Sam Sykes made a remarkable entry onto the fantasy scene last year with his debut, Tome of the Undergates. This was fantasy not quite like you’d seen before, with strong characterization ruling supreme over a dark, twisted but enjoyable storyline. Black Halo, the second book in the 'Aeon’s Gate' series, is a direct continuation of that novel. In this new novel, Sykes maintains and even improves - if maybe not as much as I would have liked - on the things that made his first novel such a joy to read. Filled to the brim with sharp dialogue, distinctive wit, demons, ghosts, lizardmen and what have you, Black Halo is continuing proof that Sykes is one talented fantasist.
The Tome of the Undergates has been recovered... And the gates of hell remain closed. Lenk and his five companions set sail to bring the accursed relic away from the demonic reach of Ulbecetonth, the Kraken Queen. But after weeks at sea, tensions amid the adventurers are rising. Their troubles are only beginning when their ship crashes upon an island made of the bones left behind from a war long dead.
And it appears that bloodthirsty alien warrior women, fanatical beasts from the deep, and heretic-hunting wizards are the least of their concerns. Haunted by their pasts, plagued by their gods, tormented by their own people, and gripped by madness personal and peculiar, their greatest foes may yet be themselves.
The reach of Ulbecetonth is longer than hell can hold.
Black Halo picks up essentially right where Tome of the Undergates left off. Lenk and the others are still in the midst of recovering physically - and emotionally - from the tumultuous events of previous novel. For lack of having a photographic memory, it took me a while to get accustomed to the world and characters again, but thankfully Sykes leaves plenty of time for this to happen.
The novel introduces us to all new sections of the world, including Teji, a seemingly dead island but where a lot of interesting things end up happening to our characters. Restriction of setting was one of the minor complaints I had with Sykes’ debut, so I’m glad that the story’s scope has been widened. Narrative perspective also opens up in Black Halo, with new view points that take us away from our six main protagonists to other places, giving us a bit more information on the worldbuilding and moving the overarching storyline forwards.
This overarching plot is indeed something Black Halo puts a lot more emphasis on, and though it occasionally feels like it’s only set up for the next book, it’s also gratifying to finally get a look at what Sykes has in store for us on the world scale. Exciting mysteries are introduced, and hints at the plans of greater forces are slipped in meticulously by Sykes and the contrasts between this and the more contained scope of events of Tiji is appreciated.
All of this is delivered by Sykes in a rich prose that surpasses anything that would be expected from an author in his second novel. Description are rendered with care to detail, imagery and often humor. But where Sykes truly excels is in his dialogue. This is a book filled with a lot of dialogue, so it’s a good thing he knows how to get it right. Whether it’s internal dialogue, a conversation between characters, an exchange between a character and a ghost or a voice in their head, Sykes executes it perfectly, each speaker possessing a distinctive and recognizable voice - the much present humor thrown in helps too.
The characters we grew to love in Tome of the Undergates are also back. In style. Despite the sometimes underwhelming pace of the narrative, few complaints can be maid since any time spent in the company of Lenk and his fellow ruffians and adventurers is time well spent. The variety of their personalities make them an ever diverting bunch. Plus, there is something about their individual peculiarities, their internal battles and the way they interact with each other that simply rings true. One can almost forgo plot when in such fine company. Nearly.
While the characterization is splendid and the prose is delightful, I still felt an inkling of disappointment with Sykes latest effort. Despite the build up of the overarching storyline, there is decidedly an absence of plot at points in the novel and where character indulgence takes over. I like a balance between both, and this was just unbalanced enough to vex me. Don’t get me wrong, Black Halo is a good book - I enjoyed almost every bit of it - but this (small) issue meant it was not the excellent book I was hoping Sykes would produce.
Nevertheless, Black Halo remains a novel I would easily recommend. Its sublime characterization and sharp, detailed prose are things to sincerely praise. Readers that enjoyed Sam Sykes’ debut, Tome of the Undergates, will find here a satisfying continuation to the story begun there. For my part, I hold out hope that Sykes will make that jump from good to excellent in The Skybound Sea. Black Halo has been out in the US from Pyr Books since March, and will be out on June 16th in the UK from Gollancz.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Reading Age: 16 and up
Sam Sykes's Website: http://www.samsykes.com/
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