Sam Sykes: Fear, Love, And Fantasy Fiction

This is a guest post by Sam Sykes. 

I don’t know how he got in here.

Please call 911.

* * *

What was the first fantasy book you got hooked on?

Go ahead. Think back on it. I’ll wait.

I see your fingers hovering over the keyboard, trembling like they did the first time you ever touched a high school crush. They’re probably all sweaty, too. Gross, but understandable, because I bet each and every one of you had a thought that you might be embarrassed by what you’re about to type.

Maybe you were about to type The Belgariad by David Eddings. Maybe you were about to type Legend by David Gemmell. Maybe you were about to type Dragons of Spring Dawning by Weis & Hickman.

And just maybe you were a little bit embarrassed by it.

That’s okay. I’m not judging. For the very longest time, I was embarrassed by this stuff, too. When I first got published and people asked who my influences were, I thought the answer I wanted to give would sound…what? Childish, maybe? Not serious? Illegitimate? Whatever it was, I hastily mumbled some generic catch-all Tolkien titles that I thought would fit the bill and changed the conversation.

For some reason, I was really terrified by the thought of people knowing I used to read Drizzt novels.

Yeah. Drizzt. Lonely outcast of drow society, rejected by both the surface world and his own kind. Driven to good in a world that expects him to do bad. Wields a pair of badass scimitars and throws his magic cat at a thousand orcs while fighting three-headed liches while being watched on by sexy frost giants holy shit what am I saying.

I don’t really blame myself for being worried about what people might think about me for that. I feel like a lot of fantasy — readers and writers alike — have this latent fear of not being taken seriously. We’re mocked by mainstream literature, we’re made fun of by a lot of press, the word “nerd” is still (rarely) thrown around as an insult.

Basically, I think a lot of people are already embarrassed by fantasy without us being embarrassed by ourselves.

It took me three books to arrive at this conclusion. Three books of trying to figure out how to be edgy, how to be tough, how to really, really change this genre so that it would finally be taken seriously (because naturally, I surmised, who else would do it but me)?

And at the end of those three books? I think I kind of missed Drizzt.

I mean, I liked what came out of this era of fantasy: I loved the morally ambiguous characterization and the political intrigue and whatnot, but I was growing increasingly burnt out on cynicism and bleakness and hatred.

I missed swordfights. I missed monsters. I missed magic cats and badass scimitars. I missed three-headed liches and sexy frost giants. I missed magic and mayhem and I missed witty banter and romance. I missed being excited by fantasy.

True, those aspects aren’t for everyone. And it’s true that there are some skeezy elements of older style fantasy: whitewashed casts, unnervingly rigid morality systems, women characters who don’t get to do much, a rather alarming pattern of justifying the mass slaughter of other races.

These aspects, I am keen to leave behind and not revisit.

But there’s a certain thrill to some aspects of fantasy that I think a lot of people put behind them for fear of appearing childish, juvenile, immature, whatever. And somehow, they’re the aspects that sounded great when I wrote them down. If I could get those again, while leaving all the gross parts behind, I think I’d have something nice.

This is what I thought when I started writing The City Stained Red.

I wanted to write something that made me happy again. I wanted to do all the stuff I love doing: fights and awkward relationships and monsters and demons and magic and shit going wrong and people trying to do the right thing and sometimes failing and exploring lost civilizations and treasure and all that cool crap.

So I did.

And it was pretty great. The City Stained Red is my strongest work yet and I’m amazingly proud of it.

And somehow, it wasn’t shallow. It wasn’t immature. It wasn’t not serious. It was me. It fit.

So, now I want to ask you this: when’s the last time you had that same feeling?

We, as authors, always give the same advice to aspiring writers: “Write what makes you happy! Write for yourself!” And that’s good advice. And it’s damned easy advice to put into practice if you don’t consider all this other stuff.

I mean, even if we weren’t considering the mainstream heckling of fantasy, there are other aspects to consider. We don’t write in a vacuum: we’re always considering what else is out there, how we’re going to leave our mark. And leaving a mark is arguably the most important thing a writer needs to do past getting enough money to feed themselves.

And speaking of money, “write for yourself” is a strong sentiment, but “write what gets you paid” is also pretty hard to argue with.

But for as deep a conversation as this could get and for as much as we can talk about improving ourselves as writers and making careers out of writing, we should also focus on the most important question.

Does writing make us happy?

Does the thought of not writing terrify us?

Or does it not even occur to us because what the fuck else would we do?

These are questions that demand honest answers. And the honest answer must come from another question: what do you love? What do you have to write? What story must you absolutely tell?

And why haven’t you written it yet?

I’m sure there are a lot of answers to that last bit. But we really can’t afford to go into them. I’m running out of time and eventually Chuck will wander back here and wonder A) how I got into his house, B) what I’m doing on his computer and C) what’s all this pink stuff I’m covered in.

So I want you to be honest with yourself. I want you to find out what you’re afraid of and what you love. And then I want you to write about it. And then I want you to keep writing until it is done. I want you to do this for yourself.

And if you get it published, that’d be nice, too. I’d like to read it.

* * *

Sam Sykes is the fantasy novelist who covered himself in some kind of pink slurry that he used as a lubricant to shunt his way through Chuck Wendig’s ductwork, like some grease-besodden John McClane. He is tired of your bullshit and likes pugs but not in the way you want him to like pugs, y’know, it’s not a love thing, so stop sending him all those pug figurines for that glass menagerie of pug figurines you think he has but he doesn’t have, you presumptive person, you. Also, Sam Sykes is not writing this bio, but Chuck Wendig is writing this bio, so whatever, sucker.

Sam is the author of the newly released The City Stained Red: 

A long-exiled living god arises.

A city begins to break apart at the seams.

Lenk and his battle-scarred companions have come to Cier’Djaal in search of Miron Evanhands, a wealthy priest who contracted them to eradicate demons — and then vanished before paying for the job.

But hunting Miron down might be tougher than even these weary adventurers can handle as two unstoppable religious armies move towards all-out war, tensions rise within the capital’s cultural melting pot, and demons begin to pour from the shadows…

And Khoth Kapira, the long-banished living god, has seen his chance to return and regain dominion over the world.

Now all that prevents the city from tearing itself apart in carnage are Lenk, Kataria, a savage human-hating warrior, Denaos, a dangerous rogue, Asper, a healer priestess, Dreadaeleon, a young wizard, and Gariath, one of the last of the dragonmen.

This book is presently a mere $1.99 (?!) in e-formats:

The City Stained Red: Amazon | B&N | Kobo

Sam Sykes: Website | Twitter 


  • First, I just purchased your book and I am looking forward to reading it.

    Second, This part: So I want you to be honest with yourself. I want you to find out what you’re afraid of and what you love. And then I want you to write about it. And then I want you to keep writing until it is done. I want you to do this for yourself.

    Whew. I write between 2,000 and 4,000 words a day and to be brutally honest, what I am afraid of and what I love rarely makes it on to the page. Not sure why that is, but it is probably my biggest challenge right now.

  • The book looks intriguing! And the first fantasy books I got hooked on were Dragonriders of Pern and the Xanth series. Yes really. So nobody else needs to be embarrassed now. >_<

    • It’s a wide world (or, uh, worlds?) out there. Lots to experience, and we shan’t shun reading this oft-maligned book. Just don’t, y’know, stop there. Keep reading!

  • I read Tolkien and Le Guin, and Leiber and Moorcock, who seem to be respectable authors to like, but they weren’t necessarily my bread and butter as a reader. Starting in high school, I loved the SF of CJ Cherryh, who often gets overlooked when people talk about influential authors. I’d say that she’s possibly had the greatest influence in some ways, because I loved the way she tended to sink you in the pov and perceptions of the main character/characters (in the 80s, many writers wrote in a more omniscient style now, or at least in a style of third that wasn’t as character driven as what is common now).

    But I also read a lot of Mercedes Lackey and Anne McCaffrey, and a whole lot of less well known fantasy writers from the 80s and 90s.

    People, even other fantasy fans and writers, always pull disapproving faces when I say I liked Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey, but I went through a phase where I devoured everything they wrote. I’m sure it’s influenced me in some ways, though no one’s ever said I write like them.

    For some reason, whenever there’s a thread about influences in a fantasy writers’ forum, people start tossing out all kinds of writers who don’t even write fantasy. I had to read Shakespeare, and Twain, and Hemingway, and Joyce in school too, and I even liked some of it. But I have never aspired to write like them, so I don’t really think of them as influencing me as writers the way my favorite fantasy and SF authors did.

  • October 30, 2014 at 6:44 AM // Reply

    Great post Sam!
    The first book I ever loved was not an epic fantasy. It sort if an urban fantasy that’s become pretty popular since first read it. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan was my first fantasy love.

  • What little fantasy I’ve read hasn’t influenced me. My one unforgettable was Mists of Avalon. It’s embarrassing to admit, and I don’t care. I said it. It’s out.

    I am a writer, no doubt. What do I write? Good question. My biggest fears: I can’t write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. They swirl around in my head – they’re ideas, not really stories. Maybe I’m not a writer who is supposed to tell a story. I don’t know. It’s the first time in my life I’ve put fingers to keyboard and committed to writing each morning for the past three months. I haven’t missed a stroke. The words have been musings and mostly vomit. I write ideas floating about on a memoir I’m working on about my relationship with my mother at the end of her life.

    I love reading and writing letters. I’ve expanded my reading in hopes that it will inspire me to begin my own story telling.

  • I loved this post. I loved that you brought the shame of reading fantasy to light. I’m shaking my head as I read about other people’s embarrassment about their favourite authors. I’m cringing at my own embarrassment. But I loved Weiss and Hickman, McCaffrey, David Eddings, Piers Anthony, etc… I loved them all!
    But it is hard to admit to others what we’re passionate about. And I think your post is right on about how we need to write what we’re passionate about, to not be worried what others think. This is something I definitely need to work on.
    Thank you for the inspiring post. I’m off to buy your book now.

  • I love this!

    I don’t write or read much fantasy (I found my way to this blog via my author crush, Margaret Atwood) but I understand sooooooooo well the feeling of wanting to lie about the books and authors who woke our passions and needs to write.

    For me, it was V.C. Andrews. (Ouch! Admitting that hurt!)

    I read Flowers In The Attic at twelve years old and I was reborn. Parts of me felt feelings I didn’t know existed, and parts of me existed that I didn’t know could feel, and thoughts grew in my garden brain that felt as foreign as aliens or decaffeinated coffee.

    Who was this author? What was this power that could make me new? Make me more concrete and more malleable, all at once??

    I devoured her books for an entire year, wrote her letters and held back tears when she didn’t write back words of surprised admiration for my insightful observations and flowing sentences. Then held back more tears when she didn’t even write back at all.

    Eventually I moved on, reading other more eclectic (and less obsessed with incest!) authors.

    And I was writing. From the moment I read V.C. Andrews, I was writing. I had to.

    So, yes, I’ve been known to throw away answers like “J.D. Salinger” and “John Steinbeck” or “Margaret Laurence” when asked about my beginning, my budding desires to write. Because, seriously…. V.C. Andrews???

    Now when I write, I write what I love. I dive in and have so much mother loving fun that I can only imagine changing the world and waking up the feelings and parts of readers around the globe, to thundering appreciation and gifts of caffeinated shade grown organic fair trade coffee!!

    My writing isn’t like V.C. Andrews, but the feelings I get and the love I have for the story and tangled emotions my characters fall into are like what she gave me as a twelve year old girl falling in love with the process.

    What a foolish thing, to be embarrassed of that.
    Thank-you for reminding me!!

    RANDOM ADDITION: I hope you’ve washed off the pink goopy stuff, but I also hope you don’t mind us imagining you reading the comments while still dripping with it. It’s just too fun of an image! Chuck is maybe dancing around you with a roll of paper towels, offering hurried and almost desperate “are you done?” type questions. If he’s bothering you, tell him to go out and buy a new desk chair. This one has pink goopy stuff on it. tee hee!

  • Does it sound like I’m attempting to make a lame joke if my response to what fantasy writer first got me hooked is ‘your mom’? It does, doesn’t it? Damn it. Still true though.

    Also: “Or does it not even occur to us because what the fuck else would we do?” <—— This.Very much this.

  • One of the things that got me writing short stories was a desire to write the kind of fiction that really jazzed me when I started reading this stuff. Only I recognize with wiser eyes now how problematic some of that was. Conan, for example, was great, adventurous stuff but it had these overtones of sexism and racism that make it less enjoyable for me today. Could I write a Conan-like story that kept all the things I liked without including the things I didn’t? Would I, and hopefully a broader spectrum of readers, enjoy those stories as much as I enjoyed Conan when I first encountered him? I’m still writing and still discovering the answers to those questions.

  • “The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle was my first true introduction to fantasy. Tolkien’s works came a few years later. I still occasionally read a Drizzt book (although I prefer Jarlaxle).

    Sam, your book sounds fantastic, and it’s available at a screaming good price right now, so count me in. I’m ready to have some fun – with or without pugs.

  • My memory isn’t what it used to be, but the two strongest contenders for my first fantasy books were both series: The Saga of Pliocene Exile by Julian May, or The Sime/Gen series by Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Jean Lorrah. First read them all out of order, of course — book #3 by May and book #2 by Lichtenberg. Both were instant lifelong favorites that I re-read every couple of years. Those led to Tanith Lee and Thomas Burnett Swann and Manly Wade Wellman and a thousand others I fell in love with.

    And I’ve never stopped.

  • The first fantasy book and the book that got me hooked for good – over 40 years now – was Katherine Kurtz’s “Deryni Rising” and I still reread my favorite Deryni books to this day. I loved your post and wanted to buy your book… but… it’s not available in Canada??? *insert frowny face*

    Drizzt, BTW, is my son’s (he’s 28) absolute favourite, no matter what he reads, he goes back to Drizzt. 🙂

  • October 30, 2014 at 1:27 PM // Reply

    Firstly, not gonna lie and no regrets: it was The Hobbit.

    Shortly afterwards it was the old Doc Savage books my dad had buried in an old cardboard box like boyhood nerd treasure.

    I wanted to write something that made me happy again. I wanted to do all the stuff I love doing: fights and awkward relationships and monsters and demons and magic and shit going wrong and people trying to do the right thing and sometimes failing and exploring lost civilizations and treasure and all that cool crap.

    YES, THIS.

    Readers don’t read books because they mess with the genre or advance it or break its fourth wall (I’m looking at you, Magician’s trilogy). They read them because they love them, and they probably love them the same reasons you do.

  • Mine was definitely Dragons Of Autumn Twilight by Weis & Hickman. I had read other fantasy books before this one, but it was Weis & Hickman who turned me into a solid fantasy addict. Raistlin Majere is still my all time favorite character. I also blame them for filling up my head with all these fantasy stories of my own that I’m forced to sit down every day and write or else I might explode. And seriously, nobody wants to have to clean that up out of the carpet. Also, I’m going directly to Amazon to buy City Stained Red because it sounds awesome.

  • Mine was The Belgariad and I’m tickled fuschia that you mentioned it! I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of Drizzt, but will definitely check it out.

    In other news, great post! I’m in a strange state of mind on my current WiP. I vacillate wildly between “OMG THIS SUCKS” and “I LOVE THIS” and “It’s not too bad” and “THE HELL AM I DOING?” Can’t even let myself dream that it will ever be published at this point.

    So, that’s happening.

  • For me I think it was actually Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series which I found in the elementary school library. (I am old.) Then Tolkien and Moorcock and others, and I still have my first edition Dragonlance trilogy. Never quite got around to Drizzt, but I did read Gary Gygax’ entire Gord the Rogue series, for better or worse.

  • Great post! I have no idea why so many people are embarrassed of either writing or reading fantasy. I just heard a guy talk about changing his name on his book simply because he was embarrassed he wrote a fantasy book. I love fantasy; I write it, read it and bleed it. This book sounds great and I’m glad the tiny box of what’s considered ‘fantasy’ is being expanded and shattered every day, because it’s the root of a lot of what people write, read and love (plus, 1.99 is a complete steal for this kind of book). Thank you for the post.

  • Great post and a wicked sell. Brings back nostalgia and the fun of D&D. It didn’t even need the curious pink lubricant. Though… I’m not gonna lie, that did help. And $2.99 for a Sam Sykes book? Fuck yeah.

    Alas I go to buy said book and then…


    Usually awesome. Except for books and digital stuff. Then it seems we have to ‘wait,’ as it takes time for data to fly North.

    *twiddles thumbs*

  • Change a few words, and this becomes the exact same essay on science fiction and the only real difference is that it is even more dead on. (Is that possible?)

    Dammit, I like exploding spaceships. How I long for a Lensman Arms Race as of old. (With, of course, the same caveat about letting EVERYBODY have a turn, not just the Noble White Guys.) The arms race between Haven and Manticore is the closest I’ve seen lately, and man those books ask for a lot of grinding to get to the good parts.

    Bring it! Let’s have some fun. And remember, you can’t make an omelet without trashing a few kingdoms’ worth of eggs. (Or the occasional solar system.)

    Incidentally, because I hate you and yet I love you: Lensman Arms Race

  • Definitely The Hobbit, the Prydain Series by Lloyd Alexander, and Anne McCaffry and various other paperbacks my mum had in her collection which was sizable.

    I then read the Belagariad which was so awful and badly written to this 14 year old as I was at the time it put me off fantasy for years and I moved on to pulps, spy novels, and thrillers – Robert Ludlum, Desmond Bagley, Dick Francis, Alistair McClean etc

  • I confess I’m one of the unwashed masses… my first real fantasy thrill came from THE DRESDEN FILES by Jim Butcher. I picked up STORM FRONT on the advice of a friend… and kept picking up each book in quick succession. I have been filling out my fantasy classics résumé in the last couple years, though, and am currently working through THE MALLOREAN by David Eddings.

  • The Hobbit, then Xanth. Never made it to Drizzt, but enjoyed Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance books. Terry Brooks was an early fave as well. But the Belgariad and Lawrence Watt-Evans’ “The Misenchanted Sword” have been my comfort reading for 30 years. I probably reread them yearly.

  • I know I am waaaaaay late on this, but I can’t remember what really got me into fantasy. I know I loved to read and was into D&D and enjoyed the…
    Holy shit.
    It was Choose Your Own Adventure books that got me started.
    I remember now like it was yesterday. I got into reading those books that told you to turn to page this or page that, and advanced to the Lone Wolf series that told you to go to parts of the continuing story, (e.g. section 230 could be on page 150.) I loved D&D but one day discovered Warhammer and it was over, I am at 41 years of age still immersed in this world, such a great history there in fantasy and here in my real life. Uh? Shit! Which is which?

  • Update… Today I got a notification in my email that THE CITY STAINED RED was available from and it was on sale for $1.99. *happy dancing* It’s now in my e-reader!

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