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Tome of the Undergates cover

After the miraculous unearthing of Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch, Gollancz are now hailing 25 year old Sam Sykes as the next messiah of fantasy literature. Take this excerpt from a charming letter that can be found at the front of Tome of the Undergates, by Sykes's editor:

Why did I fall in love with this book? Why do I hope you'll do the same? It's simple really; it reminded me of that sense of excitement at discovering a fresh new world in the company of a vividly drawn band of adventurers that first turned me into a reader of fantasy.

Following this up with more meaningless humbuggery (blah blah blah "fresh" blah blah blah "exciting and original"), the letter succeeds in dressing Sykes up as the one of the biggest debut fantasy authors of 2010. It would have you believe that Tome is capable of healing the blind. Reading it, you're probably more likely to gouge your own eyes out.

But what's it all about? Six individuals fight a bunch of pirates before setting off on a quest to recover a stolen artefact from an island of demons. To be fair they are fish demons, but that's about as far as the originality stretches. For the most part the story reflects Sykes’s self proclaimed writing method: "These are the characters, here's some stuff that happens to them. How can I make that sound sexy?" Apparently the answer is to write like a panel of marketing experts who've just drawn up demographics of the most generalised roleplaying subtypes imaginable, before combining them into a single sweaty mess. That fantasy nostalgia that Sykes’s editor talks about is in fact little more than a continuation of every D&D rip-off ever made.

In no particular order we have: Kataria, or Kat for short, who comes from the lineage of barbarian-humanoid-cat-elf things called Shicts. Her personality consists of being angry towards humans and shooting things. She also smells. Then there's Gariath, the volatile "Hulk smash!" of the party, struggling to keep his superiority complex under control but providing the ultimate cop out when it comes to a battle. Then Dreadaleon, the child warlock, commanding magic only slightly less potent than his own massive ego. Dread for short, he's the sort of person you could imagine writing poem after poem about the word crimson. Why not just call him Raven Darknight Terror and get it over with?

Deanos, the assassin, drenches himself in callous mystique only to come across as completely loathsome. Engaging in acts of "practical butchery" (p. 66), Deanos rationalises his actions (poorly) with his own reflective brand of philosophy. I'm guessing he can get away with it because he's the antihero and that's what antiheros are supposed to do. The only member of the group with a fully fledged personality seems to be Asper, a pious healer with a penchant for turning her enemy's insides into jelly. Spending the majority of the novel reprimanding everyone for the amount of needless killing, Asper also continuously attempts to redefine herself out of the stereotypes foisted upon her by the rest of the crew. Finally there is the leader of the group, Lenk, depicted on the book's unmentionable front cover with silver hair and a sword. This is about as deep as Lenk's character actually gets, save for his socially unacceptable desire for Kataria and the mysterious voice in his head which tells him to do things.

Unsurprisingly, this mob are constantly at each other's throats. Unfortunately, for much of the story their antagonism reads like an online discussion that has devolved into petty name calling. All the characters are so self-centred that the infighting comes across as little more than a struggle for the metaphorical spotlight of the reader's attention.

Pacing is also a massive problem. The opening battle scene lasts an astonishing 75 pages, followed by a 5 page respite, followed by another 70 pages of hack and slash. It's not a battle of intense, knuckle-biting action, it's a battle of ludicrously posh pirates being systematically butchered by a less-than-merry band of stock adventurers. Moans of the dead and dying are replaced with casual phrases such as "No fair" (p. 53) and "That would do it, wouldn't it" (p. 49) that soften the severity of the slaughter and making Asper's whinging seem all the more whinge-like. Though it's obviously intended as humour, it drains the action of any sense of immediacy and becomes very repetitive very quickly. And stylistically, much of the novel reads like a triumph of the bland. "His chant became thunder, every word a bolt of lightning, every syllable a crackle of purpose" (p. 154): every utterance a howling storm of sundered earth, every lip movement an untraceable pattern of chaos, every . . . you get the picture.

Such gooey narcissism leaves little room for the exploration, development, or even suggestion of alternative culture within the novel's world. Save for the varieties of animosity amongst the crewmembers and the invocation of Gods as a substitute for swearing, there's really nothing to distinguish one worldview from another. As far as worldbuilding goes, this seems to be just another case of jumbling up letters and picking names out of a hat to match a gang of flat-pack heroes. (At the time of writing, the "Lore" section of Sykes’s website is, perhaps tellingly, empty.) If nothing else, at least the characters seem completely united in their utter contempt for each other. For the most part, however, it is hard to claim that Tome is anything other than the most identikit of identikit fantasy.

Somehow this void of complex characterisation, environment, and plot still manages to last over 600 pages. How does it achieve this? Incessant slaughter. Actually, this is one of the few things that Sykes pulls off rather well. His attitude towards action dictates only one thing when it comes to a fight: Ramp that shit up. Or possibly: Level that shit up, since the majority of the book reads more like an action based MMORPG than anything else. After all, "It's all well and good to know one's role in the play the Gods have set down for us, no?" (p. 99, cheeky emphasis added). It's a novel that's one step away from having an experience bar at the bottom of every page, gradually progressing towards the end of the chapter with a satisfying: "Ding! Lenk levelled up!" Waves of enemies, for example, give an impression of increasing rounds of difficulty ("there are about three times as many pirates as there were before . . . all a degree more psychotic than the last lot" [p. 89]), while battles are often concluded with the confrontation of a final boss. Even raw anger (as any online gamer will undoubtedly agree) comes in the form of stolen kills: "Someone got him in the neck with a sword! He's dead! That counts, that counts!" (p. 119)

But there is an inevitable difference between dispatching an inordinate amount of ever-spawning murlocs—I mean frogmen—and reading about someone else doing it. Watching another person behind the controls doesn't yield the sense of satisfaction or achievement that is so integral to the experience of gaming. Instead it's more likely to foster dull loathing as adversary after adversary is dispatched again and again and again. Like Asper, the reader is only allowed to sit and watch from the sidelines.

Peter Whitfield is a student living in the North-East of England.

Peter Whitfield is a student living in the North-East of England.
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