Thanks to Goodreads and the power of positive peer pressure, I’m working on the goal of reading 20 books this year. Along with this goal, I want to get in the habit of reviewing those books on my blog. I’m of the firm opinion that every book you read can help you grow as a writer (and hopefully as a person). So as I review*, I want to also pull out any nuggets of wisdom (or humor) that I learn from these books, as a writer and/or human being. I’ll also try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, and give warning if there’s going to be a major spoiler. First up is the book I most recently finished reading, The City Stained Red (Bring Down Heaven) by Sam Sykes. * Full disclosure: while I am not paid to review these books, I will include Amazon Affiliate links to these books, so that if you’re interested in purchasing the book after reading my review, I make a small commission to support this blog.
The City Stained Red follows a ragtag group of adventurers who come to the famous and depraved city of Cier’Djaal looking for payment. They fully expect to split ways after getting paid for a dangerous job they had recently finished – though not everyone is happy with that decision. And getting paid won’t be as easy as any of them expected.
Instead, the city will swallow them all – exposing each character’s deepest doubts and fears, and tangling them in a bloody street war between a respected thieves guild and a fanatical cult that wants to resurrect an old god. And as old arguments between characters are exasperated and the band threatens to break apart at the time they most need each other…
Lenk, the party leader, must decide how much he’s willing to sacrifice for the chance of living a normal, quiet life. The premise is great, the characters jump off the page, and the narration and dialogue both provide a lot of humor in counterpoint to the dark events and themes of the novel.
I was so engrossed in the story and characters, I didn’t even realize that the book was almost 700 pages long! While the book had some elements that greatly frustrated me, it also has many engaging, thought-provoking, and even downright hilarious moments. All in all, certainly worth the read, though I don’t know if I’ll be pursuing the rest of the trilogy. There are also some very important lessons writers can take away from this intense fantasy adventure – both positive and negative.
Writers, Read This Novel If You Want to Learn:
Voice. Sam Sykes does an excellent job of giving each of his characters a unique voice, and applying that voice to each character’s POV. In the characters’ dialogue, both in what they said and how they said it, Sykes highlighted the differences in their personalities, values, and temperaments. His execution of unique voice is one of the best I’ve come across.
How to Write Sensory Details Well. An integral part of that unique voice is the way Sykes handles description. Each character notices different sensory details, and attaches different significance to these details. This brings both the characters and the city to light in a very deep and meaningful way.
Why a Little Self Awareness Goes a Long Way. Even though the City Stained Red was overall a fairly dark tale of gang wars, demon-raising cults, and the moral crisis of a longtime adventurer and murderer, I laughed out loud at this book more than almost any other book. The self-aware, sometimes even sardonic narrative tone was a delight to read. But more importantly, it was consistent with characters, and kept the book from feeling too heavy.
A Cautionary Tale of Spreading Yourself Too Thin. We’re fantasy writers. We carry complex worlds, characters, and conflicts in our minds every day. It’s no surprise, then, that we want to cram as much of this into our novels as possible. We all come up with various excuses why our reason (or method) for this is valid… but I’ve read maybe one novel where this worked.
Read The City Stained Red for a cautionary tale of how spreading yourself too thin on plot and worldbuilding can drive an otherwise fun novel into the ground. It takes a while before you realize that the meandering character side-quests that feel like Act 1 character development is actually going to be the bulk of the novel. Amazingly, these “side quests” become very engaging, and start weaving themselves into a tapestry that I was sure would culminate in the main plot.
I anticipated the moment when everything would come together. But sadly, instead of pulling all the threads into a tight tapestry, the threads all fell apart at the end of the story, and a world detail that was a passing mention in a supporting character’s scene became the climactic struggle. That leads me to my last lesson, which is…
The Importance of a Strong Third Act. I was pre-writing a glowing recommendation of this book in my head… all the way up until the turn of the Second Act. While the pacing was a bit slow in paces, as I mentioned, I had no reason to doubt this was a slow, character-driven build up to a climax that struck at the heart of all these diverse character plots, and escalated the “gang war and cultist” plot that drove most of the novel. Instead, the characters inexplicably stopped developing. Each character had struggle with a deep, personal question all novel – beautifully illustrated and heightened by what they encountered in the city.
I was hotly anticipating the resolution (or at least a nuanced continuation) of these great character struggles. Instead, as the end of the book drew near, it felt like the characters just shrugged their shoulders at their novel-long struggles, and trundled along with the plot for the remaining pages. And the plot itself decided to wildly change directions. The external conflict that drove the bulk of the novel was suddenly treated like a side note, in favor of a very distant and under-developed conflict. I’m all in favor of twists, but major plot twists require a good deal of setup and careful pacing to be executed well. So I’m sorry to say that this novel ended on a bit of a sour note for me.
Read the book? Have any other thoughts on it? Let me know in the comments!