Today I’m really excited to be helping to finish up the blog tour for the new book from the fantastic Edward Cox, The Song of the Sycamore!
Book: The Song of the Sycamore by Edward Cox
Read before: No
Ownership: E-ARC sent via NetGalley free of charge. All opinions my own.
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 Castle, 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.
The clans are massing. A supernatural storm is raging across the wasteland. It has already destroyed one city, and now it is heading for Old Castle. And the only one who might prevent oblivion is the murderous entity who the spirits are calling Sycamore.
I can’t remember the last time I read an adult standalone fantasy novel – at least not one published this side of 2000 – so I was really excited to see how The Song of the Sycamore would pan out in terms of story. I love a series, don’t get me wrong, but knowing everything needs to be wrapped up at the end (at least semi-satisfactorily!) makes the dynamics of a book very different. The stakes here are still high – we have a city isolated from the wasteland around it, controlled by two factions that are constantly seeking to undermine each other: the Scientists, who believe magic is a resource to be shaped and used by all, and the Magicians, who believe it is an arcane secret that only the initiated should be allowed to know. The city of Old Castle itself is a mess of violence, and many citizens have been permanently damaged by their enforced time in the city’s army, patrolling the wastelands. Into this, add a spirit who can provide vengeance for the ghosts of the murdered and a storm that threatens the very existence of the city, and well, it’s going to get intense.
The Song of the Sycamore is, at its heart, built around a murder mystery – or rather, a suicide mystery. Wendal Finn may no longer be entirely himself, host as he is to the mysterious spirit Sycamore, but he retains enough to know he needs to find out what happened to his wife, Eden, who supposedly committed suicide just before Wendal returned from a harrowing army service with Sycamore in tow. He doesn’t think this sounds like Eden, and his need to know his wife’s fate is his driving motivation for most of the book. In a setting this grim, it’s really interesting to see a main character whose central feeling is not cynicism and irony, but loneliness. He’s trying to regain his happiness, rather than giving up and giving into the grimness. There’s a real feel of the classic noir mystery running through the early part of the book, as our would-be gumshoe fumbles through the underworld of the city for clues.
Wendall’s story is a slow burn to begin with, and you get a real sense of his frustration at how trapped his in all aspects of his life. There’s a fine line between creating mystery and leaving your reader confused, and The Song of the Sycamore walked just on the right side of it for me, but a less patient reader may find it takes too much concentration to work out what’s going on. In Part Three, around 60% of the way through, the pace kicks up a notch as we’re drawn back in time to see the events leading up to Wendall’s discovery of Sycamore, and after that memory is done, it’s a full-throttle ride until the end of the book. The flashback was definitely my favourite part of the book, as it fills in a lot of blanks about both Wendall and Sycamore, and has more of a classic fantasy adventure feel as we move through the wasteland.
There’s a really strong and diverse set of female characters in Wendall’s world, which is another unusual thing for the genre. In fact, male characters are pretty few and far between! Eden is more of a memory than a character, though she certainly has a lot of page time, but almost every major player in the book is a woman, from the inscrutable, could-kill-you-with-the-raise-of-an-eyebrow Dyonne Obor (who controls Sycamore, and therefore Wendall), to the power-mad survivalist August Jakob, to Wendall’s neighbour Nel, who has been deeply mentally scarred by her time in the wasteland. Even smaller parts like crimelords and informants are largely women. Dyonne has a male bodyguard, and there are a couple of shady male magicians (these parts would definitely be the only women in a book like this in the past). Very few of these roles needed to be a particular gender, and in a book of this tone even ten years ago, this would likely have been wholly the other way around, so I’m just taking a moment to appreciate this quiet but much-needed reversal.
This book would make an amazing video game. It almost feels like you’re playing one as it is: there are missions to be fulfilled, with each one leading to something new to check otu; characters who can help you if you help them; there are grand set-piece scenes where shocking information is revealed. If you love Dragon Age 2, the atmosphere of this should suit you very well! As with Dragon Age’s Kirkwall, Old Castle is a city at war with itself is always full of intrigue and backstabbing, and as with Hawke, you get the sense that Wendall has walked into the culmination of decades of issues. He’s very much a wrong place at the wrong time protagonist!
If you’ve been looking for a smart standalone fantasy, and love a bit of grimdark worldbuilding, you can’t go far wrong with this. For me, it gets four out of five cats!