Quick Review: THE CITY STAINED RED by Sam Sykes (Orbit/Gollancz)


The start of a new trilogy: better, funnier, great place to start

Long before he was sent to hell, the Aeon known as Khoth-Kapira was the closest thing to a living god the world had ever known. Possessed of a vast intellect, he pioneered many of the wonders that persist in the world long after he was banished. Nearly every fragment of medical, economic and technological progress that the mortal races enjoyed could be traced back to him. But with his wonders came cruelty beyond measure: industrialised slavery, horrifying experimentations and a rage that would eventually force the world to bow to him.

Now, as Khoth-Kapira stirs, the world begins to shudder with disasters yet to come.The epicenter is the city of Cier’Djaal. A religious war between two unstoppable military juggernauts begins to brew. The racial fury among many peoples of the world is about to explode. Demons begin to pour from the shadows at the head of a vicious cult worshipping dark powers.

And Lenk finds himself in the middle once more, his fate and the fate of Khoth-Kapira interlinked as the demon attempts to convince him of his earnestness.

“Your world is breaking around you,” He Who Makes says, “let me fix it. Let me help you. Let me out.”

Sam Sykes is one of my favourite fantasy authors. His novels are great, big, fun slabs of dark, tongue-in-cheek fantasy with plenty of conventions turned on their heads. The City Stained Red is the first novel in a new trilogy, set in the same world and featuring the same characters as his Aeons Gate trilogy. However, it is also a great jumping-on point, if you haven’t read the first three novels.

In many ways, Sykes’s novels could be described as “honest” fantasy: characters are three-dimensional and flawed. They bicker, they worry, they have issues with self-esteem and moments of staggering arrogance and narcissism. Put simply, the author’s skill for penning characters is fantastic and by far the stand-out element of each of his novels (and short stories, for that matter). True, they’re all on the… uglier side, in that they aren’t exactly the sort of characters who you might like to spend much time with in real life. However, reading about their (mis)adventures is a blast.

This novel brings the story to an urban setting, which was a nice change of pace and set of challenges from the broad-canvas of the first trilogy. It’s a really interesting city, too, that is stained red…

If I had only one concern, it is that the quips can come very frequently and fast in the first half of the novel. I enjoyed this, and I thought it was a great way to really get to know the characters (or, in my case, become reacquainted with them). I do wonder, though, if it might give new readers the wrong impression of what the novel is meant to be. It is not a “comedy”, but it’s often very funny. This probably seems like a strange thing to pick up on, but it’s something I wondered about while reading.

Overall, though, this is a great start to a new story-arc. Sykes has improved as an author – The City Stained Red is a tighter novel, more disciplined. This growth has in no way diminished it’s “Sam-ness”, though, and entertained and engaged in much the same ways his previous work has.

If you love fantasy, especially if it’s a little dark, then Sam Sykes is an author you have to read. Great fun and a definite improvement from an already talented author, this is absolutely recommended.


Sam Sykes’s The City Stained Red is published in the UK by Gollancz and the US by Orbit Books.

Also on CR: Interview with Sam Sykes (2011); Catch-Up with Sam (2012); Reviews of The Tome of the Undergates and Black Halo

Full disclosure: Sam did ask me to read an early version of this novel, back in 2013, which is why I’ve kept the review short. (Not that I think my contributions and comments were particularly helpful, but I thought I should mention it.)

7 thoughts on “Quick Review: THE CITY STAINED RED by Sam Sykes (Orbit/Gollancz)

  1. This is actually great for me to know, I often don’t do well with books that have a high comic/humor element, and quit reading this one about half way through. It wasn’t quite too much, but maybe a bit more often and a bit more blatant than I prefer. I had intended to finish reading it but kept getting distracted by other books. Knowing that is not typical actually makes me more likely to pick it back up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The bantering is a great way to get new readers familiar with the dynamic between the characters – they’re all rather broken, somewhat more on the unpleasant side of self-involved… But, at the same time, they’re fiercely loyal to and dependent on each other and their well-being. So… Yeah. Good times. 🙂


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