Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Tome of the Undergates

by Sam Sykes


If descriptive styles were people Sam Sykes' would be the guy in shiny gold armour and fluorescent pink legwarmers, riding in on an elephant and waving a glowing broadsword. When Sykes creates atmosphere he lays it on thick with vibrant descriptions and over-the-top metaphors. This style would make Tome of the Undergates an exercise in the obvious, if it weren't for just about everything else in the story.

Lenk is the leader of a band of adventurers, although he's only in charge in the loosest possible sense. His companions despise each other almost as much as they hate their adversaries. Kataria views all humans as a disease, whilst the murderous dragonman Gariath is constantly poised on the brink of slaughter. The wizard boy Dreadaeleon is desperate to impress the healer, Asper, but Asper is disgusted by the casual way the adventurers deal out death and she has no time for the hilariously highly-strung young man.

Throw in a rogue, a priest, a paladin-type and a quest for a book and we have the makings of a rollicking role-playing game. With its abundance of frenzied battles and fights that the characters should not normally be able to survive, this story owes a lot to the traditions of video game fantasy. However it rises far above the clichés of that form thanks to the characters, who are surprisingly engaging. Lenk is an ordinary-looking guy, short and wiry and not at all the sort of man you might expect to wield a sword. He seems educated for an adventurer But there's a voice in his head urging him to do crazy things, and there are hints of a dark past that set him on this self-destructive course. In the face of demons and magic and an array of strange warriors he has to balance love, insanity and ambition against the overwhelming need to survive. He's always questioning his decision to continue, when anyone sane should simply turn and run.

Lenk and his friends have plenty of reasons to want to tear each other apart as well as powerful motivations for staying together, so there's a constant seething tension amongst them. The trouble is, the same qualities that make them interesting also push them to the edge of credibility. Their relationships are fascinating, but sometimes their group bond seems very unlikely.

There is the sense that Sam Sykes is being playful with the sword 'n' sorcery genre with all the exaggerated violence, lurid monsters and sharp wit of this tale. However it isn't a parody. When we least anticipate it, after a round of leaping and hacking and hanging from masts shooting the enemy full of righteous justice, Sykes is liable to bowl us over with passages of astonishing maturity and poignancy.

Tome of the Undergates is a corking, high-spirited read; but no less than I would expect from a guy who wrestles bears in his lunch hour.

23rd August 2010

Book Details

Year: 2010

Categories: Books

    Male Protagonist  
  Not For The Squeamish  

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