Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book Review: The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes

I bought this book because Sam Sykes told me to on twitter:
"Hey, this cereal says there's a free prize inside!"
*children cheer as they empty cereal box*
*my disembodied head rolls out*
Buy my book
* @scalzi at book signing*
"Who am I making this out--"
Buy my book.
*he looks up*
*fan is me*
*whole line is me*
*looks down*
*book is me*
*family at beach*
"Look, a shell. If you hold it up to your ear, you can hear the ocean."
*child does so*
*hears my voice*
Buy my book
Sam Sykes is hilarious on Twitter and I recommend following him even if you don't read his books. Every so often he would come up with a crazy/weird/surreal twitter-length story ending with "Buy my book." He probably has hundreds of these. I wonder if anyone managed to collect all of them? These gags were funny and served to constantly remind me to buy his book. In the end, I bought the book and I don't regret it one bit.

Continue on to read my (mostly) spoiler-free review. ("Mostly" because a few minor points are mentioned).

Overall Impression
This was a fun read with some cool, yet flawed, characters. The plot was tight and action packed and the character development was excellent. The setting, particularly the background about Khoth-Kapira, took a while to develop, but the end certainly redeemed this. The book is full of violence both verbal and physical; it is not a light-hearted fantasy. It is gritty and dark, but not so much as to pass up a joke or two.

The story starts up very character driven. You don't know the main arc of the story and it feels like you are somehow caught in the middle of it. You follow a group of adventurers trying to enter the city of Cier'Djaal to get the money they are owed. They each have their own reasons for being there and we explore each in kind as they enter the city and get into all sorts of trouble. The book is aptly named, for the city does indeed get stained red, red with blood. The book is divided in a few parts and in each part all hell breaks loose. The last one feels tiring, mostly because the fellowship (if you can call this group a "fellowship") gets more and more strained with each one.

My one disappointment in the plot is that there is a lot of emphasis on a mediation being worked out between the two strongest religious groups. Tensions are very high because of that and each group is arming itself to the teeth. Unfortunately, it is obvious that such a mediation will fail and it shouldn't come as a surprise that it's from sabotage. It's a minor flaw, though, and perhaps a case of it being done too often before. However, the ending really makes up for it as it introduces an awesome twist to the whole story and sets the stage for the future.

I didn't expect much from the characters as I bought it more for the setting. However, this ended up being the best part of the book. Sykes has created a fascinating cast of flawed characters whose interactions are a delight to watch. These aren't cookie-cutter characters carrying out their stereotypes; they are distinct and have their own motivations. You have the leader, Lenk, who seeks to end his fighting days; Kataria, a shict who loves him and is torn between him and her people; Asper, a cursed priestess who questions her faith; Dreadaeleon, the young wizard overeager to prove himself; Denaos, a rogue not at all eager to return to his city; and Gariath, a dragonman struggling with the complexities of a world that is no longer enemy and not-yet-enemy. Each character alone would probably make for an interesting novel in and of itself. Even the secondary characters, like Mocca, Sheffu, the Quill, and others, have notable parts to play.

Setting / World Building
Many fantasy books shine in their unique settings and The City Stained Red is no exception. There is magic, of course, though I felt we didn't spend that much time with the Dreadaeleon to know all the intricacies of the Venarium. There are also plenty non-human races such as shicts, tulwar, couthi, and others. These don't generally have a high place in society, and are usually referred to as savages, or oids.

The premise behind the series is that of the imminent return of the demon Khoth-Kapira and the chaos that could ensue. Goodreads really nicely sums up the background:
Long before he was sent to hell, the Aeon known as Khoth-Kapira was the closest thing to a living god the world had ever known. Possessed of a vast intellect, he pioneered many of the wonders that persist in the world that lingered long after he was banished. Nearly every fragment of medical, economic and technological progress that the mortal races enjoyed could be traced back to him. But with his wonders came cruelty beyond measure: industrialized slavery, horrifying experimentations and a rage that would eventually force the world to bow to him.
This sounded so interesting as it merges together good and evil within a single character. Seems like Sykes has managed to do this with the rest of his characters as well, since none of them can be considered wholly blameless yet we cheer for them because they are the good guys (I think...).

Final Thoughts
This was a cool introduction to what appears to be a very promising series. The characters are top notch, even if their flaws make them a little too crude or violent for my tastes. The plot is full of action, yet takes the time to weave in the character stories so you can get to know who these people are. Despite being a group of adventurers, I felt they spent little time with each other and mostly they went off in their own business. It would have been nicer to see a bit more interaction between them. Sykes does have a prior series, so it's possible that's where the characters met. I haven't read it and didn't feel I missed out on anything by starting with The City Stained Red. The ending was particularly cool as there are some interesting revelations and twists that make you wonder what will happen next.
Overall this was an enjoyable read and I look forward to the rest in the series.

There is a very neat comic introducing the series (from the character perspective) over at Sam Sykes' website so be sure to check it out.

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