And both are present in his latest novel, The City Stained Red. The first entry in the “Bring Down Heaven” series, the novel follows Lenk and his band of adventurers in an audacious fantasy that turns the “questing fellowship” genre on its head. Indeed it feels more like an outrageous game of Dungeons & Dragons than The Lord of the Rings.
The novel picks up where his previous “Aeon’s Gate” trilogy left off. Swordsman Lenk, assassin Denaos, priest Asper, mage Dreadaleon, elven schict ranger Kataria and dragonman Gariath have arrived at the city of Cier’Djaal seeking the mysterious high priest who hired the party to recover the dangerous relic, the Tome of the Undergates. They want their money, and Lenk wants to use that money to settle down in civilization, putting aside his sword forever.
Anyone who has read any fantasy novel knows that isn’t going to happen, of course, but the degree to which Lenk’s retirement plans are destroyed is awe-inspiring. For while Cier’Djaal may be the apex of wealth and civilization, it is also bursting with criminal factions bent on anarchy, two rival armies that could conquer the city in a heartbeat (if they don’t destroy each other first) and a cult dedicated to reviving an all-powerful demon/god to restore order — or at least kill everything in the way. Oh, and a mess of giant spiders.
This plays immediately to Sykes’ strengths as a writer. He conceives and revels in the most fucked up, drawn out, overblown action sequences I’ve seen in print. And I love him for it. He is the Quentin Tarantino of epic fantasy. From the 100+ page sea battle featuring pirates, fish monsters and demons that opened his debut novel Tome of the Undergates through City Stained Red’s glorious climax, a pitched battle in the home of a wealthy citizen, Sykes bathes the reader in blood, body parts and fire.
Lots of fire. (Spoiler ahead)
The aforementioned battle in City Stained Red ends with Dreadaleon, seeking to prove his power and assert his role as a hero, roasts the battling hordes in fire, not realizing that the entire building is filled with oil. The ensuing carnage is epic.
I would love to play a D&D campaign with Sykes — although I’m not sure if he is the game-master or the player who thought setting fire to an oil-filled mansion was a good idea. Either way, I can still see the choked disbelief, followed by a truly evil grin, on my old game-master’s face when I attempted a similar action in an old campaign.
My only real complaint was that when the frenetic action stopped I found myself disappointed. I didn’t want to delve into the angst and emotions of the characters, I wanted to see them blow shit up.
Which is unfair, because Sykes also handles the human aspect of the characters well. There is emotional baggage to deal with — with the characters realizing the toll their heroics take on their psyches, what they’ve given up because of it and just how impossible it is to leave their adventuring ways behind. I’m reminded of a quote from Lev Grossman’s magnificent The Magician King:
“This isn’t how it ends!” Quentin tells Ember, one of the two gods who rule Fillory. “I am the hero of this goddamned story, Ember! Remember? And the hero gets the reward!”
“No, Quentin,” Ember tells him. “The hero pays the price.”
And these characters are all paying the price for their heroism. And make no mistake, behind their mercenary actions there is a nascent heroism budding within The City Stained Red. Lenk and co.’s actions may not be completely altruistic, but they are not entirely selfish anymore. I look forward to seeing how the party grows in the rest of this series, not to mention how grandly they destroy things.
The City Stained Red is currently only in print overseas. The American print edition will be released in January, 2015. In the meantime though, you can get the e-book for $1.99 and be eligible to receive an exclusive, autographed comic book.