Reaper’s Gale by Steven Erikson

April 14, 2011 at 1:33 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment
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Reaper's Gale coverI suspect that reader reaction to Reaper’s Gale depends largely on how one feels about Midnight Tides.  I thought Midnight Tides was one of the better Malazan books, and within the series Reaper’s Gale can be thought of as a sequel.  It continues that book’s story of the Tiste Edur and the Letherii while finally bringing it together with the characters from other books like the Adjunct’s army.  To boil it down to just a sentence, the story is about the battle to control the hybrid Edur/Letherii Empire.  Beyond that, well, I normally don’t spend a lot of time summarizing stories and this book has such a sprawling story that it defies summarization anyway.  Suffice to say, this is another entry in The Malazan Book of the Fallen and if you’ve read the previous books you know more or less what that involves.  If not, read Gardens of the Moon and see what you think.

I seem to have something of an odd/even pattern with this series.  I loved the first book, Gardens of the Moon, and really enjoyed the third, the fifth, and now this, the seventh.  The three even numbered books, beginning with Deadhouse Gates, I’ve been a little cooler on.  Although it was my favorite of those three, I thought even Bonehunters moved too slowly, especially in its first half.  I’m not sure that Reaper’s Gale moves any faster but I liked it more.  The difference, I suppose, is the injection of characters and situations from Midnight Tides, plus some interesting new elements like Redmask’s rebellion and the Tiste Edur officials struggling to assert control over Letherii society.  Despite the huge variety of viewpoints and storylines, I was always interested in what would happen next.  I can’t say for sure without going back and laboriously counting, but I think Reaper’s Gale might have the largest cast of any Malazan book yet.  The huge character list is also incredibly diverse: mixed in with the usual grumbling soldiers, secretive mages, and scheming politicians are characters like Shurq Elalle who were primarily used for comedic effect in Midnight Tides but now provide a new perspective on the other characters.  I think my favorite Malazan books are the ones like Memories of Ice and Reaper’s Gale where a lot of characters meet each other.  This is an odd criteria, but as I discussed when talking about Bonehunters, it’s these meetings that really move the story forward in the series.

Whenever you have an enormous fantasy book with a ton of viewpoints, an important question is whether it all comes together in the ending.  With Reaper’s Gale, the answer is: sort of.  Most of the storylines resolve, but instead of all tying together it’s messy and complicated.  Yet this is, if anything, a virtue.  This is a messy and complicated book, it’s true, but one thing you can say without a doubt about the series as a whole is that it believes that life itself is messy and complicated.  If everything was tied up in a beautiful bow the way, say, Brandon Sanderson wraps up his novels, it would betray the essence of the series.  And that’s not a slam on Sanderson, by the way.  His books see the world through a rationalist lens and their stories reflect that beautifully.  The Malazan series depicts a chaotic world, and fittingly the narrative itself is shot through with chaos.

From the beginning, however, the series has constantly set out one organizing principle: unveiling power invites convergence, something extremely dangerous and unpredictable.  The ending to Reaper’s Gale is perhaps the best example of this yet.  In the series’ early books, characters said that no god can directly rule a mortal empire because doing so would be such an overt display of power that it would cause a devastating convergence.  Well, as described in Midnight Tides, the Crippled God has put a mortal puppet, Rhulad Sengar, on the throne of a powerful empire, and sure enough, by the end of Reaper’s Gale there has been an at times literally earth-shattering convergence. Characters from almost every one of the book’s divergent storylines end up in the city of Letheras.  Again, in a typical fantasy epic, the author would attempt to give each character a part to play in the climax.  Erikson has way too many characters involved to make that work, and he wisely doesn’t try.  Each character gets a scene or two in the final chapters, but the climactic showdown with Rhulad involves exactly one other character.  Dozens of other characters, most of whom were in one way or another trying to reach the Emperor, instead run into each other with unexpected (and generally calamitous) results.  Poor Rhulad, vaunted instrument of the Crippled God combining strength and weakness, turns out to be far less invincible than everyone supposed, leaving him merely weak.  There are probably at least a dozen gods, ascendants, and even mortals who are stronger than him just in Letheras by the end of the book.  Somehow, despite a metaphysical system in which abilities are never more than vaguely defined, the results of all these confrontations seem to make sense.

Needless to say, in a book this size I didn’t quite like everything.  I believe I have finally put my finger on what has been bothering me about the soldiers in this series.  When discussing previous books like Bonehunters I wondered about the way the veterans seem to exercise a great deal of choice.  After reading Reaper’s Gale I think my real problem is the motivations of the soldiers in general.  I’m not a historian, but from what I understand, the closest analogue to the Malazan system of armies would be the professional legions of the Roman Empire.  And while with any human endevor there will be a range of reasons, for the most part I think Roman professional soldiers, as the term professional implies, were fighting for pay.  Whenever there was political instability, after all, the way to shore up the loyalty of the armies was to raise their pay.  The Malazan Empire is relatively young and doesn’t have the Roman history of instability, so it’s understandable that their outlawed armies don’t declare Dujek and later the Adjunct their Emperor or Empress the way Roman armies in similar positions invariably did, but still you’d think they’d be fundamentally in it for the money.

Erikson does a good job portraying the day to day life of Malazan soldiers: the grumbling, the camaraderie, the boredom…but compensation is rarely discussed.  Soldiers gamble, so they get money from somewhere, but they rarely have any chance to spend money otherwise.  The army at Aren stayed quartered in the city, but this was presented as an anomaly.  Both Dujek’s and the Adjunct’s armies seem to be permanently on campaign, not even quartering for the winter.  Nor is there much mention of the mobile village that followed ancient armies around supplying them with food and vices.  In Reaper’s Gale, we see the Adjunct’s army taking a huge sea voyage and then fighting a guerrilla war across a ruined countryside.  Their previous campaign in Seven Cities was a lot of marching around in the middle of nowhere by themselves…no merchants, prostitutes, or other money sinks.  If the soldiers are getting paid, then they must be saving it all.  Many ancient armies didn’t pay their soldiers since they were expected to loot potentially large sums from captured cities, but we’re told explicitly that Malazan armies don’t do this, or at least are expected not to do it.  One final compensation for the typical Roman soldier was retirement: after a certain number of years, once the soldiers were too old to fight any longer, they were given money and land in the countryside.  Characters like Fiddler spend a lot of time thinking about “getting out” but they seem to mean desertion.  State-sponsored retirement is never mentioned, as far as I can remember.

Fittingly, given this payroll-free environment, every character’s back story that we learn about sounds similar: born into difficult circumstances, enlisting in the military was the best way to escape.  The exception are those who were fighting for some other army and joined the Malazans simply because they couldn’t think of anything else to do, like the former Seven Cities rebels Kalam, Quick Ben, and Corabb, all of whom end up joining the exact military unit they were previously fighting without ever coming up with a strong reason for doing so.  Having signed up for military service for what it was not, rather than anything it was going to give them, it’s not surprising these characters are confused about whether they should stay in the army.  On one hand, there’s the constant risk of injury and death, not to mention a great deal of privation.  On the other hand, the army is the only functional organization they’ve ever encountered and it allows them to hang out with their friends.

I’m not sure how realistic this image of soldier psychology is, but at least it mostly avoids glorifying warfare.  Whatever these people are, they aren’t heroes.  There has been a lot of discussion lately about the place of heroism in modern fantasy (Martin Lewis has a good summary).  I was interested, then, to see that the character Udinaas spends a lot of time using his present circumstances to illustrate the difference between stories told of heroes and how things really are.  This kind of thing goes back at least as far as Sam and Frodo in Lord of the Rings, but Udinaas and his companions are on a long journey where they don’t meet very many people, so they have a lot of time for discussions like this.  I don’t want to exaggerate the degree to which this ought to be seen as Erikson commenting on the fantasy genre because throughout the series he’s shown an interest in tribal life, and a lot of what Udinaas says might apply better to the oral storytelling he’d have heard as a Tiste Edur slave.  But Udinaas is part of a disparate group of people on a quest for a magical artifact, so it’s hard to ignore the possible reference to modern quest fantasy.  Not surprisingly, there are a lot of inversions of the “generic” quest (I put it in scare quotes because I’m not sure how many books are really published anymore that unironically use the old 1980′s quest template): the members of the group mostly dislike and distrust each other, they all have different and even contradictory motivations, and the more powerful the character the less they are liked and trusted.  Silchas Ruin is certainly no Gandalf.

So far, except for the fact this is just one strand among many, I might be describing Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy (particularly the second book, Before They Are Hanged, which if memory serves is the one with most of the quest narrative).  But there’s a very different feel here than what Abercrombie was up to in his trilogy.  Abercrombie’s Bayaz was a sort of anti-Gandalf: ancient, scheming, and cynically manipulative.  Silchas Ruin is a rather different figure.  He tolerates but does his best to ignore his weaker companions, and they have no illusions about his motives, or the fact that if they weren’t so much weaker than he was, he would consider them a threat and destroy them.  There is manipulation and deception in the Malazan series, but it’s not emphasized anywhere near the way it is in Abercrombie’s work.

Erikson ultimately strikes me as far more hopeful than Abercrombie (with the disclaimer that I haven’t yet read Abercromie’s latest two novels, nor the last three Malazan books).  The end of the quest subplot in Reaper’s Gale is almost comically straightforward.  After the long trip, no miracle occurs, and everything happens exactly as expected.  Silchas Ruin is far stronger than anyone else present, so he gets his way.  Anyone who tries to stop him gets run over.  But afterward he goes back to Letheras, and facing true convergence there he’s not at all successful.  The powers of the Malazan world are far too numerous and too varied for anyone to manipulate the outcome of conflagrations of that kind.  Admittedly, the Crippled God, Shadowthrone, and Quick Ben all claim to be guiding events and one might eventually be revealed as a mastermind, but so far it seems doubtful any of them are really in control.  Earlier I called this wild and unpredictable mix of powers chaotic, and while that may not seem comforting, it still seems much better than the First Law world full of cynical manipulation.

The other dispiriting element of Abercrombie’s work that has attracted the label “nihilist” is his depiction of a world with a high fantasy veneer–quests, great struggles, and so forth–but with low fantasy motivations and outcomes underlying it.  Important people do things because they are greedy, power-hungry, or outright malicious, his work seems to say, and talk of good and evil is just their way of manipulating fools.  If people are suffering in the First Law trilogy, it’s often because they are manipulated according to the selfish desires to those in power.  Even more often, they suffer for no reason whatsoever.  Admittedly, the Malazan series is not the polar opposite of this.  There’s quite a bit of suffering due to the manipulation of others, and certainly there are tragedies that prove meaningless (and thus all the more tragic).  But the series’ high fantasy trappings have (so far, at least) not been false.  There really is a war between the gods, and despite some extenuating circumstances the Crippled God seems to be more than a little evil.  Those opposing him are rarely (if ever) wholly good, it’s true, but for most of them mixed somehow into their self-interest is the idea that this evil must be opposed.  Viewed against this backdrop, most of the suffering endured by characters in the series is dignified in some small degree by the distant context of this struggle.

I’ll have to finish the series before I can say anything definitive about how I feel about the Malazan approach to fantasy.  Personally, my primary criticism of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy was that it seemed to ignore the possibility that those in power sometimes really do genuinely believe their rhetoric.  This is a dangerous omission, in my view, because the lesson of the twentieth century is surely that ideology can be extremely dangerous, and much suffering could have been avoided if certain political leaders really were the cold blooded Machiavellians that Abercrombie depicts.  In the huge variety of characters in the Malazan trilogy, there are many whose actions are dictated by their psychology, but ideology seems to influence only a few: Karsa Orlong, definitely, and perhaps Corabb.  But with the motivations of many of the most important characters like Shadowthrone, Laseen, and the Adjunct still obscure, all this could change dramatically over the course of the last three books.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen reviews:

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