Thursday, September 19, 2013

WisCon Rapidfire Book Reviews #4: Aeon's Gate: The Skybound Sea by Sam Sykes



I have a confession to make: I already took one review copy (Edge of Oblivion), but I couldn't resist snagging this one, too. I picked it up and meant to page through it to pass the time before the auction, but then I could not put it down. The opening lines beat out a hypnotic rhythm. Gliding past them, I found myself in an oceanside slum near the home of an eldritch abomination. My inner Cthulhu fan's tentacles twitched pleasantly. I found I liked the characters at once. Unfortunately, the opening was more of a teaser and I didn't see a lot of them afterwards.

There will be some spoilers in this review, but spoilers don't actually decrease your enjoyment of the story. I'll keep them vague, anyway, with just enough detail to articulate what I liked and what nagged me.

Although this was the last book in the trilogy, I felt I was able to keep up with the action easily enough. After all, this book is mostly action--people killing people, narrowly evading being killed by people, people summoning giant monsters, fighting giant monsters, fighting each other over how exactly to go about fighting giant monsters. The background mythology isn't one-dimensional, but the parts that are immediately relevant to the action are presented without slowing the pacing down and without being confusing (anyway, an air of not-fully-explained mystery is a perk in mythology building, especially mythologies including ineffable eldritch abominations).

Where I did start getting lost was the character's motivations. There's some sort of scheme-within-a-scheme going on with at least one of the villain factions--yes, there's more than one. Many more. They're usually able to be distinguished by the color of their skin. Whether it's green or purple, I mean. Actual PoC do appear among the heroes and sympathetic side characters, and Sykes also writes women perfectly well, which is refreshing in this testosterone laden subgenre. They're at least as complex as the male characters, and equally or more kickass, without being at all fanservicey. When fighting they can get downright unsexy. This does not mean they aren't kickass. Bless you, Sykes, for knowing the difference.

Back to that complexity, though--some confusion among the villains, I understand, is a feature rather than a bug, and Sykes seems to intend it that way. Maybe I really am not supposed to know what's going on, or if I'd read the previous 2 books I'd know. I appreciate that Sykes doesn't slow the plot down to spoon-feed these things to us (he has one teaser of a scene where 2 villains discuss their plans in front of a hiding character--the character, though, can't speak their language and missses out on such a great spying opportunity), but at times I wasn't sure whether I was meant to sit back and watch the blood splatter or piece together a puzzle. Maybe I should have done both at the same time?

This confusion reigns despite the villains discussing their plans, the heroes arguing about their plans, and a constant rich stream of inner monologue--which pops up even during action scenes. However, I think in this case seeing the character's thoughts helps. Without knowing who a character is and what they want, even the bloodthirstiest reader can't get that invested in them spearing, hacking, chopping, exploding, and otherwise demolishing other feeling, thinking beings. The main protagonist, Lenk, might genuinely be mentally ill--he brings the possibility up and it isn't dismissed. Although this raises interesting questions like, how does this world define mental illness? Is introducing "schizophrenia" into what is, eldrich abominations and sorcerers aside, a largely medieval fantasy world an anachronism?

This being the last book of the trilogy, I was privileged to see its end...such as it was. Because it wasn't much of an ending--instead we get a bigger revelation, the heroes' troubles are clearly not over, and the world may be in even greater danger no than it ever was. Anyone who had read through the entire series might be disappointed at the lack of resolution, and for all this story was pretty fun (not lighthearted in tone by any means, but clearly meant to be the literary equivalent of a popcorn-noshing action movie), it ends on a depressing note. Not because of character death, either--this is spoilery, but as I read I started to get distracted by how rarely anyone's death or apparent death proved permanent. Instead, there's just this feeling that all the heroes' work was for nothing, they are pawns in a cosmic game they cannot comprehend, and lots of other nihilistic musings.  I'm tempted to draw a comparison with R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series, which also ends on an obvious hook for its sequel trilogy (which I'm currently reading). However, Prince of Nothing exhibits vast worldbuilding, on such an epic scale that multiple series within it seem inevitable. Sykes has some awesome images in his created world, including the titular Skybound Sea, but on the whole it's a Dungeons and Dragons campaign in writing. Then again, I'd expect plenty of DMs like to end each session with a hook for the next, so maybe that's what he's doing here.

Knowing how this trilogy ends, I'm not sure I'm interested in reading the beginning, but I'll definitely check out what else Sykes has written. And I'll probably wind up snagged again.

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