BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A team of adventurers fracture over differing motivations while wading through the early efforts of a rising demon-god.
PROS: Distinct characters; well-drawn world; engaging plot; a cascade of action from start to finish.
CONS: “Firework” action; waiting for the rest of the trilogy.
BOTTOM LINE: A good book, whose characters and plot take turns drawing the reader in again and again. No need to have read the preceding Aeon’s Gate trilogy; The City Stained Red grips the reader on its own merits while leaving one looking for the sequel.
From the first, The City Stained Red reveals a desperation in our main character, a desperation which is reflected in turns by his companions, by their situation, and by the city in which they find themselves fighting. Sam Sykes’ story unfolds with constant action, and every event increases the intensity. I read the whole thing in one long marathon read, because I simply never reached a moment when I wasn’t even more invested than the moment before in “what happens next.”
Despite never having met them before, I found myself quickly sympathizing with each of our six characters. Their back-stories are not merely plausible, but richly drawn by the current crop of repercussions they face. We discover these details scene by scene, step by step, as they contribute to the story.
This band of adventurers (our sword-wielding leader, a warrior-woman, a rogue, a priestess, a wizard, and a dragonman — only 2/3 of whom are human, the other two are humanoid –) is reminiscent of classic RPG campaigns. So is much of the sword-fighting and spell-slinging. The City Stained Red mirrors the individual perspectives of each character very much the way individual players come together in a game: concerned with their personal agenda as much as, if not more than, the goals of the group.
But here, this is a feature, not a bug. Because The City Stained Red is a tale of six souls facing the loss of something they hadn’t quite realized they had, or weren’t entirely convinced they wanted. They aren’t all lamenting that loss. But the reader feels the shape of their nascent camaraderie by its negative space. This isn’t the usual band-of-misfits tale, but an illustration of the contour of its absence.
Our heroes are presented as not at all heroic upon their arrival outside the gates of the city of Cier’Djaal, where they intend to sneak in, find a priest who owes them money, and collect. Their plans beyond this are fuzzy because they are mostly not plans so much as desires, and conflicting ones at that. Finding the priest is complicated immediately by unrest in the city, which lands them directly in sword fights, slave chains (briefly), dragonman clashes, and underworld intrigue. Oh, and a wizard duel. Every burst of action seems isolated to the characters involved, yet we find them inextricably linked to the course of the plot as we discover a…well, a plot, to facilitate a demonic god’s return to the world. The characters remain unheroic even as the need for them to be saviors increases—and goes mostly unmet.
The best stories include scenes both surprising and inevitable, and here, too, The City Stained Red delivers. Although the nearly non-stop sequence of events is so relentless it sometimes feels like a fireworks show that’s all finale, the sometimes abrupt action never feels random after the fact. The more catastrophes occur, the more the reasons behind other events are revealed, which uncover still more of the big picture. Every complication, despite appearances to the contrary, turns out to be connected to what’s going on. Secondary and even tertiary characters’ actions influence what happens elsewhere. This spiderweb of a pattern is as representative of the novel as the giant spinning spiders’ silk at the center of the story.
Sam Sykes’s writing is often described as “fun,” which it is: there are all sorts of monsters, the action races along, and there are moments of humor strewn about in the unlikeliest of places. But this book is also a study of remorse, its flood and its lack. It considers the corruption that comes with power, and doesn’t offer a polished, prettied version of the downtrodden. If I merely described the setbacks the main characters face as the plot progresses, or the situation of the world at book’s end, it could almost sound bleak.
But I could never recommend a book that left me feeling bleak, and I do recommend The City Stained Red…not merely because the characters kept getting more interesting; not even because the plot kept drawing me deeper and deeper; but because, tying it all together, there is a pervasive sense of hope. Not the hope of a classic happy ending, or even of disaster averted, but, in Sam Sykes’ own words, the hope that “at some point, good will at least give it a good shot at trying to win out over evil.”
That’s what all the descriptors of Sam Sykes’ novels I’ve seen before have failed to convey: that, like a sky arching over a grim world, beyond the humor, the gore, the monsters and swords, there is a pale but discernible hint of light. With playful language, distinctly drawn characters, and a cavalcade of action in service to a coherent plot, this book is a winner. I’ll be reading the other books about Lenk and the gang while awaiting the next volume in the Bring Down Heaven trilogy.