J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

The City Stained Red: So a guy, an elf, and a dragonman sit down at a bar…

If there’s been one steadily growing source of inspiration in fantasy writing in the past few decades, it would definitely be Dungeons and Dragons. This is funny to consider, since the tabletop RPG itself was basically a way for fans to live out their own fantasy adventures like the ones they’d read in novels. As a longtime player and reader, it’s gotten easier and easier for me to notice when this happens. Not that that’s a bad thing. One of my favorite writers, Joe Abercrombie, openly admits that is where he got his first inspirations to write, and I’m a big fan of his work.

But anyway. The book in question that brought this thought to the forefront of my head recently is The City Stained Red, by Sam Sykes.

This book caught my eye at the bookstore because Scott Lynch (one of my favorite authors) wrote an endorsement for the cover. When the author of The Lies of Locke Lamora tells you a book is worth reading, you take a chance.

The blurb reads like this:

After years in the wilds, Lenk and his companions have come to the city that serves as the world’s beating heart.
The great charnel house where men die surer than any wilderness.
They’ve come to claim payment for creatures slain, blood spilled at the behest of a powerful holy man.
And Lenk has come to lay down his sword for good.
But this is no place to escape demons.

What I liked:

The characters. By far the biggest strength of the book, the central characters are all strong, with great voices and independent thought. The reason I harped on the “inspired by D&D” so much in the intro is fairly apparent when you read it: the main characters are all adventurers, and fill specific archetypes. Let’s list them out. You have:

Lenk, the swordsman who leads the band of adventurers. He’s good at killing, but wants to retire from that life, and comes to the city of Cier’Djaal to get money owed to him by a priest so he can leave the life of bloodshed behind. Honestly, it’s his story that is the most interesting. It’s not often you read a story like this where the fallout of living a life on the road as a warrior is laid out like it is here. Unless you’re a complete sociopath, a life spent using a sword and killing would wear on anyone. Lenk’s motivations make total sense, and his POV was easily one of the most enjoyable to read.

No, not THAT Link.

Kataria, a savage schict (think wood elf with a touch of native american influence) archer. She left her old life and people to travel with Lenk, and is more than a little bitter and scared that he wants a life that is nothing like she wants. Her story is one of trying to find her identity, whether that is staying with Lenk or going back to her people. She’s mercurial, and passionate about her friends, but also fiercely defensive. She was interesting, but definitely shone in more of a support role.

Asper, a priestess whose sole role through the years was to heal and keep her allies alive, despite taking on the frowned upon occupation of adventurer. As an important character tells her late in the book “You will always be too late to make a difference, because you simply react.” That’s what a healer does, right? She starts off trying to make a difference in her god’s temple, and ends her journey in this book being jaded about the whole religion thing. Probably doesn’t help that she’s sharing her head with another being who may or may not be a demon. For a character even the book defines as support, she gets a ton of time, but she’s definitely interesting.

Denaos, a rogue who as Lenk describes early on as having “alcoholism, numerous character flaws, and likely uncountable sexual diseases”. He’s easily one of my favorites. He’s got a past, as Denaos isn’t even his real name. He’s cutthroat, and shady, but strangely loyal to his crew. His character takes a very practical approach to solving problems that proved very entertaining. Also, he has most of the best quips in the book.

Dreadaeleon, a wizard who looks like a small boy. He’s seemingly very talented at throwing around magic, but chooses to use fire to solve his problems 95% of the time.* He’s very skeptical of religion, and often views people as secondary objects. Of the group, surprisingly, I’d peg him as the sociopath. And that’s even considering the last member of the group…

Gariath, a dragonman who smashes and squashes heads at the drop of a hat. He’s very violent, and seemingly one dimensional at first. But once he starts proffering his point of view, his plight makes just as much sense as Lenk’s. If you were the last of your race, and you were reduced to being the muscle for a group of humans that didn’t seem very grateful for your protection, I’d imagine you’d be pretty surly too.

*This is turning into a pet peeve of mine. Why is it that almost every time there’s a wizard character, their nearly exclusive weapon of choice is fire? Why not ice, or wind, or earth, or heart? It’s been turned into a cliche at this point, even if some of my favorite writers are guilty of it. At least Harry Dresden sort of explains his fondness for it.

All in all, they make for a dysfunctional band of adventurers, but make for an interesting core cast. Definite plus here.


The wit. The dialogue is quick, snappy, and hilarious. Sometimes it works to the detriment of the story that’s being told, as it seems that some of the characters don’t take the danger too seriously at any given point, and it weakens the stakes. But from an entertainment standpoint, it made the book better.

My personal favorite moment is when Dreadaeleon pops up out of nowhere after being fascinated by a woman sold into slavery for her debts. In order to spend time with her, he returns to the group to ask for money. “It’s for a woman,” he says. No one says anything, and then without another question, Denaos steps forward and gives him the money, saying “I’m so proud of you.” I laughed out loud at that part. Good stuff.

The demons. As a regular consumer of geek culture, I get so bored and tired of certain fantasy monsters being neutered to the point where they aren’t remotely scary or terrifying anymore. It’s happened to vampires, dragons, zombies… you name it, they’ve been weakened by writers not capable of doing them justice.

Well, this book doesn’t have this problem. The demons are freaking terrifying in concept, and are treated as such by the characters living within the book. LOVED how they were handled here.

What I didn’t like:

The plot. When it comes to plot, this book isn’t particularly complex. It’s almost literally “heroes come to city > mayhem happens > lots of character introspection > more mayhem happens > climax > plot twist > ending”. I have no issue with that kind of setup at all. I actually enjoy it, in most cases.

My real issue with it, is the fact that this book weighs in at almost 600 pages. That is not a lot of plot, for a lot of reading. So unsurprisingly, this book can meander, and meander a lot. This is dangerous territory – even writers like George R.R. Martin can turn mediocre when they go too slow with the plot. I understand the challenge the author faced with this book, though. He wanted to give proper attention to all six characters he so vividly crafted, but I honestly think that is too much for one book to accomplish without being bloated. Sometimes it’s a fun ride to go with a character on a side quest… other times, not so much.

The plot twist. I literally saw it coming a hundred pages away. Granted, it’s not a HUGE twist, but it was so telegraphed that it didn’t leave me shocked, or particularly excited to see where it goes. If you’re going to go with the whole “It was me all along!” twist, then at least make it seem bombastic and world shattering, rather than making the character who makes this startling revelation say the equivalent of “Uh, okay.”

The verdict:

This was a fun book to read, if a little too long for what it delivered. That was the real problem with it. If it had been edited a bit more tightly, it would have been a GREAT book. As is, it’s just a good one. I was entertained, but I wasn’t given a burning desire to immediately go read the sequel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s far better than a lot of stuff out there. I’ll revisit this author… someday.




2 comments on “The City Stained Red: So a guy, an elf, and a dragonman sit down at a bar…

  1. Joe the Revelator
    May 29, 2015

    Loved Lies of Locke Lamora, so I’ll have to check this out. I’ve heard Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn) speak favorably about D&D-inspired plot devices too, specifically magic systems. But when plot gets derived from the game, you get exactly what you described. Arrive in town, shit happens.

    Great post btw.

    • jagarrett
      May 29, 2015

      Thank you!

      And that’s exactly it. This book has all of the strengths and weaknesses of a D&D campaign, for better and for worse.

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This entry was posted on May 27, 2015 by in Books, Literacy, Reviews and tagged , , , , , .
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