Fantasy Review: ‘The City Stained Red’ by Sam Sykes

 

The City Stained Red“There is a point at which a man ceases to use his men to secure his own fortune and starts using it to secure the fortunes of others…usually, for himself.”

It can be considered a good sign if only a few pages into a book I am looking around for someone to read passages to. Be it for humor or depth of thought I like to share what I am reading. Usually no one cares, but occasionally a quote is so good it elicits a chuckle from others even without context. The City Stained Red gave me a good vibe almost immediately.

A mercenary group who follows an adventurer named Lenk chases their mysterious benefactor to a new city in order to get payment…and hits a dead end. Lenk has an image in his head of putting down the sword and starting over; but he needs that last paycheck. Perhaps naively he assumes this is a path that will work for his companions. But pretty dreams are no match for reality. Behind the silk based riches Cier’ Djaal is a city on the edge. Not only is it being eyed as a prize by a couple of stronger foreign powers (held in check by each other more than anyone in the city itself), there is internal tension threatening as well. As is the pattern in an adventurer’s life avoiding these troubles is going to prove impossible.

The City Stained Red is a continuation of the Aeon’s Gate series. But it doesn’t require previous books to be read. The various back stories are woven in smoothly, letting a new reader to the series catch up but never felling overly redundant to someone who has read Sykes before (even if it was several years ago in my case). Be warned though, this book is a commitment. Expect no resolutions here; this is most definitely the start of what appears to be a truly epic series.

Sykes impresses with the way he blends here. A very serious and fairly dark tale is blended with great wit and wordplay. I dare say The City Stained Red contains some of the most entertaining dialog I have read recently, made even better by how natural it feels to the characters. Also blended in this tale is a great mix of the familiar with the completely unique. Yes, there is a D&D party feel to Lenk’s group with the soldier, the mage, the healer and the muscle all present. But each of them seems to different than their stereotypical archetype that I didn’t really consider it until a ways in. And outside of the familiar creatures are some completely unique ones. The traders who use random paintings as a mask are probably my favorite but a sentient group that made me think of the Cheshire Cat are a close second.

There ought to be a formula that takes into account a book’s length vs how long it really feels. In this case the story flew by; never felling like the epic brick of a book it really is. There is rarely a dull moment through that doesn’t come only from no-stop action. There are no wasted pages. When not in heavy action mode we are learning about the city, or expanding on a characters’ background, or enjoying some of that great wordplay mentioned earlier.

With such a large cast it would be easy to lose a character or two but each felt necessary. The ensamble cast goes their various ways and I was happy to follow each of them. A massive collection of identity crises would be the best way to describe it; Lenk’s determination to leave the life behind they had all lived together forces each of them to reevaluate everything. A dragonman wondering about his loyalty, a healer who has a surprisingly relaxed approach to violence, an enigma whose past is suddenly snapped back to the present are all compelling paths. But it is the relationship between Lenk and Kataria that shines. Neither can ever live the life the other can do due to racial differences (Kataria’s ork-like people are looked upon with much distrust in human society. It is one of the most human relationships I can imagine; bad communication, misunderstandings, and lots of mistakes but still unmistakably a kind of love.

Not a lot of negative to point out. While I love the epic nature it was a rough story to jump into; lots of names, places, and past deeds to start learning. The ensemble cast each had their part to play it jumping between them sometimes hurt the flow. I am also used to each volume of a tale to have at least a little bit of a resolution. Not so here. Disappointment that I don’t know how the story ends probably shouldn’t count against the book though.

4 Stars

Copy for review provided by publisher.

 

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