One primary element that makes Sword and Sorcery a distinctive genre of the fantastic is the choice of protagonists. They are not Farmboys of Predestination, nor are they dethroned monarchs fighting to restore order and status to their stolen kingdoms (although for enough coin or favors they’ll help out. . . one side or the other). The heroes are such in the literary sense of the word, as the character (or characters) we follow and whose travails propel the story. Often, these characters are down-on-their luck, of low status, marginalized, or mysterious wanderers (a most revered trope of an ancestor genre). who must engage in subterfuge and violence to survive and to fulfill their goals, often at great cost and with limited success.
There are other aspects to Sword-and-Sorcery, but it is this one that Sam Sykes has grabbed in a vulgar, visceral manner and dragged cursing and spitting into a novel that, while sometimes flawed, is one of the most original applications of the genre in some time. Crude, uneven in parts, and occasionally juvenile at odd moments, Black Halo is also a maelstrom of emotions, consequences, and lunacy that shows us just how psychologically and ontologically devastating the life of such heroes can be. Sykes’ writing is powerful, if a little repetitive, and his imagery and characters are florid, bizarre, and disconcerting.
While on the surface this book has many of the tropes of a standard S&S story, that framework is almost secondary to Sykes’ real purpose: to shove our faces into the dysfunctions and agonies of his characters as they arise from those tropes, to feel them so intensely that the thought patterns of the characters begin to infect our own minds.
Hyperbolic prose is the source of the novel’s evocative force; often pulpy, sometimes irreverent, the writing seduces you with its rhythms even as it assaults your senses with its impressions and embellishments. The story of the six adventurers Lenk, Kataria, Denaos, Asper, Dreadaeleon, and Gariath combines a few echoes of Dungeons and Dragons (I immediately slotted each character into a class and noted the party composition had the major archetypes) with a world packed with uncanny creatures that are coarse, profane, and sometimes quite profound. After succeeding at a quest to recover a major artifact, they encounter trouble on the journey to return the relic and are cast away onto a strange island. Separated by circumstances (and possibly some design), each character must deal with the aftermath of their quest and with their fellow adventurers. The bulk of the novel deals with their internal conflicts and their efforts to reunite and regain the artifact, while dealing with enemies in many forms.
This summary does not really communicate what this novel does, however. While there is some contrivance to this set-up, you quickly forget about it as Sykes plunges into the messy, impaired psyches of his heroes. The most obvious side-effect of their quest is the various sorts of madness that they must struggle to ameliorate, while sinister powers around them try to co-opt or destroy them. But Sykes does not make this some Sith-like attempt at luring them to the Dark Side; each descends in some measure into a personal hell that they must think and argue their way out of (or, more often, fail to get out of).
The device of some external personality to dialogue with is stretched a bit much here, but Sykes makes it work through a combination of diversity of conditions and by giving these phantasms and voices singular qualities that reflect his characters’ problems and regrets. The result is novel that is rich in psychology, sometimes repetitive in its recitation of the heroes’ internal struggles but often harrowing, frustrating, and heart-breaking to witness. And the reader is very much a witness in this novel, brought through the chamber of intimate woes and traumas that would likely drive Freud and Jung screaming into the night.
What Sykes creates in this novel is a carnival of tensions and dreads, combining pulpish prose and dense psychological drama to create a fantastical micro-politics of the self. We get every iteration and detail of the conflicts within the protagonists. We see again and again the internal fight to reconcile one’s nature and one’s desires with the past and act in the present. Sometimes it seems crude, other times subtle, and perplexing more than once. These are not just individual struggles of the moment; they are mired in histories, in cultural assumptions, in ideologies and moral beliefs, and all of them fight with the future. In each protagonist’s predicament is not just some trouble of the moment, but an existential torrent that threatens to either drown them with their pasts or surge them over the edge of sanity.
The struggles in this book are within each character nature as it is impacted by their culture, their affiliations, and their beliefs. The protagonists have to struggle with who and what they are, often blindly, sometimes repeatedly, to try to figure not just what to do next, but to decide what their lives mean. Self-knowledge is both hard-won and often ineffectual, contradictory and shifting. Different interests, from the law-enforcing Venarium to the implacably warring netherlings to the damaged prophetic the Mouth of Ulbecetonth, also confront their nature and choices as forces align and impact each other. The book’s main conflict itself, a growing war between non-human and divine forces, is both generated by and secondary to these struggles.
Sykes easily twists expectation and convention, not always in the arc of the novel’s action but in why decisions are made and actions taken. Characters are unreliable actors and often do things against their interest, which can frustrate the reader. But this is where you find the heart of the novel, in its exploration of the humanness of characters in extraordinary situations, as they desperately try to make sense of the world around them and what scrapes against the inside of their own skulls and spirits. Sykes never goes for the easy moment or the expected outcome. Even moments of humor are foul or morbid; enlightenment does not ease one’s burden, but rather makes one more aware of why it must be carried, or what must be sacrificed to deliver it.
The mixture of overwrought prose and fantastical creatures create a disjunctive context for the heroes’ predicaments, but while sometimes distracting the secondary world of this fantasy situates the characters in such a way that in order to navigate the strangeness you must intimately engage their emotional struggles. The reader connects to them through their responses, through their doubts, and by feeling the weirdness of the this world infiltrate their own imaginations, making the reader grasp for the familiarity of the characters’ anxieties and confusion. There are some stumbles in the writing (which, since I read an ARC, may have been corrected to some extent); blood “wept” from bodies far too many times and sweat sometimes did thin gsI did not think it could do. There were enough awkward phrasings, especially in the second half of the novel, that its spell was momentarily disrupted. But the avalanche of words would swiftly bury them and you would continue tumbling along with the story.
Overall this is rich prose; Sykes’ writing has echoes of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and even a whisper of Henry James, the latter mostly in the creation of affect., but the novel’s effect is not designed to awe you or thrill your blood; it instead shakes you into feeling for the characters as they too try to make sense of what is going on around them, to salvage their sense of self and their purpose in the world. In the end, this book is about the dilemmas we all face as adults, as we second-guess our own intentions and stumble through life trying to not just survive but maintain our feeling of worth and struggle, often haphazardly and incompletely, and trying in the process to not destroy ourselves, our loved ones, or the past that makes us who we are.