The City Stained Red is the first in a new fantasy trilogy from Sam Sykes, and features characters from his previous Aeon Gate trilogy. The author has said that readers of The City do not need to be familiar with that previous series. I was not, and so encountered these characters for the first time, with no sense of their back-stories or the group dynamic. This might not have been a problem had there been some effort to establish them anew. Instead the author has assumed the reader is picking up on the group’s past exploits, taking the approach that: "Hey, you know these guys and what they’re all about, right? So let’s cut straight to the action."
And is there ever action! Relentlessly so at times, with our archetypal group of lead characters—a warrior, a thief, an elf-like “wilding,” a priest, a mage, and a giant non-human barbarian—charging through a series of set-pieces like a D&D party rampaging through a lunchtime campaign.
The city of Cier’Djaal (note fantasy apostrophe), the setting for the tale, is a melting-pot of multiple races, overt criminality and religious factions. It is depicted as decadent, morally bankrupt, and generally lacking in redeeming qualities; the wealthy fashas are wilfully ignorant of the city’s social unrest, while the partisan underworld is feuding and racial tensions threaten to boil over.
There are many imaginative touches: the giant silk-spinning spiders upon which the city’s wealth (and economic polarity) is based, the corpse-collecting Gevrauchian cult, the enigmatic couthi and the non-human races disparagingly referred to as “oids.” It is hard not to think the book would have benefitted from some of these being more centrally positioned.
A lot happens in 650 pages and keeping abreast of events requires commitment. The fragmented plots just about hang together as the action ramps up, though coherence is tested because exactly why someone is doing what to whom is not always perfectly clear. Some of this discord is effective insofar as it gives the sense of everything going to hell, but as the group reconvenes to tackle the Big Bad, it feels as if Sykes is struggling to wrangle all the plot-lines into place; some of the big reveals are overwhelmed by a tsunami of incident, accident, and emergency. As momentum gathers, many questions remain (such as why anyone would strive to save a city so bereft of altruism), but they are just about answered, the story carried through by its verve, energy, and the glimpses of compassion in several character arcs.
That said, the regular instances of fighting, fighting, and more fighting for dessert, are where the book is at its most compelling, the prose tight and pacy and the sequences well-choreographed. These scenes are bloody and unflinching in their violence; the sensory overload of the chaos and carnage is almost unbearable at times, yet it is leavened by the lighter moments in the exchanges between the characters. How amusing a reader finds these interactions will depend in part on that reader’s tolerance for contemporary vernacular in a pseudo-Medieval secondary world setting. For example: “ . . . they can’t hunt us on the street thanks to Rezca fucking with the mediations, but it’ll happen.” (p. 614)
As it is, the story focuses on our party of six and their simple, coin-based premise (because of course they’re mercenaries) for arriving in Cier’Djaal. “Focuses” is probably the wrong word, because as the group disperses into the city the reader is shifted between multiple points of view in a way that is disorientating and veers close to destabilizing the plot. The upside of this is that more time is spent with each character as an individual, which clarifies their personalities, motivations, and backstories. This is mostly successful, building the reader’s empathy with what is ostensibly a collective of outlaws. The side-plots involving the thief Denaos, the cleric Asper, and the young wizard Dreadaeleon offer welcome tonal and stylistic variation. The dragonman Gariath does not have a side-story so much as a running battle, but in the few moments when he is not facing down his nemesis, even he displays moments of humanity that most of the humans in the city fail to show.
This individual focus comes up short in the character of Lenk, the fighter-leader of the party. He is a skilled killer but reluctant to continue in this profession. His inability to escape this role would be tragic but is repeatedly undermined by over-wrought expositions of his internal dilemma, coupled with indecision/inaction. That he lacks the wisdom to change is potentially interesting, that he lacks the wit to do so is frustrating, but that he lacks the agency to effect any change stretches credulity. His on-off relationship with Kataria, a humanoid “shict” who prefers the adventure of life outside of human cities, is part of Lenk’s dilemma but their future options are portrayed as being black-or-white: Lenk may either settle peacefully in the city without Kataria, or sacrifice his desire not to kill by continuing to live outside of Cier’Djaal with her. That rings hollow: where Lenk is often obtuse, Kataria is smarter and seems capable of finding alternative solutions . . . in fact, why isn’t she the leader of the group? Also, what does she see in Lenk?
For all the activity, the novel drags in places. Not all the action has purpose, sometimes feeling as though inserted to call back the reader’s wandering attention. When the action points subside, there are dynamic contrasts and genuine wisdom but also moments of character indulgence—Lenk in particular dwells too long on Feeling All The Feels without progressing from this introversion, too often telling the reader how he feels rather than showing it. Thus, the first-time Sykes reader might feel that much of the character development of the central group happened prior to this book, without a sense that any is still yet to come. In the case of Lenk this results in a circular internal monologue (sometimes extending to several pages) in which he asks himself “why must I do all this killing?” only to return to the same debate several chapters later (usually after doing some more, probably unnecessary, killing).
In his Acknowledgments the author notes, rather grandiosely, the input of “the patience to get the courage to challenge oneself,” as well as “the patience of you, the reader.” Patience is definitely required at times; the book feels like it is one full revision shy of a final draft. There are one too many plot-lines and two or three too many action scenes. It would also serve the plot well to remove the florid over-styling that at times is baffling. For example:
For the first time that night their eyes met. Only for a single echo, a moment during which a drop of rain hung over an empty tankard. But echoes could last for ever, if the emptiness was big enough, and sometimes cups ran deeper than most people knew. (p.403)
The sword could still see him, blind and in the dark. The sword was still staring at him, looking at him as though it was the answer to everything.
It didn’t talk. Of course it didn’t talk. That’d be stupid. (p.405)
Much has been made of Sykes’ humour but his dialogue could use some sharpening. The witticisms exchanged by group members sometimes lack wit; too many characters share the same verbal trait, i.e., a smart mouth given to arch wisecracks and withering asides, so that their vocal similarities make them less distinct as individuals. At times, the conversation simply goes on too long without apparent resolution.
When The City Stained Red works, it works well. Whilst the setup is firmly within the tried-and-tested formula of the adventuring party undertaking a new round of exploits, there is freshness in the variety of fantastical races, religions and creatures, and plenty of muscular confrontations. The book would have benefited from being edited down by a hundred pages or so, as it felt at times as if the story and its themes got buried under the weight of the book’s ambition, but there is enough in here to engage the patient epic fantasy reader.
Richard Webb is a UK-based SFF writer and screenwriter. He currently serves as Event Coordinator of the British Fantasy Society and can be found on Twitter @RaW_writing. He has been mistakenly identified by eyewitnesses in two separate police identity parades.