I'd been hearing a lot about Sam Sykes debut series, The Aeons' Gate, so I decided to pick up the first book, Tome of the Undergates and have a go. Thirty pages in I bought the second and third books, Black Halo and The Skybound Sea.
What did I like? Well, the opening scene was a trope-taunting good time. See, you've got a swordsman, an elf, a cleric, and it already sounds like I'm telling a D&D joke. They're on a ship being attacked by pirates, and their friends -- a rogue, a wizard, a paladin, and a dragonman -- are taking their time getting above deck to help with the fight. The banter flies quickly, the blades flash even more quickly, and I was hooked.
Have you ever been in a D&D game where actual role-play was encouraged, and where the characters had one good reason to adventure together, but a dozen good reasons to kill each other or walk away?
This was like that, only it took itself more seriously than any game group I've ever been in, and to my ongoing surprise it pulled that off. Oh, the humor was certainly there, but it wasn't the sort of humor that will pull me out of the story. Sykes wasn't giving me parody of epic fantasy or role-playing. He was giving me a character-driven story about a group of low-lifes who, in an effort to make coin the only way they know how, find themselves taking a job that has real consequences.
Two things to be wary of going into this: first, these characters do spend some time brooding. There is navel-gazing. There is angst. It's well-earned, of course, but it's there. Second, there is head-hopping. The narrative voice is third-person limited, but we don't always have chapter breaks, scene breaks, or even paragraph breaks as cues for when we're changing perspective. The result is very fluid, but might be disconcerting if you're not reading carefully.
Also, the US market covers are, and I will be gentle here since I know it's completely out of Sam's control, "not very good." At Phoenix Comic-Con Sam showed me some non-English market cover art, and it was so spot on it was heart-breaking. Sam may post a link to it for you at some point. I don't know how to find it in the wild.
Hey, don't pay any mind to the covers. I loved the story. This may have something to do with Sam's editor, Lou Anders, who has been awarded a Hugo for his long-form editorial chops. Ultimately, though, it's all down to the author, and Sam Sykes survived Lou's lash and delivered the goods. He succeeded with "surprising yet inevitable" and gave us enough understanding of the magic system so that we know what's coming (or at least what's possible) when magic gets used to save (or wreck) the day.
I like the characters, and am torn between despising them as people for who they've been, and cheering for them as they strive to become better while trying to save the world from something that wants to come back to it.
When Sykes comes back to this universe with more stories I'll be picking them up. AND READING THEM.