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The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes

The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes
4.5
Book Name: The City Stained Red
Author: Sam Sykes
Publisher(s): Gollancz
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Grim Dark? Epic Fantasy? Parody?
Release Date: 2014

If you’ve read Tome of the Undergates you will know roughly what to expect when you pick up a book by Sam Sykes. You take a step away from today’s ‘gritty’ fantasy, that type of fantasy that looks to be ‘like real life, but different’ – i.e. low magic, a couple of beasts that aren’t too far removed from creatures that did indeed exist, and fantasy-upped storylines based on historical occurrences. Where you find yourself is somewhere closer to the fantasy novels of the 1980s/1990s, with character and monster designs seemingly plucked from Dragonlance, Dungeons and Dragons, and the many video games of the time that had you start out your adventure by picking Warrior, Rogue, Cleric or Mage.

Dragons-of-Massive-Geek-dungeons-and-dragons-1004082_771_762Sam is certainly aware of this though. He draws upon the fantasy he read growing up and twists it in a way that it is recognisable, but results in the characters being inevitably broken. For example, he takes the sweet cleric trope and gives her an arm with seemingly demonic powers; he takes the wise wizard and makes him both volatile and not all that old, wise or reliable; he takes the warrior and gives him mental instability and intelligence; and the rogue he just makes a pain in the arse – both to the reader (because you never know what he is up to) and to the other characters too (for similar reasons). Oh, and there’s a Dragonman and feline-like warrior woman.

With all that said, The City Stained Red does take a step closer to the type of Fantasy on today’s bookshelves. Sam’s characters leave the Dragonlance-esque world we followed them through in the previous trilogy and find themselves in a city far more reminiscent of the kind you’d find in a George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie novel. My presumption is that Sam Sykes or his Editors thought that writing something more mass-market (which this 100% is) would be a good idea, but, as it’s by Sam Sykes, if you were to read 10 books from the gritty / grey shelves this would stand out like a sore thumb – and that’s a good thing.

The City Stained Red (cover)Onto the plot, The City Stained Red kicks off just after the events of The Skybound Sea (although you certainly don’t need to have read the first trilogy to enjoy this title)Lenk is on a boat and has decided that after completing an insanely difficult quest that nearly saw him and all his companions killed that he has had enough. He wants out of life as an Adventurer. He wants to be ‘normal’. However, there’s a slight problem with that in that Lenk isn’t really good at anything except being an Adventurer and that means he’ll need money if he is to retire and walk away into the sunset. The good news is that the completion of the aforementioned quest made him rich; the bad news is that he was left with an I.O.U rather than hard currency. And you can’t spend I.O.U. notes, can you? As a result, if Lenk wants to retire, he needs to track down the elusive debtor and get his money. The problem is that said debtor has buried himself deep within trading city of Cier’Djaal – somewhere Lenk and Co are far from welcome.

After an absolutely brilliant entrance into Cier’Djaal, that will introduce new readers of Sykes work to exactly what he is all about – the chaos really starts. Cier’Djaal is a rich city where giant spiders make fine silks and is seemingly rather peaceful. However, those profiting from the silks will soon find that they’ve become too content with the way things are and beneath the surface there are a number of factions interested in taking a step up the food chain; pretty much making the city a ticking time bomb. The power play is going to be made by dark, dangerous and mysterious forces and those within the city are going to wish they were far away. We’re talking assassins and unholy users of magic here. Despite Lenk’s desire to keep away from the troubles going on around them, he can’t leave unless he can track down the priest who owes him money and it seems that every sighting of him results in Lenk needing to dig deeper and deeper into the inevitable Cier’Djaal conflict.

I’ve focused on Lenk because his narrative is the easiest to discuss without giving too many spoilers, but as with all of Sam’s novels we get to experience multiple POVs throughout The City Stained Red. Each one continues on from the previous and each gives us a glimpse at different corners and levels of the city. This is incredibly well done, because initially we have little clue as to who the players are in the coming conflict or the reasons it is arising. To list the plot threads you will get to enjoy:

  • Lenks struggle to find his funds and whether to retire.
  • Kataria’s confusion over Lenk and discovery of her own people
  • Denaos’s secret past and its connection to current events
  • What Asper’s secret actually is and the dark forces it connects her to
  • Dreadaleon’s desire to save and protect a woman he falls for
  • Gariath’s struggle with being an outcast and discovery of a new foe

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 11.45.26The fact that Sam has so many POVs and so many stories to tell is probably why this book is such a monster – it stands at 640 pages). When I first picked up the book I must admit feeling a little overwhelmed, but can honestly say it felt like reading a novella at times. Because each story and character’s POV is so different it never feels like a slog. Additionally, along each one of these threads there are plot twists and reveals that will make George R.R. Martin fans smile and keep readers flipping through the pages. The city and more political plots are not the only thing Sam has brought into The City Stained Red to appease modern readers either. For me, once you learn a bit more about the ‘dark sides’ in this novel things do become pretty dark – to the extent that some of the scenes are rather disturbing. You’ll see people turning inside out, coughing up demons, burnt and reduced to mush – all the good stuff. As I’ve already said though, these scenes certainly add to Sam’s work and expand his potential readership as opposed to harming it or reducing the feeling of originality he has always maintained.

I wish I could comment more on the absolutely fantastic Asper scenes where she gets to interact with dark forces, the interactions between Kataria and her people, Lenk’s struggle with retiring and thoughts about what will come after, and Garth’s reflections on his lost people. However, to do so would be spoiling important parts of the novel and soften the emotional impact that Sam’s prose will undoubtedly deliver… So I will leave you to stumble upon those yourself when you pick it up.

couthi-sketchMoving away from the plot for a moment, I can’t write a review on this book without praising Sam for the ridiculously colourful variety of creatures, beings, concepts and lore within The City Stained Red. I’ve already told you about the giant spiders spinning silk, but you will meet a vast array of mind bending ‘things’ that you won’t find in other fantasy novels. The best example I can give of such ‘things’ the Couthi merchants who have four arms and paintings for heads – yep, I wrote that out right!. I really hope we get a short story to explain a bit more about their origins in the future. It is worth noting that Sam sprinkles the lore into his book in a way that you can delve into it or not. I guess in that way it is like DragonAge – you can hit ‘square’ to skip the ‘extras’ and get to the action or you can spend time reading through and enhancing your knowledge of Sam’s world and concepts .

I stand by a Tweet I once wrote that I feel sums Sam Sykes up as an author: where other writers think “I can’t possibly write that”, Sam thinks “I HAVE to write that”. For that reason, whenever I read something by Sam Sykes it feels as though it sits in its very own genre. It is parody, but not in the way Pratchett is. It is Epic, but not in the way The Lord of The Rings is. It’s Grim and Gritty, but not in a way that I’d slot it on shelves alongside Lawrence or Abercrombie. It’s just Fantasy written by Sam Sykes: fast, over the top, hilarious, charming, gruesome – it is all over the place and yet there are so many powerful scenes, so many incredible creations and hidden depths that it certainly isn’t throw away fiction. No one else writes like Sam Sykes because no one else can. His work is unique and that’s pretty damned impressive in a genre that is so often called ‘stale’ and ‘based on trends’.

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Rating: 9.9/10 (7 votes cast)
The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes, 9.9 out of 10 based on 7 ratings
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