I’m late to the table with Sam Sykes, having missed his trilogy Aeon’s Gate. Previous reviewers have admired his prose and characters far more than his plotting, in early volumes of what amounts to an ongoing series that builds a vivid world, assembles a band of five ‘‘adventurers’’ to travel it, and sets them loose to wander. New sequence Bring Down Heaven begins with The City Stained Red (with sequel The Mortal Tally due to follow later this year). In terms of output, Sykes may seem like a videogame designer more obsessed with quantity than quality, but here’s the rub: this brash, prolific wordsmith has a natural eloquence that grabbed my attention and refused to let go, over the course of almost 600 pages.
Lenk, the leader of the band, is a sword jockey (mercenary and assassin), by this point adept at killing people and assorted monsters, but tired of the trade and hoping to give it up for something more legit. The group that formed around him consists of three humans (the priestess of a healer god, a well-honed rogue, and an adolescent wizard), plus a dragonman and a schict huntress – long-eared, lithe, and not particularly elfin – who has become Lenk’s lover.
Seeking payment from their latest employer (supposedly a priest of the healer god, far higher in the ranks than their priestess and dedicated to some grand, undisclosed ambition), the group has followed him south to the city of Cier’ Djaal. Its great expanse is divided into various sectors for different ‘‘factions’’: humans at the top, split into two primary groups (bitterly at odds), while various nonhuman ‘‘Oids’’ have their own zones. Although they bear an extra freight of prejudice, these southern dragonmen, schicts, and other, stranger breeds have been substantially assimilated into a place where everyone interacts much as races and cultures do in our world’s largest urban centers – unlike the realms of fantasy where Faerie, Gnome, Hobbit, and humankind (etc.) tend to stay apart until a quest calls some of them together.
The civic tension can resemble gang warfare, but the most drastic discord comes from warring ideologies that recall the fractious Middle East (both past and present) in scenes like an early transformation of a market day into ‘‘all-out slaughter’’:
Men in black dragged hooded foes to the ground to be hacked to thick, screaming chunks under curved blades. Hooded thugs kicked their dark-clad adversaries into burning stalls, firing bolts into them as they emerged, howling from the inferno…. ‘‘Khoth-Kapira!’’ they were shrieking. ‘‘Saccaam ashal thuru!’’
(To which one hood-wearer responds, ‘‘Quit screaming and burn, you heathen sons of bitches….’’)
Human or not, Sykes’s characters rarely mince words. After chaos has swept Asper the priestess and Denaos the rogue away from their fellow northerners, they start arguing about the relative amounts of danger and stupidity in his former associates here (one of the major gangs) and her fellow healers, till she’s angry enough to snarl, ‘‘I’m a font of compassion, asshole.’’ Their approach toward their surroundings is just as direct, perceiving flaws in landmarks whose glory the locals take for granted. Asper’s first view of a famous fountain sees it:
ringed with stone children, hand in hand, dancing around a pillar formed of sculptures of women and men intertwined in joy. Their faces wore ecstasy like masks, hollow and false. Their hands were outstretched to catch the water as it babbled down from the top and became red in the basin.
When the title stain becomes this evident, so does her disillusionment – observing a monument which ‘‘belonged in the City of Centers, that mythical, imaginary place where scholars that didn’t exist would gather around it to talk about things that weren’t real.’’
The intertwining plotlines in ‘‘Act Two’’ send band members on separate trajectories, hoping to get clues to the whereabouts of the errant paymaster from Cier’ Djaal’s enclaves of swordsmen, healers, gangsters, wizards, dragonmen and schicts, yet nothing really goes as planned in this city where the classic dichotomy of Good and Evil keeps breaking down. Spurred to exert magical powers he didn’t know he had, Dreadaeleon reacts with a youngster’s giddy delight (not tempered to maturity in a true rite of passage). Observing the wary interaction between southern schicts and humans, Kataria the huntress finds no way to cast aside the passion that brought her here with Lenk. And while the swordsman gets stray glimpses of the white-clad priest who once hired his group of adventurers, the even paler figure who shows up now and then to comment on the action (invisible to anyone but Lenk) resembles a trickster god in the taunting guise of imaginary friend.
The novelist – real name Sam Watkins, son of noted fantasist Diana Gabaldon – shows a great promise that’s never quite fulfilled. If he could slow down the headlong flights of imagination that compel him to produce so many hefty tomes, he might produce literate marvels on a par with Twain or Dickens. Sykes has a way with words, and I’d like to see him make the most of it (no brooding self-importance required).