Review: Tome of the Undergates

Posted: September 16, 2010 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: Sam Sykes, Dark Fantasy

Holy freaking bottle rockets, people! This book ROCKS!

So let’s get this out of the way. Sam Sykes is awesome. He’s young, he’s hip, he’s soon to be part of the growing Overlord’s Elitist Movement. Let’s forget for just a moment though that he lives in one of the hottest places on earth (Phoenix, AZ), and the fact that he’s obviously named one of his big baddies after Yours Truly (more on that later), and instead do our best to just focus on the book he’s written. Whadd’ya say? You game?

TOME OF THE UNDERGATES (Amazon) is by far one of the fastest, funnest books I’ve read this year. Mr. Sykes debut novel is a knock-your-socks-off, hit-em-hard, what-in-the-name-of-all-that’s-good-and-holy blast of a great read. He’s got a varied cast of interesting characters, a megalithic backdrop, and a veritable maelstrom of chaos that erupts within its pages, all leading to the outcome that I never for a single moment wanted to put this book down after opening the first page. Man, was it fun.

Lenk, a young human and quintessential leader of a band of Adventurers, are on a large boat to… somewhere (honestly, it doesn’t even factor into the story), being paid to play the part of faithful mercenary guards (cough… hack… sputter… ) by the captain of said ship. His companions are many and varied: Kataria, the sarcastic Shict (elf on steroids) and archer extraordinaire with a driving passion to kill all humans; Denaos, a cowardly cockroach of a rogue with not a drop of moral fiber or backbone to be found within him; Gariath, a massive dragonman looking for any and all opportunities to kill and/or be killed (if you think Abercrombie’s Logan Ninefingers with dark red skin, massive bullhorns, and always in a rage, you won’t be far off); Asper, a priestess and healer who wants to pick up a sword and help in the fighting, but absolutely sucks at it and has been cursed by her God anyhow; and Dreadaeleon, a young magic user with the annoying penchant for accidentally setting both friend and foe on fire.


The fight is off and running on page one and already the ship has been boarded by pirates of the loquacious and muscle-bound kind. The battle has ensued! While Lenk crosses swords with one of the swarthy attackers, his boss/captain is screeching at him to: kill, kill, kill! Kataria is gathering back a number of red-streaked arrows from various corpses, and (of course) Denaos is nowhere to be seen (although he soon arrives and quickly suggests that they bail). Gariath makes an appearance, ripping pirates into several gruesome pieces, leaving heaps of blood and carnage in his wake. Even Dredaeleon comes up for a bit to torch a person or two. Ooh! But the massive pirate ship has fallen back after having dropped off the first raiding party and now seems to only be tailing them. Things don’t stay like this for long though. Oh my goodness no, because the pirate ship comes back and this time it’s filled with frogmen and even more cranky pirates, and pretty soon there’s a fifteen-foot beast of a bad fish-man, an Abysmyth, crawling up onto the ship and tossing Gariath around like he’s last week’s newspaper. Then when the thing starts talking though and the zombie-seagull chorus chirps in… What’s that you say? What about the Tome? Am I going to mention it? Certainly not. If I did, I could very well carry you through two-thirds of the book, and I wouldn’t want to go that far. Sheesh. I didn’t even get to the psycho purple warrior maidens…

So seriously, I had a really good time with this book. Sykes does an amazingly good job at description, and character interaction, and dialogue, and… yeah. The way he’s written this book makes it easy to burn through pages faster than a greased pig down a waterslide. There are a few things that readers might have a difficult time with, there were definitely a few for me, though I only ended up coming to these conclusions after all was said and done.

Part the first: Timeline. Three days. (Well, the last 30 pages or so could be construed as an additional three days, so… ) Yeah, okay, this one totally threw me. The whole book, all 480-odd pages, describes essentially three days of said Adventure with Lenk and his “friends”. As such there’s not a whole lot of time for Sykes to delve into politics and social structures and economics and… are you getting the picture here? Very little world-building. Does that bother me? With the way it’s been written, absolutely not. If Sykes is anything like other fantasy authors this’ll be a trilogy (though personally I’m hoping that will end up being one of the very few ways in which he satisfies the definition of such a person). For me, he’s done a great job of setting the hook (Fish? Frog? Ocean voyage? Hehehe. They’re rolling in the aisles… ) but in order to keep my attention I’m going to need to see a lot more of this world of his before the end.

Holy freaking bottle rockets, people! TOME OF THE UNDERGATES rocks!

Part the second: Character development. I loved his characters. I think he did a great job of showing just what each one was about, who they were, what they wanted; but their overall development felt a bit disjointed. I admit that most of this feeling comes from the fact that there was so little downtime in which he could do it. There is a bunch of navel-gazing that happens during Day Two, and a bit more immediately following Day Three (which I really enjoyed, as an aside, especially Gariath’s fairly emotional scene). Maybe there wasn’t another way to do it. Given the amount of stuff that these characters went through in such a short period of time, I’m almost temped to say that Sykes did the best job he could. Regardless, I loved the interaction between them–the banter, the threats, the sarcasm. Give me more! I want more!

Part the third: Unanswered questions. In a way, this ties its fingers intimately into the first two. There were just so many that came up that are never really approached. Why doesn’t Lenk worry more about the voices in his head and that they occasionally take over his mind/body? And, seriously, how much punishment can one guy take before just being done? What keeps Kataria from putting one of her long shafts right through the head of our illustrious leader? How come the cowardly Denaos sticks with this batch of Adventurers when there’s so much direct violence that seems to follow them around? Why does Gariath only punch and kick his compatriots, instead of tearing them into three pieces when he gets mad? We get some explanation to these, but seriously what’s the real reason that all these people stick together? Forget the beef, where’s the glue?

This is absolutely one author that I think fantasy readers should check out. Was the book perfect? No. Regardless, this is one awesome debut novel and I can’t wait for the next one to hit my currently-twitching fingers. Huzzah to Pyr for finding him and publishing his stuff. They deserve every laud in the book.

  • Recommended Age: 18+, due to violence but so little else
  • Language: Incredibly absent. Yeah, I know.
  • Violence: If you didn’t read the part about Gariath in my review, then you don’t deserve anything from me at this point
  • Sex: An attempted seduction cut short, though detailed enough to warrant mention

P.S. — Just wanted to make sure you caught the homage Sykes made to me. (AbySMYTH? Get it?) I can’t help but love this fact. You should view this as concrete proof as to his level of awesomeness. Now go read his book.

Also, if you’re sold on the idea of this book, consider taking a look at the omnibus that Orbit published after Sykes’s move there: EBR Review. It’s a three-fer.


  • Branko says:

    Uh, how to say this? It's just that I don't belive the new reviewers. When Nick or Steve did the reviews everyone of them had something substantial in it. Something is lost now… 🙁

    • Dan Smyth says:

      Thus enters the art of deciding which reviewers represent your likes/dislikes the best: read a book that they have, look at their review, and then decide whether or not to accept their other opinions when you're making a choice about what to read next. Sorry if you felt the review was insubstantial. Perhaps our tastes are just too different. Better luck next time, I guess. 🙂

  • whiskey jack says:

    Great review! I think you nailed it. It is a really fun read. It certainly has some issues, and isn't a perfect book. The world building was very insubstantial. But then again I seem to remember a similar author at Pyr who did very little world building…

  • Knightfall says:

    Most of the reviews for this book are very polarized (the ones I've found, at least). It's either “sharp, witty, competent, fun” or “Jesus, I just read a 200 page dramatization of 'I'm On A Boat' and the characters won't stop insulting each other.”

    For being on the positive end, this was a good review. I'm interested to see where I'm going to finally stand on this. xD

  • ghoul says:

    I'm having a hard time getting through the book. I don't think I've ever encountered dialogue as repetitive as this. It seems like every scene contains a “Make plans, insult the lesser race, threaten to kill each other, insult the lesser race, look at Lenk, insult the lesser race, bite back retort” conversation. Really annoying.

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