Book Review: The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes
Series: Book 1 of Bring Down Heaven
Publisher: Orbit (January 27, 2015)
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
The City Stained Red is the start of Sam Sykes’ new series called Bring Down Heaven and it takes place in the same “universe” as his Aeon’s Gate trilogy. Happily, you do not have to have read the latter before tackling the former. In fact, I wasn’t even aware that the two series were linked until it was bought up to me by a fellow reviewer. I don’t doubt, however, that if you’ve read Aeon’s Gate you will find this novel’s world and history all the more powerful and enriching.
The book opens with an introduction to a mercenary named Lenk, and the list of his fellow adventurers looks conspicuously like a party straight out of a role-playing game. There’s Kataria the elf-like archer, Asper the priestess of healing, Dreadaeleon the young wizard, Denaos the rogue with a shadowy past, and Gariath the beastly dragon-man brawler. Together, they arrive at the city of Cier’Djaal to track down a man named Miron, a client who hired them to do a job and then stiffed them out of their pay. The group has chosen a hell of time to arrive though, as two opposing armies bear down on the capital desiring only blood and war. As demons emerge from the depths to harry Lenk and his team, a banished god also takes advantage of the turmoil to rise again.
This was a good book, though it did have the occasional hiccup. To its credit, the book started out by putting its best foot forward, with Sykes winning me over with his clever writing style and delightfully dry wit. Despite the fantasy archetypes, his characters have unique personalities and voices, and I particularly liked Lenk’s sardonic and self-deprecating attitude. Sykes also ensures that his readers get plenty enough time with everyone in the group, devoting time to each character with their own perspective chapters as we move through the story. Lenk, Kataria, Asper, Denaos, Dreadaeleon and Gariath all have backstories that make them interesting, and their personal struggles give them depth, elevating each beyond simply “stock character” status.
I hit my first speed bump around the quarter-way mark when I felt the story lose some of its momentum, and it took me a moment to figure out why. After all, at this point we were still going full steam ahead with all the conflict and wicked fight scenes. Then I realized that might be part of the problem. There is such a thing as too much action, and I felt perhaps the story could have found a better balance. After what felt like a string of chapters featuring non-stop battling, I stopped to wonder where the plot was going. I was sure that it was heading towards a certain direction, but at the same time it seemed to be stalling out from all the fighting.
Also, while I appreciated a deeper look into each character, the format of shifting from one perspective to the next hindered the pacing to an extent. It might not have been so noticeable if it had been only two or three characters, but the downside of cycling through six points of view is that you risk breaking up the flow of the story. Individually, the characters were also written well and I was able to connect with them, but the relationship dynamics between them were harder for me to grasp. It was especially tough to relate to Lenk’s feelings for Kataria. The fact that he has strong feelings towards her is made obvious through the text, but even though Sykes is good at expressing a wide range of Lenk’s emotions, when it comes to love and passion it is still a tad bit shaky.
Fortunately, the story regained its traction once it got moving again, which I was glad to see. I enjoyed the rest of the book, though it’s also true I was unable to throw myself back into with the same energy and enthusiasm I experienced at the book’s beginning. Still, the good parts – most notably the beginning and the end – stand out and make this one a memorable read. What other foul and evil things can befall our adventurers in this awful, awful city I can’t even imagine, but I’m sure Sykes has more in store for us in the next installment. I’m looking forward to finding out.
A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to Orbit Books!