It is fair to say that this, Sam Sykes' The Skybound Sea (2012) is a review I've been trying to write for almost five months. It isn't a straightforward one, so, with that in mind, I'd like to ask two favours, gentle reader:
- Bear with me, as this will be even more wibbly and discursive than usual
- Read the whole review (or at least skim it), as any single thought or line won't work out of context
- (Bonus favour: don't stomp on me when I use phrases like "gentle reader", as much as I deserve it)
The Skybound Sea is the conclusion of Sam Sykes' debut trilogy, The Aeons' Gate. Lenk, Kataria, Gariath, Asper, Dreadaleon and Denaos are adventurers - a profession quickly (and repeatedly) established as lower than pondscum. At the beginning of Tome of the Undergates, Lenk & Company were tasked with retrieving the titular tome. By the end of that book, they had managed to embroil themselves in an island-hopping apocalypse, with beasties of all sizes and planar origins competing for the prize. This is still the situation as The Skybound Sea opens - the adventurers are now in an extreme state of (for lack of a better word) decay, and evil is everywhere.
Physically, the group is utterly delapidated. They're injured, hungry, bruised, battered and miserable. Emotionally they're no better off - at some point in the trilogy, everyone has been captured, knocked unconscious, horrendously violated, betrayed or left for dead. They've got some mental wounds - deep ones. Lenk, for example, has been wrestling with nothing short of demonic (or is it angelic?) possession. He's got a lot of little voices in his head, and they'd really like him to kill stuff. His enemies. His friends. Anyone to hand. To top it off, his uncomfortable thing with Kataria has gone volcanic (not in a good way) - they've got smouldering red hot lust, boulders of shame and, uh, ash clouds of weird racial issues.
Not that Kataria is any better off. She's got her own voices in her head - the hivemind of her people. As a shict (a Sykesian elf), she's trained to think of Lenk as vermin, a walking disease. That doesn't fit well with her own (hormonal) feelings about him, much less her respect for him as a fellow adventurer and travelling companion.
Gariath is looking for the remnants of his people, and getting confused about finding a species of lookalike lizard men who know more of his history than he does. Denaos and Asper also have a thing, but that's on hold while Denaos resolves his "I killed my previous lover" issues and Asper wrestles with the consequences of being tortured by Netherlings. And Dreadaleon. Poor Dread is being spurned by both his loves: his unrequited crush on Asper and his deep and abiding need for magic. The first hurts, but the second may kill him (messily and, forgive me for saying this, hilariously).
Part of the series' appeal is the way that it takes standard fantasy tropes - especially those from Dungeons & Dragons - and looks at them as critically and as realistically as possible. Realism seems a weird word to bandy about with demon possession and sentient vomit (seriously), but what the books do is take high fantasy assumptions for granted and then try to reason out actual human responses. Take Kataria and Lenk's off-again, even-more-off-again romance, for example. Imagine you're a standard Tolkien elf: immortal, ageless, low-reproducing, ethereal, magical, etc. Your lands are infested and destroyed by speedily-reproducing, rapidly-industrialising humans. You can't deal with them: they're simply not evolved enough to negotiate in any meaningful way, they don't understand your priorities and all they seem to care about is breeding and sprawling. They're vermin. And, as Mr. Sykes points out, that sort of thing will dampen a romance with one of them.
As a deconstruction of the Chosen One trope, Lenk's reaction to his capital-d-Destiny is also refreshing. Ageless players in a senseless, eternity-old war really want Lenk to do stuff. Unsurprisingly, said Ageless Players don't really care very much if Lenk has friends or goals of his own. In fact, they interpret them as obstacles - obstacles that need to be removed. Think of this from Destiny's point of view: its goal is to battle its counterpart, not to make sure that Lenk has a fulfilling life. If Belgarion looks like he'll happy to stay on the farm and raise pigs, the Prophecy will annihilate all swine in a 100-mile radius. It has its own priorities and the hero's agency is never part of the picture.
It is also hard not to see some of the issues faced by Dreadaleon and Asper as investigations into all D&D holds holy. Dread's power means that he can cast a finite number of spells then needs to take a little nap. What does this actually mean in a physiological sense? In Sykes' world, magical aptitude isn't a muscle - you don't train it up. It is a cancerous mutation that you encourage, even as it devours you. Dread is as close as the book gets to comic relief, but his situation is awful. Meanwhile, Asper has discovered that her hands are magic - she can wound with a touch. Apologies for geeking out, but 'touch / do damage / ow' is your basic D&D clerical power: Cause Light Wounds and its ilk. Mr. Sykes asks the simple question: what would that feel like? What happens when you touch someone and watch them wither and die? What would that do to you? Would you worry about control? Would you think about what kind of person that makes you? Would you begin to worry and doubt that the gods you worship aren't what you thought they were? Like most other high fantasy novels, the protagonists of The Skybound Sea develop immensely powerful supernatural abilities. Unlike every other high fantasy novel, they immediately see them for what they are - curses.
It is this level of detailed examination of fantasy - its craft and its archetypes - that makes The Aeons' Gate series so amazing. But the series works so well because the characters are phenomenal. If we didn't care about Kataria, Shictish racism would just be annoying. If we didn't empathise with Gariath, his loneliness would be empty angst. I know every character's name without double-checking.
Seriously, that's a lot more rare for me than you'd think - imagine that you've read, I dunno, fifty different fantasies in the past few months. Now list the six most important characters in any one of them. Surprisingly tough, right?! I hope? Hell, even if it is just me, take my word for it - this is astoundingly rare. I care about their situation, a lot - I want them to resolve their problems, to live and love, to take a deep breath and just, I dunno, hug it out. This is a trilogy of emotional turmoil and it is easy to get wrapped up in it.
That said, something's got to give, and, in the case of The Aeons' Gate trilogy, it is the plot. If you asked me what actually happened, I'd have a hard time telling you. As far as I can tell, the second book, Black Halo, is almost entirely superfluous. Given the size of all three volumes in the trilogy, it is a little depressing how little of the action - or the plot - has stuck. The overall direction? Er. The conclusion? A bit iffy. (...but I'm definitely caught up with the events of the denouement).
I'm invested in every look that Kataria gives Lenk, every struggle of Denaos' to become a better man and the agony of Asper as she reconciles her faith with her reality. The big demon gods threatening to eat the world? Couldn't care less. There are Sykesian Slaad, Sykesian Drow, Sykesian Lizardmen and all the magical participants in some sort of ageless primordial battle. I not only don't know who is on who's side, I don't actually care that much. Even if they were wearing jerseys, I wouldn't be waving my foam hand. (That's actually a lie: I'll wave a foam hand at the drop of a hat. GO HAT!)
For what it is worth, I interpreted the overall meanderingness of the structure as part of the point - these are people who go around in circles and essentially accomplish nothing besides excessive self-harm. That's the very definition of an adventurer so, thematically, I suppose this aimlessness fits, even if it does make for a bewildering story. In a genre dedicated to progressive (that is, a story that begins, goes somewhere, achieves something, basks in said achievement) storytelling, The Aeons' Gate trilogy eschews the norm. These are not books that move from beginning to ending. They relentlessly middle from the first page to the last.
But a trilogy of almost 2,000 pages still needs more in the way of direction.
This "middle-ing" also wends its way down to the level of individual scenes. There's a lot of fruitless naval-gazing and repetitive discussion in this trilogy. The Skybound Sea has more action than its two predecessors, but there's still a fair amount of, well - characters walking around and thinking nasty thoughts about one another. (Granted, that would be a realistic reflection of any sort of adventurer's day - 98% walking, 2% being eaten by sea monsters. But still...) If anything, since The Skybound Sea has some emotional resolution, it contains a little more, for lack of a less inflammatory word, excitement than its predecessors. That said, Mr. Sykes has the astounding ability to write a page of absolutely nothing, followed by the best damn sentence you've ever read. The Skybound Sea certainly has its slow bits - lots of them - but they're invariably punctuated by moments of gob-smacking literary talent: laugh-out-loud jokes, eye-misting sadness, air-punching triumph. This is a series that makes you want to skim it... and then read it out loud.
So where has this come out? On one hand, I'm certain that The Aeon's Gate trilogy is one of the most innovative, ingeniously revisionist looks at fantasy I've ever read, packed with compelling and memorable characters. On the other, its lack of plot, direction or (occasionally) coherence borders on the avant garde. The result? Well, the silver lining is that brilliant characters and bold new interpretations are rare and brilliant, and Mr. Sykes already has that part nailed. Plotting and world-building? Those feel like more common talents, and I'd guess (from the easy comfort of my critic's chair) that they're the easy part. That bodes pretty damn well for Mr. Sykes' future projects.
I can say with rare confidence that Sam Sykes is absolutely one of the best contemporary fantasy writers out there. The evidence is right here, scattered amongst the pages of The Aeons' Gate. At some point, he is going to write the book or the series that will set the world on fire. This isn't it, but it'll still do us nicely while we're waiting.
P.S. The covers. MY EYES.