Guest Blog: Sam Sykes

With the UK edition of Tome of the Undergates (Canada, USA, Europe) making some noise on the other side of the pond, and with the book about to be released in the USA this fall, I thought it was a good time to invite Sam Sykes for a chat.

Here's the blurb for Tome of the Undergates:

Lenk can barely keep control of his mismatched adventurer band at the best of times (Gariath the dragon man sees humans as little more than prey, Kataria the shict despises most humans and the humans in the band are little better). When they're not insulting each other's religions they're arguing about pay and conditions. So when the ship they are travelling on is attacked by pirates things don't go very well. They go a whole lot worse when an invincible demon joins the fray. The demon steals the Tome of the Undergates - a manuscript that contains all you need to open the undergates. And whichever god you believe in you don't want the undergates open. On the other side are countless more invincible demons, the manifestation of all the evil of the gods, and they want out. Full of razor-sharp wit, characters who leap off the page (and into trouble) and plunging the reader into a vivid world of adventure this is a fantasy that kicks off a series that could dominate the second decade of the century.

And since he doesn't strike me as the kind of guy to pull any punches, I knew that it would be an entertaining guest blog!


To be perfectly honest, I only got the idea what to write about on this here guest blog a few hours ago. Despite whatever reputation I might have garnered, I have a hard time thinking of what to say on the spot (unless the topic is video games, dirty jokes or people I’d like to punch in the face).

So, like many authors, congressmen and witches at a loss of what to say, I turned to my good friend, Mark Charan Newton.

“It’s a fantasy blog,” he said. “People are coming to read about fantasy. Write something fantasy-related. You just met George R.R. Martin, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I didn’t want to punch him in the face, though, so…hey, what would you write about? If this blog were about you and you were going to talk about, say, problems with Nights of Villjamur, what would you say?”

“I’d probably talk about the modernisms in the book, and fantasy as a whole, and perhaps why some people don’t care for such things in their novels.”

And that’s about when it hit me: I would talk about the time I read Nights of Villjamur while drunk and on the toilet in a shady motel in Boston.

And that’s when a better idea hit me: twenty years ago, could you use the words ‘modernisms’ and ‘fantasy’ in the same sentence and still be considered sane?

For what seems like a very long time, fantasy was a genre governed by strict rules. In the beginning, everything had to be at least passably close to Lord of the Rings: there had to be a bad guy who was bad, there had to be good guys who were good, the quest had to involve saving the world and doing right for right’s sake and you had to have at least one song that everyone would skip over so they could read the next action sequence.

Then George R.R. Martin came along and ruined everything. Granted, moral ambiguity was not, by any means, invented or even pioneered by Martin, but it did get a lot more accepted once he showed up. Suddenly, we collectively discovered the color gray. Good guys could do bad things, bad guys could be motivated by good reasons, people could die and the quest could be personal. The rules were cracked, but not entirely broken.

It would take a few more years before someone stood up and said: “well, fuck, it’s fantasy, isn’t it? We can write whatever the hell we want to.” And I think it’s only now that readers and authors alike are starting to accept that.

Fantasy, at this point, is probably the most diverse genre around, if only because every twisted thought, fleeting fancy and “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” idea that comes into a person’s head can become a book. We’ve got the old school of black and white fantasy, the slightly less old school of morally ambiguous political fantasy, the relatively new school of urban fantasy and the New Weird, which is probably that smelly little kid in kindergarten who ate bugs and used all the black crayons.

For every weird image that flickers through your wrinkly little brain-meat, someone else wrote a book to match it. For every psychotic urge you feel, someone else has put it into words. For every time you think it’s impossible, someone else disagreed. It’s a good time to be a reader, no doubt.

But is it a good time to be a writer? Specifically, a new, young, debut author? Specifically, a new, young, debut author with rugged good looks, an impressive jawline and the ability to rip through steel with his titanic canines?

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: hell yes.

Longer answer: hell yes and at the same time, oh God no.

Tome of the Undergates has been out for a while now and has collected a fairly nice set of reviews. Some people have loved it. Some people have been merely okay with it. Some people don’t like it at all. This is all well and good now, though it didn’t really feel all well and good when I first discovered the age-old wisdom that not every book is for everybody.

Amongst everything I prepared myself for in writing a book, from accepting rejection letters to helping my editors hide bodies, the one thing I didn’t foresee was the fact that not everyone was going to fall instantaneously in love with me (well, that and writing guest blogs, apparently).

Tome of the Undergates is…different. This is what most people agree on. Sure, it has a band of adventurers. Sure, they might be reflected, in part, by their professions. Sure, they might be misanthropic, selfish, lustful, zealous, arrogant, morally ugly and decidedly socially dysfunctional. These are conditions I was comfortable writing about, this was a story I wanted to tell, so I did. It rang true with a lot of people, but not all of them.

Oh ho,” you might say, “isn’t this just the lame excuse that so many authors fall back on when someone doesn’t like their book? The whole ‘the audience just doesn’t get me’ excuse? How very emo of you, Sykes.”

First of all, how dare you call me out in front of Pat’s audience, you jerk. Secondly: no. I dislike that excuse a lot. If my book doesn’t ring with people, then I don’t blame them. They didn’t necessarily not “get” it, it just didn’t work for them. There’s no particular shame in that, on either part.

But I can’t write for those guys.

The thing is, I don’t “get” normal. I don’t understand normal people. I’ve never seen one in my life. From what I understand, though, they’re pretty boring. I’ve met a lot of broken people, though. I’ve seen them threaten, abuse and spew in lieu of confess, admire and…not spew. These are the stories I’m interested in writing: broken people doing broken things, trying their hardest to become un-broken and expressing themselves in broken ways.

The characters of Tome of the Undergates are extreme examples, but that’s half the fun: seeing how low people can go before they go back up (and even the filthiest trash goes up once in a while). And they reflect problems I think we’ve all thought about from time to time: doubt in ourselves, our faith, our people and our companions, urges that we feel that we know are wrong or that we know are right despite what everyone tells us, whether or not it’s acceptable to spy on other people while they urinate…that sort of thing.

Some people have said I haven’t gone far enough into these ideas.

To those people, I say: wait.

We’re going deep, baby.

Balls deep.

And this is the best time to go deep. Because twenty years ago, I couldn’t write this shit.

10 commentaires:

Jon Sprunk said...

Great blog, Sam. Hopefully, we'll meet at a conference or a convention where we can discuss going balls deep (in fantasy... sickos) over a few pints.

Dave de Burgh said...

Awesome post, Sam. I totally agree with you - now is the time to explore like we've never even thought of doing before. Getting there, though, and being able to do that, is a huge leap - you have to trust yourself to be as honest as you can be.

Thanks for unleashing Sam, Pat; I hardly ever comment on your posts, but felt I needed to with this one. :-)

Neth said...

And this is the best time to go deep. Because twenty years ago, I couldn’t write this shit.

Twenty years ago you were, what...6 years old? Could you even write your name?

Fun post as always, but I think you need to try harder to keep the voices in check.

Chris V said...

Just to clarify, normal doesnt exist.
Normal is the average of all forms of insanity.

Compare it with politics, you have left, right authoritarian anarchistic etc. if you draw lines it'll intersect somewhere in the middle. Same goes for the insane. Everyone is crazy, in some form, most are just in the centre near that intersect.. and some some are way the hell out there. And us humans have a tendency to group together and feel better then the rest.. volia normal people. *cough*

Abelard, Antimetaphysician and High Professor of Eloquence and Postmoderny Deconstructionisms said...

I know as a misanthropic dragon I am very much excited to see one of ur chars work thru his loathing of the human race. Maybe it will help me.

paran said...

"Then George R.R. Martin came along and ruined everything."

Stephen Donaldson, Gene Wolfe, Glen Cook and host of others say '...'.

Unknown said...

Kesera: I showed this blog to a friend of mine before it was published and his exact words were "you're going to upset Gene Wolfe's fans."

I owe him a coke now!

Adam Whitehead said...

"Stephen Donaldson, Gene Wolfe, Glen Cook and host of others say '...'."

Sam does say in the post that lots of authors laid the groundwork for Martin, and his work was not in isolation. I would in fact expand your list by adding David Gemmell and Paul Kearney to it, who both wrote gritty epic fantasy with a high body-count and no guarantee of happy endings before A GAME OF THRONES came out, alongside Donaldson and Cook.

However, A GAME OF THRONES popularised this approach quite radically. Gemmell and Donaldson in particular had not been sales slouches, but when sales of this series took off in the direction of the big guns like Eddings, Brooks, Williams and Jordan, it legitimised it in the eyes of publishers, and opened the floodgates for later authors like Abercrombie and Lynch.

The argument that A GAME OF THRONES triggered a sea-change in the 'perception' of epic fantasy amongst a wider audience is I think pretty strong. Yes, most certainly many other authors had been doing similar things earlier on, but they hadn't also gotten the recognition and wider appeal that Martin brought to the table.

Unknown said...

The hell with the George RR Martin preview. Where is the next book? Martin, over the years, has become a fucking jerk and a joke. He cares only about his silly figurines, how he can squeeze a few more bucks out of his dwindling fan base, and little else. He's restarted the next book, what, 2 or 3 times? Honestly, who gives a shit about him or his books any more.

Saladin said...

"The argument that A GAME OF THRONES triggered a sea-change in the 'perception' of epic fantasy amongst a wider audience is I think pretty strong. Yes, most certainly many other authors had been doing similar things earlier on, but they hadn't also gotten the recognition and wider appeal that Martin brought to the table."

Yes and no. These things come and go in waves. Michael Moorcock, whose whole eternal champion project had to do with casting a critical eye on Tolkien's High Fantasy sentimentalism -- its moral black-and-whites, its cultural chauvinism, its easy nostalgia -- was insanely popular in his day. Martin and his many imitators really reintroduced a lot of aspects of Moorcock's drug-addled, ultraviolent, politically cynical antiheroes after these antiheroes had been eclipsed by an 80s return to 'pure' Tolkien clones.

It's worth noting, also, that 'cloning' can be bad for fantasy no matter who it is being cloned. I don't want to read 10,000 Martin wannabes or 10,000 Mieville wannabes any more than i want to read 10,000 Tolkien wannabes. As writers we all have our influences, of course, and we all want to pay tribute to our heroes. But I sometimes wonder if we're in danger of having low magic, gory violence, lots of cursing and political ambiguity become just become another formula, as surely as pseudo Tolkien-ism was in the 80s...