The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes (Book Review)
|“For future reference, when I am half-naked and unconscious, lying on a slab in front of a thing with a picture of fruit for a face, you have both my explicit permission and wholehearted encouragement to come in and ask what’s going on.”|
Perhaps the best thing about The City Stained Red is that apparently an entire trilogy precedes it, and yet I was able to jump straight in and understand why everything goes wrong and then explodes. Sam Sykes writes a great ensemble cast, and while his six primary characters have obviously spent years slaying monsters and solving problems (or, given how poorly things go in this book, inciting them) it seems they still hardly know each other … and this is perhaps the most interesting part of Sykes’ story.
When strangers united by fate are traveling the world slaying demons and stopping the average big bad, they will obviously learn each other’s fighting styles, strengths and weaknesses, and even a bit about each other’s lives in between bouts of monster slaying. Yet when they’re knee deep in demon guts or world-ending catastrophes, there’s only so much time to discuss their childhoods or haunting regrets.
Rapidly introducing six characters is a daunting task for any author, but Sykes does it well by jamming them together in awkward situations. The guileless sellsword and the cunning rogue. The wild beastwoman and the sheltered healer. The taciturn dragonman and the young boy wizard. It’s through their difficulty getting along that we learn how much they still don’t know about each other, and learning about them from them is fun. That, and the fact that they’re all so utterly bad at civilization.
|“MY NAME IS ASPER I’M FROM THE NORTH AND I CAME HERE TO ASK SOME QUESTIONS BUT IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO TO HELP OH GOD.”|
The dialogue in The City Stained Red is very modern, which works well for amusing banter. Sykes’ characters spend less time sounding heroic and more stumbling over how to respond to a four-armed merchant incapable of inflection, or explaining why they are currently wearing nothing but a breechcloth and if that’s really any of your business, anyway. Dialogue is sometimes hesitant and often interrupted — the way people talk — which keeps interactions moving at an entertaining pace.
Unlike telepathy, language is imperfect and often misunderstood, and as any writer who knows humor will tell you, the ways people misunderstand each other is a great joke. Each character’s perspective is a delightful mix of vocal awkwardness and inner monologue that humanizes them and offers intriguing clues to their pasts while also being consistently funny. While I assume the clues we get are fleshed out in the aforementioned preceding trilogy, I actually didn’t need the full story. It was enough to learn how their experiences shaped these characters and, more intriguingly, what they’re hiding from their friends.
|“You spoke to him for all of thirty breaths, and he took off screaming and cursing your name. That’s a new record for you, isn’t it?”|
While many fantasy stories start with a group of fresh young adventurers and show us how they meet, train together, and unite to defeat a great evil, The City Stained Red takes place after all that’s actually happened. It explores the difficulty that arises when friends and allies united only by being very good at killing things decide they’d like to return to their people or wander the world or settle down with a dog and a house and a nice cup of tea. No one in Sykes’ crew is looking for another chance to save some crappy village or stop some crappy evil, yet they keep getting drawn into brutal battles and awkward demon summoning rituals despite their best efforts, and rather than winning, they fail at every turn.
|“The incomprehensibility and self-importance of that statement is only vaguely overshadowed by the sheer hilarity of you wanting to walk out into an open war to try to kill someone twice your size.”|
Finally, like all great cities, Cier’Djaal is a character on its own, populated both by humans and a number of non-human species. This melting pot offers plenty of opportunity for unequal justice, enforced poverty, and a persistent demon cult problem. We often forget how effing huge cities must have seemed without cars or subways or modern transportation, and in Cier’Djaal, a full-scale war can start in one quarter which the next walled quarter considers little more than an annoyance. The entire book takes place inside the city’s walls, and yet we barely see half of it, which made me want to see more.
Sykes inspiration for Cier’Djaal’s non-human inhabitants seems to come less from Tolkien and more from Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Instead of elves and dwarves and orcs, we meet downtrodden tribal beast people and merchandizing monotone insectoids and giant talking gorillas who remain both honest and polite while picking you up and tossing you into the sea. In a world humanity dominates simply by breeding so rapidly, the fate of these oids (the term polite humans use for non-humans) is both disheartening and fascinating, hinting at a world that is far older than the mass of humanity remembers.
|“No, I willingly put you in a situation in which I knowingly exposed you to something that would probably kill you. Not the same thing as trying to kill you.”|
While The City Stained Red includes many bloody and exciting battles and a mystery that barrels on relentlessly as people wholeheartedly ill-suited for investigation attempt to, you know, investigate, my favorite part was getting to know these well-meaning, flawed, and human characters. I loved watching their friendships fray and snap and somehow knit back together again, and I was able to empathize with and understand each of them due to their poor decisions, numerous failures, and litany of regrets.
For those hoping for resolution, The City Stained Red tells a complete three act story, with a climax and big bad and everything, but rather than wrapping things up there, Sykes then introduces a fourth act that staggers in uninvited and gleefully vomits all over the room. The book works both as a complete story and a great introduction to a new trilogy, and it left me eager to dive into the next.
|“They don’t bleed like people. They don’t die like people. Because they don’t remember what pain is like. And so when they do get hurt, it’s that kind of pain that only someone who thought he was invincible can feel. Their pain is so loud. It’s so powerful. It’s … it’s pure.”|
Ultimately, I’d recommend Sykes’ book to fans of Dragon Age, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The Magicians (the TV show, in particular) and other fun fantasy books like Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld and Joseph Brassey’s Skyfarer. It’s both a compelling return for characters you may know from the preceding trilogy (An Affinity for Steel) and the perfect introduction to these characters if you’ve never met them before. It’s blood-soaked, action-packed, and frequently hilarious, which is everything I enjoy.
Pick it up if you like fun.