I’ve been following Sam Sykes on twitter for a while, and given my affinity for both well-crafted fantasy worlds and action-adventure stories, it was only a matter of time before I picked up a copy of The City Stained Red, the first book in Sam’s Bring Down Heaven series.
At almost 650 pages, The City Stained Red is a doorstopper of a book, but a fast, fun, vicious read. The book follows Lenk, an adventurer that some readers may recognize from Sykes’ previous series, The Aeon’s Gate Trilogy (though reading that series first is by no means a prerequisite for Bring Down Heaven). Lenk has finally decided that he’s done with killing, and wants to put aside his sword and pick up what he believes will be a normal life in the trade hub city of Cier’Djall. He and his friends, Denaos the thief, young wizard Dreadaeleon, khoshicht (Sykes’ clever take on elves) archer Kataria, healer/priestess Asper, and dragonman Gariath have killed scores of people and monsters. With the money owed to them for their services, they could happily retire from their violent lives. However, the man who owes them is not so easily found.
Cier’Djall is a massive, sprawling city, and the wealthy who rule over it have made their gold by selling silk produced by enormous spiders. However, the beautiful silk-draped spire that towers over the city leaves long shadows. In darker corners of the city, some of the poor are disappearing, and the ruling fashas may be to blame. Two rival churches seek to position their armies within the city, and tensions are running high as negotiations between them loom. Then, there’s the small matter of the local thieves guild and their ongoing conflict with a new but powerful cult that claims to have demons backing them. This is reality in the city where Lenk hopes to find Miron Evenhands, the priest at whose behest they have been doing what they do best. Cier’Djall is a bonfire piled high, drenched in oil, and awaiting a spark, and Lenk and his friends are unwittingly bringing lit torches through the gates.
The City Stained Red takes a page from A Song of Ice and Fire by presenting chapters from the perspectives of each member of Lenk’s band of adventurers. After arriving in Cier’Djall, they split up to try to located Miron, each using their unique skills and connections to make their way through the city. Denaos has connections from his previous life in the thieves guild, the Jackals. Dreadaeleon seeks the assistance of the Venarium, the wizard’s alliance. Asper, a follower of the same church as Miron, travels to the various temples in the city. Kataria finds herself in Shichttown, a slum where the non-humans try to live out of the way of the fiercely racist upper class. Gariath attempts to gather information from another dragonman who works as a bodyguard for one of the fashsas. Lenk is trying to cope with the fact that his pursuit of retirement may lose him the closest thing he’s ever known to a family. None of them are remotely ready for what they find.
After a footwar between the Jackals and the Khovura cult spills from the back alleys into the streets, every faction with an interest in controlling the silk trade comes out of their corners swinging, and Lenk and company can do little more than hope to survive.
I absolutely loved this book. Sykes blends dark humor and trope deconstruction beautifully. I’m already reading the sequel, The Mortal Tally, because I couldn’t wait to see what happens to these folks next. Reading about these characters is like watching my college Dungeons and Dragons group in action. There’s violence and bloodshed, but also fervent emotion. It’s a wonderful thing.