Black Halo is the second in Sam Syke’s ‘Aeons Gate’ series. It’s got a serious amount of action n kicking off, but there’s also some character development there – less openly, but over the narrative course of the text.
The environment – ah, this is one Sykes does well. There’s a steaming jungle here, an island of death and life intermingled. Quite which one it will be for the protagonists is left open. Still, you can feel the steam pouring off the broad leaves, the surf pounding away in a perpetual mixture of rage and disappointment. It’s a small, contained world – and it’s in reaching outside of those constraints, physically and mentally, that our characters develop. Still, the author gives us the fever-ridden hellholes of a thousand nightmares, a tepid swamp begging for disaster – and then successfully walks it back. Perhaps the local e is not one of death and despair, but delight – reminiscent of Odysseus’s travels, here is a place which may kill with madness or with kindness
Anyway, something the author does well is shape his environment – horrifying as it may be. The transitions between paradise and hellscape are delicately, convincingly done, the reader’s perceptions following the characters. There’s a sense of remoteness, and a sense of place – where the story takes place feels real.
The characters remain as diverse and broadly unlikable as ever. One of the perpetual surprises of this series is that the adventurers don’t simply turn on each other in a swift bloodbath. In part this is due to the outside pressures they encounter, which keep them facing outward rather than inward with their penchant for violence – but there’s also some interesting group dynamics at work. I particularly enjoyed the burgeoning but problematic romance between Lenk and Kataria – the latter being part of a species that wants nothing more than the total annihilation of the ‘disease’ that is humanity. It makes for some awkward conversations, mostly with one trying not to murder the other. In amongst the backdrop of seething dislike, this is actually a really strong character piece. There’s characters in a crisis of faith, desperately trying to shape their value system. The aforementioned semi-murderous cross-species romance. A dragonman working out what it means to be the last of his kind, and whether it’s better or worse to just kill people instead. Villains with philosophical outlooks on freedom, choice nd the mentality of humanity which demand atrocious actions.
In short, it’s good stuff.
The plot – well, it’s actually rather slow for some time, a gradual buildup akin to boiling a frog in a pot. That said, the buildup is interesting, with a slowly growing sense of dread – and some genuinely exciting set-piece moments between character building. The conclusion is legitimately excellent, tying together the existing strands of narrative to create a convincing crescendo.
Is it worth looking at? Well, it’s a solid follow up to the earlier Tome of the Undergates. The pacing felt uneven to me, and the characters often actively unlikable – but the setting was convincing, and those characters, if difficult to like, were certainly believable. The plot is a slow burn which pays off – so I’d say it’s worth approaching if you’re already invested in the series. Otherwise, try the first book in the sequence.