Sam Sykes' first book, Tome of the Undergates (2010), introduced the adventuring party of Lenk, Denaos, Asper, Katarina, Dreadaleon and Gariath. Although the group mirrors the traditional, dungeon-crawling group of heores, they're thickly shellacked in grubby super-realism.
Mr. Sykes sets the tone for the entire series with his introduction to Tome, in which he argues that adventurers are truly the lowest of the low. They kick down the door, slaughter everyone inside, grab the sacred tribal artifact and then eBay it for beer money. The recent hooded-man-fetish has glamorized the life of the assassin - sexy Chosen Ones answering to a higher calling. Mr. Sykes undercuts that premise with a chainsaw. If you're taking money to kill people, you're not a hero - you're scum.
Tome of the Undergates had our mass of protagonist scum hired to recover the titular book. From an unpromising start, things went rapidly downhill, landing Lenk and his friends in the center of a messy cross-fire. Plus, as would happen with five dysfunctional thugs, the book was packed with infighting (also in-in-fighting, as at least two of the adventurers starting hearing voices).
If Tome of the Undergates was a massive three-way battle for the all-important artifact, Black Halo (2011) is prolonged asymmetric warfare.
The netherlings (Mr. Sykes' bizarrely inverted interpretation of Salvatorian Drow) are back, as are the squishy spawn of the deep. Further escalating matters are two different species of dubious lizardpeople and an extra-psychotic offshoot of Kataria's people, the shict. Humanity is represented by a rural fishing village (clearly doomed) and an extremely powerful wizard (who acts a bit like Russell Crowe's character from LA Confidential). In short, everyone hates everyone else.
Like Tome of the Undergates, Black Halo succeeds for a variety of reasons. The characters are compellingly flawed and realistically executed. This also extends to the world- and plot-building: everything has a price, generally a disproportionate one. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mr. Sykes has created an internally consistent deconstruction of the typical high fantasy paradigm that also makes for a damn good story.
The characters, of course, make the story. Oddly, Lenk is perhaps the least likable of the five. He's the Sykesian version of the "Chosen One" - controlled by secretive powers beyond Time and History. They're not particularly nice powers, though, a theme that echoes throughout the book. If anyone without a code (e.g. adventurers) is untrustworthy, anyone who wholly commits to a code is terrifying. Lenk as Lenk just wants to get by. Possibly have a farm. Maybe even make sweet, sweaty love to his pointy-eared party member. But his Voices have other plans for him. Imagine the "dry-voiced" Prophecy from the Eddings books, but prone to saying things like "kill them all." Lenk is a nice guy in a cruel world, his own Prophecy helps him get through it, but only by sinking to - and through - its level.
Dreadaleon, Denaos and Asper were initially one-dimensional characters, but in Black Halo, they begin to expand a bit more. Dread whines that his tremendous intellect is unappreciated and, to some degree, he's right - no one realizes that his work on behalf of the party is actually killing him. For Denaos, the party rogue, the forced inactivity of being marooned is just as lethal. Asper went through a crisis of faith in Tome of the Undergates, which continues through Black Halo. Kataria and Gariath, the party's non-human members, are facing very similar battles. Both come from dying races and have, to some degree, compromised their militant views to go adventuring with humans. Now, they're both paying the price.
Both the world-building and plot of Black Halo are as complex as the characters are tortured. Everyone - good, bad, ugly - is fixated on the Tome, but no one actually knows what it does. (Except possibly the fish-people, and they're not making much sense.) Similarly, despite the length of Black Halo, Mr. Sykes has resisted the urge to vomit forth great globs of world-building. Clearly there's something very, very complicated going on. Demons, gods, priests, wizards, etc... they all have an inkling that there's a showdown on the horizon. However, with the exception of one brief, revelatory moment for Lenk, there's very little in way of explanation. The reader has to piece together the coming apocalypse from the tiny fragments discerned by each of the characters. In that, we're slightly luckier than the characters themselves - we're given more perspectives which we can glean for information.
Mr. Sykes' deconstruction of high fantasy is rooted in the character focus. He can afford to keep the plot mysterious and the world vague because, to some degree, we've all read it before. What he brings to the table is those aforementioned beliefs that adventurers aren't heroes, the "greater good" is subjective and the battle between predestination and free will has civilian casualties. If traditional (Eddings or Sanderson) high fantasy is the thesis and gritty, dirty realism (Martin or Abercrombie) is the antithesis, Mr. Sykes might be the first synthesis. This is a shamelessly high-magic, cinematic adventure with a huge special effects budget. But, the players are imbued with moral uncertainty and all the familiar tropes are investigated in the harsh light of distrusting logic. Mr. Sykes series isn't Watchmen - seeing how comic book superheroes behave in the real world. It is The Ultimates - layering real world logic over the comic book.
As a result, Black Halo represents a raw new maturity in epic fantasy, something that has me bouncing around like a kitten. But, as excited as I am about what the text represents, the book itself isn't flawless.
For one, the snappy bickering of Tome of the Undergates is replaced by an infinitely less jovial air of introspection, as the party members all become mired in their internal conflicts. Similarly, Tome's structure was based around two huge (multi-hundred page) battles. Black Halo has substantially less action. As Kataria moans, "Why doesn't it make sense anymore... This was all so much fun when we started. But now we're just sitting around in furs, talking instead of killing people." The slower pace may have readers echoing her complaint.
Readers who crave the epic part of epic fantasy may also be disappointed. Black Halo makes its priorities clear - the world might be ending, but that's less important than Asper's loss of faith. Or Denaos' confrontation with his past. Or Lenk's incipient madness. Those that desire their fantasy pure, predictable and high-minded will find Mr. Sykes' approach, at best, a humorous subversion. At worst, they may see it as an assault on their genre sensibilities.
Personally, I don't believe that the Aeons' Gate series is either of the above. It is funny (Mr. Sykes has a gift for sarcastic dialogue), but the bulk should be taken at face value. And it isn't some sort of alien invasion, it is merely a philosophical reinterpretation of some of high fantasy's core tenets. Not to impute authorial intent, but I don't think Aeons' Gate could be written by someone who doesn't love high fantasy.
Just to round things off with my own frustration with Black Halo and Tome of the Undergates: I think the covers emphasize everything that the series isn't about. They are generic and slick; high-fantasy as breakfast cereal. They couldn't be more inappropriate for the unique and raw content.
Black Halo is the sort of epic fantasy for which I've been waiting. I want to see the old stories retold and reconsidered - and Mr. Sykes' work is clearing the way with axe and fire. The Aeons' Gate series is polarizing and polemical. It raises more questions than it answers, it causes argument and it challenges readers to reexamine the very roots of the fantasy genre. Whether or not you agree with the message (or even its approach), this is something that prompts discussion and adds a new point of view into a very old genre. And that's no bad thing. As a book, I enjoyed Black Halo. And as a movement, I couldn't be more pleased about what it represents.
If you need more convincing, we also had the pleasure of interviewing the spectacular Mr. Sykes earlier this year. Sam Sykes' own blog also contains extracts, blog entries and other supporting evidence.