The Song of The Sycamore by Edward Cox

I would like to thank the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Gollancz

Published – Out Now

Price – £18.99 Hardback £9.99 Kindle eBook

On the broken world of Urdezha, Wendal Finn died on the hostile plains of the wasteland, one more casualty in the endless war between the city-dwellers and the clansfolk. But now Wendal has returned to his home city of Old Castle, possessed by something he brought back from the wasteland, something old and best left forgotten. The spirits are calling it Sycamore, an ancient entity out to avenge all victims of murder. And in a city like Old Caste, no one is innocent. With his mind trapped inside a dead body. Wendal can do nothing but watch as Sycamore turns him into a serial killer. Until the magicians take an interest in him.

Preserving Wendal’s body and trapping Sycamore inside it, the magicians now have the perfect assassin at their disposal. Whenever they need an enemy removed, they can set the killer loose on Old Castle…. Wendal struggles to piece together the remnants of his old life…A supernatural storm is raging across the wasteland. It has already destroyed one city, and now is heading for Old Castle. And the only one who might prevent oblivion is the murderous entity who the spirits are calling Sycamore.

Epic Fantasy is BIG you know!  The fate of worlds, heroes’ journeys and often a lot of walking from place to place. When it’s great it’s powerful and the worldbuilding really takes you to places you never could imagine. When it’s not quite right it’s dry, repetitive and stodgy. Indeed, many stories seem to need more than one book to tell a saga’s tale. But the idea of an epic standalone novel is not a contradiction in terms and historically not that radical an idea even Lord of the Rings was really one book divided up originally. Edward Cox who wrote one of my most enjoyable fantasy trilogies the Relic Guild has created a single tale of decay, loss, revenge and lost love.

Welcome to Urdezha – a world where life has continued despite the natural order of things. The humans here have changed and rechanged their lifespans; cannibalised pretty much anything outside their cities so much there is hardly anything alive out there and what remains will want to kill you. This a curious hybrid world of magic and technology with defence shields and trains but also where ghosts and spells work too. The link between the two is the mysterious substance of ether that powers both. Reflecting this blend of worlds is the ongoing underground battle between the two factions continually fighting for power in this near dead world The Magicians and The Scientists. Both ruthless in how they achieve their goals; both as powerful as each other and a stalemate looks to be forever. That is until the dead body of Wendal Finn arrives walking back in town…

Wendal Finn left the City as a conscripted soldier to spend a term protecting this from the clans that want to attack the cities. But Wendal died he was possessed by something calling itself Sycamore. Sycamore is an entity that exists for finding the spirits of murder victims; hearing their tale and giving their spirits rest and justice by killing the murderer. Try to attack Wendal’s body and you’ll fail as Sycamore’s power protects it (but it hurts!); however the Magicians place a trap and soon Wendal is partially freed to live in the world again but as and when required he must release Sycamore’s spirit to attack one of the Magician’s rivals as very few of those don’t have blood on their hands. But Wendal is still far more interested in how when he came back, he found his wife dead (apparently at her own hand) and he is not going to stop until he finds the truth whatever the Magicians try to make him do.

As you can tell this is a very different tale to the standard quest/giant battle between good and evil and it’s ambition I think should rightly be praised.  You’re not arriving in the standard fantasy set up and that’s quite a jarring experience for the reader as the standard rules of the genre we tend to expect are not quite playing out as we would anticipate. It reminds me strangely much more of those Eastwood westerns where a mysterious stranger arrives in town; plays factions off each other and there is a strange sense of supernatural justice lurking behind things. We are in an interesting mix of gangland battle and a murder mystery as we try and find out how Wendal’s wife Eden died; how Wendal got possessed and what or who is threatening the city.  And as that all feels new you don’t know quite what to expect – which for my tastes in fantasy is always enjoyable!

The other factor I really enjoyed about this novel is Cox’s writing style. It’s pulsing with energy that keeps powering on the story. Although this is a world past it’s sell by date it is not going staidly into the night – it’s got storms, extra-large wild animals; fast paced fight scenes and even in the quieter scenes an emotional power as Wendal tries desperately to find out the truth about his wife and himself  The inner and outer turmoil of each are reflecting in each other.  The giant city of Old Castle is used a lot from universities to gamble dens and we rarely stay in any place for long. The curious mix of magic and technology (which was a factor I also loved in The Relic Guild) makes you feel you’re in a fantasy universe millennia past the faux middle ages where many stories reside. For quite a large novel you never feel you’re treading water and to mix things up Cox jumps from past to future in character’s lives bouncing where necessary between the distinctive voices of Wendal and Sycamore, so it never feels like it is running out of energy.

Characters is where the book moves away from the traditional large cast we associate with the Epics.  It’s relatively small with Wendal (fearful; despondent and angry) and Sycamore (aloof; amoral and inhuman) being central to the story   We also get Nel his rogue bar tender friend and sharer of intoxicating substances and the mysterious Magician Dyonne – effectively Wendal’s handler who makes it clear who is in charge. How these characters work together or against each other is the crux of the plot and no one comes out innocent here. It could be tempting to say ‘ah all sounds like Grimdark’; but I would say that would be a false assumption. This feels like it adds to my ongoing suspicion that elements of Grimdark are now being taken absorbed within wider fantasy tales without too much straying into the grey side of the force. Here a grimy amoral world exists but the story isn’t really about the way power corrupts its more about someone trying to pay for his guilt over the loss of his wife that he was not around to help. Sycamore as he discovers more about what he is and where he is from adds a different dimension to the story, one you’d find more in common with Moorcock than Abercrombie.  I don’t think it’s for everyone although the fate of the city is in Sycamore’s hands this is not leading to a huge massive battlefield encounter but a much more intimate and personal ending

A novel this kept reminding me of is Ed McDonald’s Blackwing that mixes weird words, technology and a main character that seemed quite angst-ridden. The fact this novel is standalone means not all threads are tied up, but I loved the personal closure aspect of the tale rather than the standard toppling of regimes. Sycamore allows an opportunity for change but there is no guarantee and perhaps no likelihood that people will take it fully and it’s the story of Wendal and Eden that I cared more about in the end.  If you like your epic fantasy to be weird, personal and surprising then this is the type of novel you should be hunting down fast.