Yes, I'm aware that this review took a long time in coming. Out of reading material after finishing the awfully sleep-inducing Uprooted by Naomi Novik during my hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies last summer, I started to read the digital edition of The City Stained Red on my little 10-inch travel laptop. I've often said that reading from a computer screen makes my eyes bleed, which explains why it took me so long to finish this novel. Even back home, with a bigger laptop, I couldn't read more than a couple chapters each week. Things should henceforth be a bit better, for I have recently invested in a new 27-inch HD screen.
If you have Sam Sykes on your Twitter feed or as a Facebook friend, you know that he's no ordinary individual. I had the opportunity to share dinner and drinks with his French translator a couple of years back, and Emmanuel, his girlfriend and I all agreed that he appeared to be quite a character. And even though I had never read anything by this author, everyone maintains that he has a very unique voice, one that can be divisive if you don't like his style and tone. So I was looking forward to finally giving one of his books a shot. As the first volume in a new series, The City Stained Red appeared to be the perfect jump-in point. Even though it follows Sykes' first trilogy as far as the timeline is concerned, I believe it was written to provide new readers with a chance to discover the author without missing anything but a few nuances. And the jury is still out on whether that's the case or not. . .
As you know, most SFF bloggers receive review copies from publishers. But for some reason, I was unable to get a copy of this novel. And since I was supposed to read Sam Sykes' debut, Tome of the Undergates, a few years ago, and then its two sequels as they were released, only to back down because I didn't really have time to begin a full trilogy, I felt that I truly owed Sam a review. So I did what I almost never do for a genre title and I actually bought a copy of the ebook edition.
And I'm glad I did! The City Stained Red is the equivalent of a summer action movie blockbuster. There's a lot of action, a lot of battle scenes, lots of blood, lots of stuff blowing up, lots of one-liners, and a fun group of disparate characters. It will never win a Hugo or a World Fantasy Award, but it's an entertaining read to be sure!
Here's the blurb:
A long-exiled living god arises. A city begins to break apart at the seams. Lenk and his battle-scarred companions have come to Cier'Djaal in search of Miron Evanhands, a wealthy priest who contracted them to eradicate demons --- and then vanished before paying for the job. But hunting Miron down might be tougher than even these weary adventurers can handle as two unstoppable religious armies move towards all-out war, tensions rise within the capital's cultural melting pot, and demons begin to pour from the shadows... And Khoth Kapira, the long-banished living god, has seen his chance to return and regain dominion over the world. Now all that prevents the city from tearing itself apart in carnage are Lenk, Kataria, a savage human-hating warrior, Denaos, a dangerous rogue, Asper, a healer priestess, Dreadaeleon, a young wizard, and Gariath, one of the last of the dragonmen.
As I mentioned, Sam Sykes has a distinct voice and a unique style. Although it's a dark and bloody tale, The City Stained Red cannot be labelled a grimdark title. As gritty as it is, it has nothing to do with works from authors such as George R. R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, or Richard Morgan. Stylistically, the novel is closer to the action-adventure fantasy books that were so popular in the 80s and the 90s. But again, it's not quite that. As a big fan of such series, Sykes draws upon such works to write his own stories. And yet, though he obviously embraces the tropes associated with such novels, he likes to subvert them and use readers' preconceptions against them as the tale progresses. Hence, the tropes/clichés are present, but Sykes twists them in some decidedly unexpected ways.
As a setting, Cier'Djaal is an East meets West metropolis reminiscent of Istanbul/Constantinople. I feel that Sykes did a good job making the city and its myriad factions come alive. And though critics have lauded authors like Bradley P. Beaulieu and Ken Liu for their silk road fantasy settings (whatever that means), even if he eschews the generic medieval European backdrop for a more Middle Eastern environment, Sam Sykes has received no such praise for his worldbuiding. I'm not sure why. . . In addition, the author sure likes original races and monsters, and God knows there are quite a few within the pages of this book!
The characterization can be uneven at times, however. Certain novels can suffer from too many POVs and I feel The City Stained Red could be a case in point. Understandably, Lenk and Kataria often take center stage, for their plotlines require more exposure. The same can be said of Denaos, whose past catches up with him. And to a certain extent, I can understand that the divulgation of Asper's secret also requires some airtime. On the other hand, I doubt that Dreadaleon and Gariath's points of view deserved that much exposure. Though a lot keeps happening throughout the novel, those fragmented storylines can make the pace drag and take forever to come together. Having said that, it's with these characters that Sykes' subversion of popular fantasy tropes is brilliantly done. Indeed, they might look like a thoroughly clichéd Advanced Dungeons and Dragons campaign party, but there is more to each protagonist than meets the eye.
The humor can be low-brow at times, true, which some readers might find off-putting. And yet, The City Stained Red is a tale with more profound nuances than what appears at face value. It's a tale of alienation featuring racism, homosexuality, religious intolerance, fundamentalism, interracial love, questioning of faith, and more. Hence, amid all the blood, the gore, and the occasional farts, the author explores deeper issues that must be faced by his characters.
What probably disappointed me the most was that The City Stained Red wasn't as self-contained as I thought it would be. I figure it was meant to be a vast introduction to a new story arc (though having not read Sykes' first trilogy, I understand that I might be missing some key elements that would have made the ending make a bit more sense), but I was expecing more in the way of resolution at the end.
Still, if you are looking for a fun and entertaining read from an author whose voice is rather unique, chances are that Sam Sykes' The City Stained Red might just be what the doctor ordered.