The Bonehunters by Steven EriksonApril 4, 2011 at 1:59 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment
Tags: Steven Erikson
The sixth book in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, The Bonehunters, is the third set in Seven Cities, following Deadhouse Gates and House of Chains. It is also the first not to introduce any major new storylines. Narrative convergence has finally begun and the cluster of storylines from Seven Cities have been merged with those from the Genabackis novels Gardens of the Moon and Memories of Ice. While most of the characters from the series’ fifth novel Midnight Tides do not appear, by the end of Bonehunters the story is well on its way to bringing those in as well.
At this point in the series, it is easy to recommend. If you haven’t read any of the Malazan books, start with the excellent Gardens of the Moon, not here. If you aren’t going to like Bonehunters then it’s extremely unlikely you liked the first five books enough to get to this point. As you would expect in book six of a ten book series, not a whole lot gets resolved, and my usual practice of reviewing series rather than their individual novels seems like a good idea at this point. But since I’ve already been reviewing these books individually, it’s worth considering how Bonehunters develops the ongoing concerns of the Malazan series and the degree to which it shares the flaws and virtues of the earlier books, at least as I see them.
More so than previous books in the series, Bonehunters gets off to a distinctly slow start. The first third of the novel reintroduces dozens of characters from previous books and sets them in motion. Characters are traveling every which way on the Seven Cities continent, and since mapmaking is apparently a popular pastime for the series’ hardcore fans, it would be interesting to see an animation of the various characters and groups of characters criss-crossing the continent with their journeys. Much of the content of these traveling scenes takes the form of introspection, as characters think about where they’ve been (probably to help readers who didn’t recently read the previous books), where they are now, and what they hope to be doing in the future.
It would be easy to overstate the problem here. It’s not boring, exactly. Erikson’s characters are thoughtful and have interesting observations. But in a series this long, for someone like myself who has been reading these books in a relatively short time period, it’s inevitable there’s some repetition. How many times have characters in these books looked at the landscape around them and meditated on how the passage of time has laid low cities and wrought many changes while still leaving evidence of the ancient patterns? More pragmatically, much of the first half of the book is spent with the titular Bonehunters, and their concerns are much the same as they were in House of Chains: the poor morale of the army, uncertainties about its commander, and so forth. The plot doesn’t help matters, for like several previous novels in the series there is a big set piece battle in the middle of the book, and the novel’s climax is such a direct echo of Deadhouse Gates that it must have been intentional: Laseen is confronted over her conduct (though a rather different conclusion is reached than in Deadhouse) and again Kalam has to have a cartoonish battle with dozens of disposable Claw ninjas in Malaz City.
Perhaps my biggest problem with the introspect moments is they tend to emphasize one of my least favorite elements of the series, namely the way the characters so often seem weakly motivated. Why do Apsalar and Cutter work for Cotillion? Why is Fiddler still in the army? What is Kalam doing with his life now that he’s out of it? Where is Karsa Orlong going? The characters themselves wonder about these questions to varying extents, which is never a good sign. Since one of the series’ principal themes seems to be humans standing up to their gods and seizing their destiny, it’s frustrating not to see a little more, well, seizing.
This notion of character motivations is an interesting one in light of the fact many of them are in the Malazan army. Fundamental to military service throughout history has been the abdication of agency. A soldier follows orders and therefore does not have the freedom, or the burden, of deciding what to do. Although Bonehunters spends a lot of time portraying the life of the ordinary soldier, it rarely shows the compulsive side of military service (making a joke of it, for example, when Ganoes Paran is mistaken for a deserter). Veterans like Fiddler and Gesler are frequently presented with opportunities to desert without any consequences. As these characters have some contact with the overarching high fantasy storyline, returning to the army and remaining subject to its discipline is to some degree an endorsement of the Adjunct’s objectives, and by extension those of Empress Laseen and the Malazan Empire as a whole. Fiddler, understandably, finds the choice difficult, for he doesn’t have even remotely enough information to judge Laseen, nor does the reader. Militaries in the real world can sometimes seem mysterious because their actions are the output of vast bureaucracies, but in the Malazan army the confusion stems from the leadership. The Adjunct is a mystery to everyone, and Laseen even more so. When Kalam confronted her at the end of Deadhouse Gates, Laseen seemed like some sort of mastermind. Confronted again in the similar scene at the end of Bonehunters, she seems weak and desperate, helpless in the hands of malicious advisors. Which portrait is more accurate? Who knows? Later books will settle the question, I assume.
Of course, not all the characters are aimless. Ironically, Icarium, a character who is defined by aimless wandering, finally gets a purpose in this book, and his scenes are some of the most entertaining. But the ruminations of the purposeful characters are even more frustrating since Erikson isn’t willing to give the reader more than the tiniest hint of what they know and what they are trying to do. Quick Ben, for instance, is full of plans as always, none of which are ever communicated to the reader. Ganoes Paran arrives in Seven Cities and is at the center of some of the book’s best scenes, but exactly what he knows and what he’s trying to accomplish tends to stay vague. In Memories of Ice, I was surprised I found it exciting when characters got together and talked about things. The reason, which I partially understood at the time, is that these conversations forced their motivations, ideas, and goals out into the open instead of being hoarded away from the reader’s view. This doesn’t happen often in Bonehunters, with characters sometimes going to improbable lengths to avoid cluing the reader into what’s happening (I’m thinking here of when Kalam, Fiddler, Apsalar, and Quick Ben are all traveling together and do their best to avoid talking to each other about their plans). I’m well aware of the narrative principle involved here. In a heist film, often the viewer isn’t told the plan, lest it become boring watching it actually carried out. But when this information is concealed over thousands of pages and dozens of viewpoint characters, it’s hard not to feel a little resentful toward the author, fair or not.
The differences in these two types of characters stem from the way the novel combines high fantasy and low fantasy. People like Quick Ben and Ganoes Paran are living in a high fantasy story as they struggle against the Crippled God and his allies. The soldiers of the Fourteenth Army, many of whom are colorfully fleshed out in the early parts of the novel, are in a low fantasy story about a military campaign. This allows us to view some of the same events from two very different angles, but it does make it that much more difficult for the myriad viewpoints to coalesce in the reader’s mind. The high fantasy characters tend to have strong motivations and clear goals, but they do their best to hide them from others, including the reader. The low fantasy characters are caught up in their machinations and wondering if they should be trying to free themselves, but they know even less than the reader about what’s going on.
The battle at Y’Ghatan is in the middle of the book, but it serves as something of a climax to the low fantasy side of Bonehunters. Certainly it brings the questions about motivation into sharp relief. Why are the soldiers risking their lives attacking Y’Ghatan? Is the rebellion in Seven Cities really a going concern? Leoman’s army is plagued by the same questions. Their rebellion has clearly failed, so what is there to fight for? Leoman, of course, produces a startling answer. The resulting battle is another of example of one of Erikson’s recurring motifs, the battle as hellscape. Y’Ghatan is a rather more literal manifestation of this than Pale and Capustan, though the effect is somewhat diminished by the repetition. The Fourteenth Army finds in Y’Ghatan the fires of hell, and the survivors must journey through what is again a literal underworld in order to escape. This, it is implied, is the sort of event that may forge the Fourteenth into something more than just a ragtag army. The Bridgeburners apparently had it easy: they just had to walk through Raraku. The idea that collective identities can ascend toward the divine just as individuals can is one of the most interesting in the Malazan series, and the contrast between the Bridgeburners and the Bonehunters raises the question: just what is required, here? Why isn’t it happening all the time? The mechanics of this is vague, as is everything magical in the Malazan series, and the scenes where Paran summons the ghosts of fallen soldiers muddy the waters still further.
I suppose I’ll have to wait for to find these answers until I read the concluding novels of the series. Certainly Steven Erikson said as much when he was responding to what I wrote about some of the earlier books in the series, feeling that it was presumptuous to speak about the themes of the series without seeing how they are fully developed. While the character of Ormulogun, official artist of Onearm’s Host, and his arguments with his “critic” Grumble are clearly a humorous take on the relationship of an author to his critics, Bonehunters also provides another model. In Deadhouse Gates, much was made about the importance of Duiker surviving to tell the story of the Chain of Dogs, although I was much less enthusiastic about this, assuming it would merely fuel more bloodshed. In Bonehunters we find that in Seven Cities, the Chain of Dogs is worshipped by a growing cult made up of the very rebels who once hated and feared it. In the Malazan Empire, on the other hand, slander has taken root which blames the Wickans in general and Coltaine in particular for the disasters that struck the Chain of Dogs and the army at Aren, resulting in vicious pogroms against Wickans. Only the survivors of Coltaine’s army in the Fourteenth know better. Duiker’s mission to tell the world the truth about what happened seems to have been a miserable failure. What are we to make of this? Is every historian helpless in the face of the biases and ulterior motives of readers? The answer is important because, with apologies to Ian Esslemont, surely the preeminent historian of the Malazan Empire is Steven Erikson.