major revelation is revealed without much prior warning - the result being pleasingly enlightening, if rather clumsily handled. Other characters however - Dreadaleon being the chief culprit - feel rather underdeveloped.

Another problem is the setting: the first 450 pages of the novel take place on a ship and then an island. With many novels, the scene changes with the POV character. But as Sykes' POV characters are all in the same place, it means there's no variety in the scenery. Subsequently, no matter how hot the action gets, it starts to feel rather stale at times - too much exposure to the same environment.

This problem isn't helped by the rather linear plot, which sees the adventurers setting off to retrieve an artifact that was stolen from their employer. It's a storyline that goes from A to B to C without much deviation, and the lack of a subplot is at times rather glaringly obvious. There's no shortage of action, yet this in itself is often a problem: the lack of intrigue and depth sometimes makes it a bit of a slog at times, a problem made worse by some rather protracted dialogue and the regular backbiting between the companions (which for the most part I didn't have an issue with, and actually found amusing at times, though admittedly it did grate eventually). The novel's pace also sags in the middle third, which doesn't help matters.

The element that surprised me the most was the humour - or rather, the way it often didn't hit the target. I follow Sam Sykes on Twitter, and he's funny. Very funny. And this sense of humour certainly manifests itself in Tome of the Undergates - there are some very amusing one-liners, and some entertaining scenes. But like the characterisation and plot, it's just too inconsistent. Too often the attempts at humour fall flat, which is a real shame.

Yet despite all the above, there's something likable about Tome of the Undergates, and plenty of reasons why this is so.

For a start, Sykes can write good battle scenes - he has an eye for detail and a penchant for the dramatic, and uses both to admirable effect. His prose is perfect for the type of story he's telling, being both swift and precise. While worldbuilding as a whole is on the light side, the elements that Sykes does focus on are handled well, and are very intriguing in their oceanic nature. There's plenty of cool monsters too - most notably the Abysmyths, for which Sykes researched marine life and biology. His efforts paid off.

The most pleasing aspect of the novel is easily the final third, when a new faction enters the fray and the action really hots up. These newcomers add some vital depth to the story; it's the first indication that Sykes has clearly got something much bigger in mind than the linear story that dominates much of the first two-thirds of this book. The netherlings are a striking race with a curious hierarchy, and their involvement in events bodes well for the next installment in the Aeons' Gate series.

Verdict: Tome of the Undergates is a flawed diamond. A very flawed diamond. There are numerous issues with characterisation, pacing and plotting. At times it feels hollow, at others it feels uncomfortable bloated. Yet there are enough signs to confirm that Sykes has potential. The battles are handled well, the mythology and creatures of his world are intriguing, and the more positive elements of his characterisation - the dynamics that define the relationship between Lenk and Kataria, and the flashes of depth in many of his protagonists that we see towards the end - are very promising. As is the ending, which hints that there's a lot more to come from Sykes. If he can refine his characters (lessen the backbiting, sharpen the humour, and develop their backstories) and conjure up a more dynamic plot with more depth, then he  could well be on to a winner. 

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