BOOK REVIEW: THE CITY STAINED RED / AUTHOR: SAM SYKES / PUBLISHER: GOLLANCZ / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Welcome to Cier’Djaal, the City of Silk, jewel of the civilized world, where precious fabric is manufactured by giant spiders, and an object has more value than a soul. As thieves battle cultists for control of the underworld, the tension between the classes and humanoid races is simmering to boiling point, and it is said that demons are rising from their dark pits. A team of adventurers, led by the slightly incompetent Lenk, have arrived at Cier’Djaal in search of a man who owes them money. Lenk seeks to use this coin to create a new life for himself, one that doesn’t involve constant killing, but the city and its inhabitants have different ideas.
The City Stained Red is Sam Sykes’s fourth novel, book one of the Bring Down Heaven series. Lenk and his companions have featured in Sykes’s previous trilogy, yet no familiarity with them is needed for this book. It’s clear they’ve had many adventures together, yet they’re sufficiently described and developed in this novel to feel like fresh characters. Initially, they come across as a Dungeons and Dragons-style team – fighter, ranger, rogue, wizard, and priest are all present – but Sykes imbues each with a unique personality, making them people in their own right rather than simple embodiments of character classes. We’re given points of view from all of them, access to their flaws and fears, wants and needs; some are more damaged than others, but all are vibrant and have a purpose in life, however twisted it becomes.
Sykes is an ebullient storyteller, one who mixes the old-fashioned fantasy adventure with the more-recent Grimdark attitude. His characters are placed in difficult situations, yet there’s always a sense of light within the darkness, a feeling that – despite overwhelming odds – they will succeed, albeit at some cost. Sykes has a wicked sense of humour that comes across in the banter between Lenk and his team of adventurers, as well as some of the situations they get themselves in. He possesses an uncanny knack of knowing how to disturb his readers, too – the first reveal of a demon is stomach-churning, a scene that will take a long time to forget.
It’s a big story, grand on scale and packed with themes that range from the rich/poor divide to racial intolerance and simple greed. It’s also a rollicking read, a ripping yarn spent in the company of desperate, damaged, yet ultimately sympathetic individuals. Sykes’s love of his characters shines through in his writing, making The City Stained Red his finest book yet.
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