Sam Sykes’ The City Stained Red has been heralded as a “new series”. What was not clear before starting this book, to me at least, was that it is still set in the same universe, and even follows the events of the same characters, as his earlier The Aeon’s Gate trilogy. This realisation coloured my impression of the book somewhat as I felt that I did not have the ‘full picture’ of the novel, having not read any of the previous trilogy.
In a nutshell, the book follows Lenk and his group of adventurer companions throughout their exploits in the city of Cier’Djaal, where they try to hunt down a man who owes them money. In doing so, they uncover a demonic cult, start a religious war, and realise that they have far bigger things to be worried about than settling a debt.
At the outset of the novel, I immediately felt as though I was missing out on some inside joke; the introductions to Lenk and the rest of the central characters felt too brief for me to truly get a firm foundation. Clearly, those who have read their previous adventures would not feel this sense of unease. However, as the novel progressed, Sykes does a good job of developing each character, and by the end I felt as comfortable with them as I would with the characters of any other first novel in a series. The structure of the book (for the most part each of the six central characters takes centre stage for their own chapter, on repeat, so that you come back to each person once every six chapters) both helps and hinders with introducing the reader to them. On one hand, it allows focus on a particular personality, without having to think about remembering who is who (a common pitfall of this type of ‘epic’ fantasy), whereas on the other it can be difficult to remember what was happening six chapters ago when the action is picked up again.
On the subject of the characters, I found it interesting that, of the central cast, it was Lenk whom I felt the least interested in. As the central protagonist, it was a shame that his chapters were the ones I felt I had to struggle through, whereas I thoroughly enjoyed the exploits of the rest of his motley crew. Lenk felt, to me, the least developed, lacking the clear personality that his companions all showed in spades. But, again, this may not be helped by the fact that I have not grown to know him over the previous books.
The novel itself is a hefty one, over 600 pages long, and there were times where it felt that the pace was lacking. Various fights and battles that break out last several chapters – as they are seen from multiple points of view – and I did not truly feel like I had a grasp of the book’s central plot and direction until at least half-way through. For someone coming into the book new to the universe, the lengthy scenes told from so many points of view, whilst dragging at times, were useful to get a sense of the characters and setting. Those already familiar with the characters, however, may feel that these sequences do just go on that bit too long.
There also felt like there were going to be a lot of loose ends left at the end, however the final chapters do a good job of tying everything together, with a twist that managed to surprise even though I’d seen it coming.
Whilst the plot was, overall, well thought out, and well tied up at the end, there were the occasional places where I felt dubious. When all of the main characters were still alive, despite the odds, after the third or fourth near-death experience, I stopped believing that they may truly be in danger, which left the final boss fight scenes lacking in peril to a degree (I say ‘boss fight’ because, throughout the book, I was strongly reminded of video games. I can just imagine the whole book as a plot of a Dishonored/Assassin’s Creed style RPG game). The persistence of Lenk, in particular, to track down the man who owes them money also felt off to me, considering the nightmares they go through the longer they stay in Cier’Djaal.
For those who have read Sykes’ previous stories of Lenk and co., then I imagine The City Stained Red would not disappoint. those who are starting fresh, then you can definitely enjoy the story without the need to read the previous books (there are some references that went over my head, but most are well-explained for the new reader), so long as you are prepared to accept that it may take a sizeable chunk of the book for you to truly feel grounded in the world. And, regardless of your past experience in this universe, Sykes’ comedic writing style is a joy; despite the dark themes, the novel is a fun, exciting and ultimately entertaining read.