THE SONG OF THE SYCAMORE by Edward Cox (BOOK REVIEW)
“The dead call me Sycamore,” I told the storm above Old Castle. “I am their Shepherd”
The Song of the Sycamore by Edward Cox is a beautifully complex and surreal novel, one which blends the fantasy and sci-fi genres to bring us a tale of vengeance, of grief, and of sacrifice.
The world of Urdezha is broken, a war rages on two fronts; the first being between the barbaric Clansfolk, who dwell in the Wasteland, and the citizens of Old Castle. The second is a war between the Scientists and the Magicians. Meet Wendal Finn, a former soldier who gave his life to fighting against the Clansfolk. Presumed dead in the Wasteland, Wendal returns to Old Castle – but not alone. A spirit known as the Sycamore possesses Wendal, and it’s sole purpose is to enact revenge on behalf of victims who have been murdered. The Sycamore’s judgment always ends in blood.
Wendal and the Sycamore essentially become Old Castle’s reapers, yet with this much power inside him the Magicians and the Scientists vie to control him. If that’s not bad enough, our ill-fated Wendal has a more pressing matter to deal with too – his wife Eden’s mysterious suicide.
The Song of the Sycamore is told from Wendal’s first person narration, and we immediately see that his character is riddled with grief, he is battle shocked and as a result is addicted to drugs, which brings him much needed relief from his haunting memories. Wendal is clearly heavily flawed, yet he is likeable all the same. Throughout the novel his character is plagued by ghouls seeking vengeance for their death, we learn of all the atrocities Wendal is forced to commit by the Sycamore’s will, we see that his life is no longer his own as the Magicians and Scientists pursue him, and as we witness his desperate longing to reunite with his dead wife, I could not help but sympathise with him. He is a broken man living in a cruel unforgiving world.
“My choices had been submerged in the waters of my grief like an ancient baptism until I had clung to the last hope, shining as a single star in an empty sky: Eden.”
So what kind of a world is this? Well, it is a deadly one – the Wasteland is a forever looming threat surrounding Old Castle, the city in which humanity lives. The Wasteland is a desolation which spews out orc-like Clansfolk, ghouls, Skarabs, trolls, and an array of monsters hell bent on breaking through the city’s shield and wreaking havoc. I wouldn’t quite say this book is horror, but Cox certainly dances on the borders of the genre as certain scenes were fantastically creepy. Through Wendal’s backstory and even from his friend Nel’s account of her time in the war, Cox shows us exactly how perilous the Wasteland is and the scars it leaves on those who survive the war. Cox also meticulously gives us a lot of history of this world, tales of long lost Gods, of other realms, of long fought battles over Ether – the source of power used by both The Magicians and the Scientists. These two conflicting sides divide the streets of Old Castle, you either follow the Scientists ethos of being a ‘good citizen’ or you’re an outlawed Magician. Some scenes did delve into sci-fi elements and technology, particularly military technology, which were hard for me to visualise and comprehend. Yet overall the world-building in this book is beyond excellent as it is full of insightful details. I praise Cox for creating a standalone which feels so satisfyingly in-depth.
“The void was a vacuum and it brought fear to the faces of the ghosts. With a unified voice, they issued a single moan, one word, one accusation: ‘Sycamore.’”
As the story unravels Cox’s lyrical and emotive prose delivers a building sense of foreboding and an ominous atmosphere, which actually made me feel quite on edge. The chapters from Sycamore’s POV also heightened this growing tension as its narrative voice contained much ambiguity. The Sycamore may be an entity of vengeance, yet that vengeance was often just. I never could guess who the next target would be nor predict how Wendal would fare by the end.
“I had become a puppet, a servant, as weak as the body I wore, forced to experience the slow drip of time as humans did, to feel life as they lived it.
But my patience would outwait them all.”
A grim world, a narrative laced with mystery and a protagonist who teeters on the edges of being both a hero and a villain; The Song of the Sycamore ultimately explores the horrors of warfare and the age old quest for power. Cox poignantly reflects upon what happens to those who get caught in the crossfire.
ARC provided by Gollancz in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy!