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The Desperado Reviews Fantasy – The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes

Though fantasy is one of my favorite genres, I haven’t read a lot of it, outside of Tolkien and Harry Potter. The City Stained Red is a 2015 epic fantasy novel by Sam Sykes (the pen name of Sam Watkins, son of Outlander author Diana Gabaldon.) As with most books of this type, it’s set in an alternate world with a medieval level of technology. Humans exist alongside a number of imaginary races, not elves or dwarves but Sykes’ own various anthropomorphs. These include beast-people, dragon-people, and even insect-people.

It has six protagonists, a gang of thieving outlaws reminiscent of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. The group includes an assassin, a healer, a wizard, a beast-woman estranged from her people, and a dragon-man who is the last survivor of his clan. They have come to the walled City of Cier Djaal to find a man named Miron Evenhands, who supposedly holds a treasure for them. This big score will allow them to give up their dangerous occupation and live normal lives – except for the dragon-man, who is alone in the world.

Cier Djaal is dominated by the fashas, wealthy merchants who run the city’s silk trade, and a dozen or so fanatical cults – some of whom have living gods that are more like demons. There are also powerful guilds for occupations such as thief and wizard.

This ragtag group of flawed heroes encounters trouble from the very beginning when the city guards refuse their non-human members entry within the walls. A violent diversion gets them all inside, but their quarry Miron proves to be elusive, if he even exists at all. The protagonists encounter slave auctions, vicious holy wars, decadent soirees with the fashas, and an inquest into the wizard’s crimes against his guild. The book contains a lot of engaging and exciting scenes but overall the plot is complicated and rather confusing. About halfway through, the protagonist split up and go their separate ways, each encountering serious obstacles.

This outlaw gang should make for an interesting mix but there’s a problem. Except for the dragon-man (my favorite character by far) they all have a similar voice, which makes them hard to distinguish at times. They have a lot of existential angst which gives them a twenty-first-century feel. The assassin has horrible guilt about killing and none of them enjoy being thieves. There’s some sex in the mix, including some lesbianism among the beast-people. I don’t have a problem with that, though Sykes is not the first to give fantasy tropes a modern spin.

Like most fantasy novels, City suffers from two flaws: it’s too long, with too many characters. That’s just my own prejudice because I believe that as with Martin’s works, that’s what readers expect.

The City Stained Red is the first in Sykes’ “Bring Down Heaven” trilogy. I have a copy of the second in the series, the Mortal Tally, but haven’t yet begun reading it. As for “City,” I would give it about 3 of 5 stars. Many folks will enjoy it, but I’d recommend they invest in some index cards to help keep track of everything.

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