The City Stained Red might be the first book I’ve read based solely on the author’s social media presence. And that’s not to say that I doubted the book’s quality (I didn’t) or that it didn’t sound interesting (it did). But just that Sam Sykes is one of my favorite personalities on Twitter and it made me curious to read one of his books, even if that book’s genre isn’t my #1 thing (more like a #5). Somehow coming across as both the lunatic and the wise man, Sykes offers wisdom on creative storytelling and also ponders whether or not manatees have strong opinions on anime. I love reading his tweets. So, I bought his book.
The City Stained Red is my kind of a fantasy novel. Instead of focusing on kings, manners at the table, the ranks of knights, and all the other stuff that the royals and their militaries are involved with, this book follows a small group of adventurers, a profession that’s not well regarded in-world.
The adventurers are led by Lenk, a skilled swordsman who wishes to set aside his blade even though destiny keeps calling for further bloodshed. Lenk is joined by his kinda-sorta girlfriend Kataria, a shict (think: elf) who wants to remain with Lenk but only on her terms. They’re aided by the rogue Denaos, a man with a mysterious past and many discarded names. The priestess and healer Asper hopes to be the level-headed member of the group, though she deals with a secret worse than all the others. The most powerful among them is the young wizard Dreadaeleon, but he’s so immature he’s basically a child entrusted with a gun. And filling out the gang in the bruiser role is Gariath the dragonman, who’s basically a bad mood made flesh.
The adventurers arrive in the socially and culturally divided city of Cier'Djaal hoping to collect gold for services rendered. Just getting into the city proves to be a problem at the start, as non-humans (“oids”) are not welcome through the gates. Then, the man who’s supposed to pay them essentially vanishes into thin air, and the gang of adventurers accidentally stumble into the middle of a small-scale holy war. The city of Cier'Djaal is a powderkeg just waiting to explode, so when you introduce a group like Lenk’s gang into the mix… Boom Goes the Dynamite. Hundreds of city folk die, demons crawl out of people’s throats, dragonmen throw down, giant spiders walk down the road like big ol’ cows, and there’s more than a couple moments of sexy fun time to enjoy. Sykes calls it “hot fantasy trash.” I call it 600 pages of fun and madness.
The City Stained Red, like a lot of genre fiction, has a lot on its mind. Each character gets an arc and there’s a great deal of drama and character development. The world-building is rich and detailed, owing little to the giants of the genre (in my opinion, at least) by successfully doing its own thing. And Sykes clearly has something to say about religion and the blood that’s shed in the name of faith and god (any god). The book lets the reader make their own deductions on what to make of the themes, but there’s some deep thoughts lurking beneath the giant spiders and demonic throat coughs.
Mostly though, it’s a fun book. Sykes’ sense of humor that he shows online comes through on the page. His characters deal with dark happenings but there’s always a twinkle of comedy in there somewhere, often with a witty comeback or one-liner. Never is it too goofy that it feels odd to laugh on one page and then recoil in horror on the next, though. Thematic substance is all balanced nicely, and nothing really feels out of place.
The City Stained Red is that rare book where I enjoyed spending time with basically every major character because they were all interesting in some way. Even the one who I didn’t like (the boy wizard is a punk), still featured in some of the book’s finest chapters. The way the character team dynamics work reminded me a bit of a videogame RPG. The characters interact, go off on side quests, report back, and so on. I was reminded of Mass Effect, despite the fact that this was set in a city that owes its economy to giant spiders and was not in fact set in space.
Also: The City Stained Red stars one of my new favorite characters: Gariath the dragonman is the coolest, funniest, meanest badass I’ve read in a long, long while. I would read a book all about Gariath complaining about humans, fighting crime, crushing heads, and saving the world, you know, if he feels like it. Seriously cool character with a surprising amount of depth beneath his hard exterior.
More books need dragonmen.
You can buy The City Stained Red on paperback, Kindle ebook, audio CD, and Audible. The book’s sequel, The Mortal Tally, is available now and is definitely on my list.
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of fiction and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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