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Writer on the Verge: Sam Sykes

A while back I started interviewing up-and-coming fantasy authors with my “Writers on the Verge” feature. First time round I chatted with Saladin Ahmed before he fully burst onto the scene. After that it was a Q & A with New Zealand’s rising star Mary Victoria. And I’ve an upcoming interview with Peter Orullian.

I intended to interview Sam Sykes (self proclaimed Angriest Man Alive) back when he was on the verge. However…well…things go pretty crazy making sure that my second book got in on time. So…Sam is not longer on the verge; he’s been over the verge with the publication of his first novel Tome of the Undergates, far afield really, then he came back and dug his way under the verge, declared war on the verge, and then brokered a secret pact of peace while putting the finishing touches on his sequel Black Halo. Though, the interview took me too long to get together, it turned into a lively discussion. Check it out.

Okay, Sam, I hear you’re good. Let’s find out how good. Pitch Tome to me without using a single passive verb or adjective while incorporating the phrases “just like the Battle of Agincourt” and “as soggy as a waffle left in the rain.” Ready, go!

Tome of the Undergates is the book that is made out of questions and paper and hatred.  It is the book that speaks to us in harsh, whispering tones that we’re not always sure the meaning of.  Did it ask us what the weather was like in Cairo?  Did it ask us to kill in its name?  Tome of the Undergates offers no answers.  Tome of the Undergates gives no answers.  That is for the reader, the reader that Tome of the Undergates seeks to devour, chewing up pulped meat in papery jaws and nearly breaking its spine to consume your tender little head and as your soft brains slide down its gullet, Blake Charlton, it spares a single, razor edge to gently caress your hairless pate before it spits you back out.

There.  I just threatened to have my book cannibalize you.  It doesn’t GET less passive than that, Charlton!

Also, it is about adventure, celebrating the fine art of swordsmanship, plundering, racial xenophobia, religious doubt and the fine art of crotch-stomping that Kenneth Branagh pioneered in so many of the battles he won for France, just like the Battle of Agincourt.

I think that settles it…wait, no!  I was supposed to talk about waffles!  I HAVE FAILED.  Charlton, you will be my second.  When the pain of ritual disembowelment becomes too much, hack off my head and bury it deep, lest it come back to you one night and talk about Ducktales while you’re trying to sleep.


Did you happen to catch the latest healthcare reform fantasy?  It’s a stunning little story in which a struggling med student named Blako Baggins is tasked with the chore of finding and destroying the Opposition Bill by hurling it into the fires of Mount Congressional Resume before the armies of Sauron Palin can find him.  It’s guaranteed to be a bestseller, if it passes a majority vote.

Oh, yes, my friend, we shall be victorious. We have enlisted the ancient elves of The Daily Shadowvale, lead by Steven Colbert-ron. Oh yes, my friend, victory is neigh.


Let’s take a moment to smell the garden that is epic fantasy. Possibly the phenotype most in bloom at the moment is “gritty” epic fantasy, or what you will, but there are other types “classic” epic fantasy, “hard” epic fantasy, “meaningful bipartisan healthcare reform in America” fantasy…okay, so maybe that last one was me being a cynical medical student. But where do you see Tome fitting in the garden of epic fantasy? How do you see the genre developing, good and/or bad?

But you want serious answers, don’t you?  Tome has been called “gritty” before, and I certainly don’t dispute most of those charges: it’s got violence; it’s got gore; it’s got people who are very clearly not intended to be white knights atop steeds.  But it doesn’t quite have the same morality as others.  “Gritty” usually implies a sort of messy morality, and while a lot of epic fantasy has moved away from
Black-and-White moralities; I think a lot of them are just as neat and tidy as before.  They simply took a step to the right so now we have Black-and-Blacker moralities in which the sole distinction is varying
degrees of assholitude.  Tome has jerks, Tome has wicked people, but it also has people trying their damnedest to do good.  Whether or not they succeed is up for debate, of course.

Epic fantasy has been going pretty well, I feel, since a lot of it is moving into the realms of character-driven stuff.  It’s no longer the quest that defines the story, but the people who do it and how they cope with it.  I’m quite pleased and confident that Tome will continue to add to that tradition.

Sam, I realize the following statement will likely incite you to try to gnaw the cerebral vasculature out of my brain; however, I must tell you: In the above answer, I normalized your punctuation. I want you lay back on a leather couch, think about your childhood, and for exactly 15 German-accented words tell me how that makes you _feel_.

As to your normalization…well, you would do that, wouldn’t you?  You normie.

Okay, now that I’m done being bitchy, let’s get back to your comment about epic fantasy shifting from black-and-white to black-and-blacker (or gray-and-grayer? All characters are gray, but GRRM’s are Grayer?). So if in this new mode of ‘gritty’ we still have good guys and bad guys, has the genre essentially changed at all? Do we necessarily _want_ a radical change in epic fantasy?

Maybe some of us don’t want a radical change in epic fantasy, but I think we need it.  As I mentioned in a blog recently, whenever we feel constrained by rules, the genre as a whole stagnates and suffers.  We need to keep challenging the norms and we need to keep doing what we want, rather than what other authors would do.  But that doesn’t mean that we need to forsake good and evil, gritty or ambiguous morality. Rather, we need to embrace what we want to do without rules and if that means white hats and black hats or black hats and gray hats covered with blood, so be it.

Though I do think that adopting this idea of ‘gritty’ could be interpreted as putting more rules on a genre that should never have any.  If someone writes a character who feels empathy, sympathy and saves orphans and gives to charity, he shouldn’t discard that character because he feels his book should have grittiness.  Those people do exist in the world and, while they may be hard to find, they’re every bit as interesting as the hardened badass who spanks whores and villains alike.  They just need to be explored.

Ever feel the need to get away from the work? What’s Sam Sykes do to get away from it all?

I don’t get away from it all.  I just bleed quietly.

So, here’s a question I ask merely for self-interest: Now that you’ve broken into publishing, what’s your plan for staying in the game? More in this series? Start another? Another flavor of angriest man alive books?

Big news coming up on that front.  Stay tuned.

Give us a brief report about your second book Black Halo: Where’s it in the production line and what might we expect from it?

Black Halo is currently just leaving copy editing and might even be out by the time you read this, considering the pace we interview at. It’s a book that goes more in-depth to the characters we met in TOME. We learn more about their lives, their motives, their hates and their loves and each one is explored pretty thoroughly as they try to come to grips with just why they’re together and just why they can’t leave each other.

Set this against a three-way war between demons trying to resurrect their bloated mother, purple-skinned sadistic Darwinists trying to stop them and a sect of violently xenophobic tattooed lizardmen as well as betrayal, love and loincloths and that’s basically how it goes.

Well, the best of luck to you, Sam. Thanks for chatting. No doubt our paths will cross again on the way to glory doom the convention hotel’s bar.


5 Responses to “Writer on the Verge: Sam Sykes”

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liz de Jager, torforgeauthors, Mark Chitty, John Ginsberg-Steven, Melissa and others. Melissa said: RT @blakecharlton: Check out my interview with @SamSykesSwears, in which things get snarky fast. http://bit.ly/gMH9l9 #fantasy […]

  • Awesome interview! You guys had me laughing my ass off – I don’t think anyone could have mentioned Darkwing Duck, Palin, etc in a Fantasy interview and pulled it off, 🙂

    I guess writers just need to write what they want to write – as I’ve been writing it’s been difficult to not conform to certain standards or tropes (the funny thing is, I recognize them when reading them!) but I think that if you have faith in the story you want to tell, the grittiness or non- will be there naturally. Sometimes (my experience) the ‘tone’ of the work sort of creates itself, and I think that needs to happen with limited control on our part – that way, you get to tell the story you want to tell and still manage to surprise yourself. 🙂

  • Damn you! I can’t afford all the books on my “to buy” list as it is, now I have to add this one?? I really wish you author-type people would let us reader-type people finish one or two before you go and write more…..

    That said: Yay! This looks really good and really cool… and yes, it is on my wish list at any number of on-line book seller places.

    Maybe I’ll get gift certificates for this winter holiday thingy….


  • Well, since Mr. Charlton is over on Twitter begging for snark, perhaps he need to be obliged!

    First, I am appalled that Mr. Sykes (and I use the term loosely) would dare impugn the purity of the “gritty” subgenre, which has Five Irrefutable Rules That Must Be Obeyed. While it is all well and good that he obeys three and spits in the face of two (and, in all honesty, is probably hawking up a phlegm ball for one of the others), I believe that his denigration of the subgenre’s irrefutable Consistency and Merit show him for the wet-eared whelp that he is. Plus, his beard is too pointy.

    Take THAT!

    At this juncture, I refuse to move on to the Second, as I believe I have amply applied a devastating fusillade of snark.

    Hope this helps!

  • […] at Tor.com; click through to join the discussion there. Also check out the WotV interviews of Sam Sykes, Mary Victoria, and Saladin […]

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