A motley assortment of adventurers, led by Lenk, find it difficult to do anything but bicker with each other as they travel the world in search of pay. In fact, there seems to be not an ounce of goodwill between any of them - you'd think when their ship is attacked by pirates, it would mean they'd band together, but the insults just fly worse. As Lenk attempts to round them up and point them all in the same direction - towards the demon that has appeared to threaten their lives and souls - he realises that he is having a very bad day. What follows is a rollercoaster ride as Lenk and his band are sent to take back the Tome of the Undergates from the demons that need it to open the very gates of hell: green-haired fish women, purple skinned Amazonians and the manifestation of all evil stand in their way as they try to fulfil their task.
The description above really doesn't do justice to the action-packed story within the pages of Tome of the Undergates. Sam Sykes kicks off the action with an immense sea battle and rarely allows the reader to pause for breath as he sends his characters into almost-certain-death time and time again. He appears to revel in putting the characters through some of the worst imaginable scenarios - madness, mutilation and murder. If you're looking for a a fantasy book filled with political intrigue or farmboys discovering their destiny, this might not be for you. For anyone who enjoys their fantasy daubed in blood and filled with crotch stomping incidents, I would urge you to give this a try.
The writing is demanding, breathless and very, very aggressive - even the romance is conducted in an aggressive fashion. Once started, it is very hard to extricate yourself from the world that Sykes' characters inhabit. There is a desire to find out what exactly motivates these people - but Sykes keeps an admirable poker face until the end game to really start revealing some of the secrets about his characters. For some people, it might be difficult to read a book that is so stingy on the big reveal, but I actually found this refreshing - no horrible info dumping moments here! The reader discovers pretty much everything as the characters do.
Despite the monumental battle scenes that send the pulse racing, I actually think that Sykes' greatest strength comes from the quieter moments that find his characters talking genuinely to each other. The dialogue is effective and allows the reader to really get a handle on each of the 'voices'. In fact, some of the dialogue is very funny in an extremely dry manner. Take this for example:
"Of course we're going in there," Denaos snapped. "It's completely brainless, bereft of any logical reason and totally suicidal. Why wouldn't we go in there?"
Considering the manner in which Sykes writes the majority of the book, it is also surprising and distinctly pleasant to read some very poetic moments that indicate there is more to come from this author than just bloodshed and mayhem: "The dawn was shy, too polite to come and chase the stars away, contenting itself with slowly creeping into the twilit conversation one wisp at a time."
With all that said, it's not perfect. You could level the accusation that the setting is a little D&D: the mismatched band of characters (rogue, archer, magician etc) and their constant bickering do give that impression. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing, and Sykes is certainly not the first to have taken the route of introducing an ensemble cast such as this.
Until the plot really grips, you can find yourself a little lost and wondering why these characters are spending time together. In fact, Sykes drops the reader right into the very middle of a battle and declines to really explain what is going on or how the characters got to this point - you have to take on faith the fact that you will find out what is going on.
Some of the prose is a little rough and ready, but, given Sykes' age I'm willing to forgive this in the knowledge that he can only improve as he goes from book to book. Certainly this would not deter me from picking up further writing from this author.
In conclusion, this is a debut book with faults, but I'm willing to overlook these in exchange for the fun that is on offer. You certainly cannot deny that Sykes is breaking the fantasy mould and stamping on it in the process! It is unique, cataclysmic and deserves to be read.