Night of Knives by Ian C Esslemont

December 31, 2010 at 12:51 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment

Although Steven Erikson is the sole author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, he co-created the setting and overall storyline with his friend Ian Esslemont almost twenty years ago. Five years after Gardens of the Moon was published and a few months after the release of Erikson’s fifth book, Midnight Tides, came Ian Esslemont’s first novel Night of Knives. Although marketed as a novel “of the Malazan Empire” and not directly part of Erikson’s series, this book as well as Esslemont’s later work are considered part of the same series canon. Night of Knives was apparently originally written before any of Erikson’s novels were published and takes place the day (well, the night actually) Laseen took control of the Malazan Empire from Kellanved, but apparently the recommended reading order is publication order, i.e. after Midnight Tides.

There are a reasonable number of examples of authors of long series writing short stories that fill in elements of the back story to their epic. Night of Knives is not a short story (despite occasionally being called a novella), but it’s “only” the length of a typical novel and so is about a third the length of the other Malazan books (including Esslemont’s later novels). That and the story’s very limited timespan (less than twenty four hours, give or take a few flashbacks) give the whole thing the feel of a distinctly minor piece of the larger series tapestry. It’s not particularly informative, either: I came in with plenty of questions about the relationship of Kellanved, Dancer, and Laseen, but either the answers were too subtle for me or they just weren’t there.

The story is told through the eyes of two Malaz City inhabitants: Temper, an old soldier with a past, and Kiska, a young spy with a future. Temper is an interesting fellow whose flashbacks actually do fill in some interesting details about the Empire under Kellanved, but I’m afraid I wasn’t too impressed with Kiska. She starts the novel as essentially a freelance spy, patrolling rooftops looking for interesting activity like a superhero. While I’m happy to grant that the presence of magic can be credited with dramatically altering societies from the examples in our past, I’ve never been happy with characters like this who you can’t possibly imagine ever existing in the real world. Kiska is particularly reminiscent of Crokus in Gardens of the Moon in that she seems to live a relatively comfortable life, has a very knowledgeable and influential mentor figure, and still pursues this silly avocation. For most of the novel, she is continually informed she should lock herself inside like all the sensible people have done already and stop trying to get herself killed. As readers we know that as one of the main characters she’s safe, but she doesn’t, so it’s hard to see her insistence on being involved as anything other than idiotic. I know that this tension between a desire to play a role in the events shaping the world and the self-preservative instinct to keep your head down when larger powers are on the move is present in Erikson’s work going all the way back to the prologue of Gardens of the Moon, but the disparity between Kiska’s abilities and her circumstances seems far greater than, say, Ganoes Paran’s situation in Gardens.

In any case, the story moves along in a reasonably entertaining manner. If you’ve read Erikson’s first five books you have a decent idea of how it ends up, but there are some interesting twists along the way. Somewhat unfortunately the climax centers on an Azath house in crisis. A lot of fantasy novels involve damsels in distress, but the Malazan books seem to prefer Azath in distress, with permutations appearing in Deadhouse Gates and Midnight Tides as well. Earlier I mentioned I didn’t see how people read the series as the books come out (i.e. with large gaps between each book) given the dizzying number of characters and storylines, but the problem with reading it all in a short time as I’m doing is there are some patterns that get a bit wearing. Even leaving the Azath out of it, there’s the matter of the endless procession of imprisoned ancient entities trying to get free. It would be interesting to go back and see just how many of these there have been: just off the top of my head, there were Jaghut in Gardens of the Moon and House of Chains, Forkrul Assail in House of Chains and Midnight Tides, the Hounds of Darkness in House of Chains…it’s not that these episodes aren’t all interesting and relevant, but it starts to get a little hard to worry overmuch about the apparently horrifying prospect of the Stormriders breaking out due to the lack of magic users on Malaz island after seeing plenty of similar and worse apparitions try similar escapes, often successfully, in previous books.

Night of Knives is worth reading if you’re a Malazan fan, just set expectations appropriately. People new to the Malazan series should start with Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon. Most people seem to agree that Esslemont’s later novels are better, and really there was nothing much wrong with Night of Knives other than a certain lack of ambition, so I’ll read Return of the Crimson Guard after Reaper’s Gale.


Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

December 29, 2010 at 5:05 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment

“The killing has begun again and is not far.” To me, this sentence from near the beginning of Who Fears Death captures its mood. Note the passive voice. If you can’t assign a cause to the genocide, how can you stop it? And then the location is almost arbitrary, like the path of a storm. This is the language of the profoundly helpless. Onyesonwu, a young African woman, wants to do something, anything, to stop the horror, but what can one person do in the face of deep-seeded hatred?

Onyesonwu’s Africa is a blend of the future, the present, and the past. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future, and while the nature of the apocalypse is never even hinted at, the climate has grown harsher and there is no contact with the anyone outside northeastern Africa, if they are out there at all. There are electronic books, often written in English, and people use Dune-like air filtration devices to get water in the desert. However, this is not (in my opinion, at least) science fiction and the book ignores the concerns of the post-apocalyptic genre. The civilization of the past is forgotten, so no one is hoping to recreate it, and what has replaced it is not anarchy but a civilization not very dissimilar with the present. The hatred between Arab and black Africans (referred to as Nuru and Okeke in the novel) is more or less the same in Who Fears Death as what’s been playing out in Darfur right up until now. But this is also the Africa of the past, or at least the Africa that people in the past thought they were living in: there are magicians and sorcerers with the power to heal and destroy, see the future, and traverse the spirit world. Islam is absent, and instead both the Nuru and Okeke worship a goddess named Ani and hold to not-so-great teachings from the “Great Book”.

Onyesonwu owes her very existence to the ongoing atrocities, for she is mixed race, the product of her Okeke mother being raped by a Nuru man as part of a premeditated campaign to destroy Okeke families (I hoped this weaponized rape was Okorafor’s invention but as she noted in the acknowledgments, unfortunately it is a real phenomenon). Her skin color and facial features are testimony to the crime years after it was committed. Onyesonwu’s mother loves her anyway, but the rest of the Okeke community is not so accepting. While it’s easy to blame the Nuru for everything that’s wrong with Onyesonwu’s world since they have the upper hand and are the primary instigators of the atrocities, Onyesonwu experiences plenty of prejudice from the Okeke as well and sees them as complicit to various degrees. Most have internalized the belief that they are racially destined to be slaves, and those that are not meekly accepting of their degradation rise up and carry out atrocities of their own, further entrenching the racial divide.

There is hope, however. For the world, because there is a prophecy that speaks of a transformational figure who will change everything, and also for Onyesonwu, as she turns out to have considerable powers of sorcery herself that allow her to take control of her life. While much of the book is devoted to Onyesonwu’s struggles with the prejudices and preconceptions of her community, quite a bit is also centered on her efforts to master her powers. I’ve complained in the past about books with a lot of these magic education scenes on the grounds that I’ve read a million of them and they’re all the same. However, I actually enjoyed these scenes in Who Fears Death. I think it’s because while the standard genre view of learning magic is that it is empowering, though perhaps a little dangerous, in Who Fears Death the obstacles to Onyesonwu’s efforts to learn magic are essentially the same obstacles she would encounter doing almost anything in her society: she’s a woman, she’s mixed race, and she’s unwilling to play the part society has assigned her.

The novel halfheartedly tries to disguise it, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Onyesonwu turns out to be the savior figure. Wisely, Okorafor doesn’t make her the sort who goes around giving speeches. After reading Dan Simmons’ Endymion books I decided that it’s a mistake for authors to try to write these sorts of speeches unless they are themselves messiahs. Instead, the prospect of changing the world is hinted at leading up to the conclusion but never really understood, even by Onyesonwu herself. Violence begets violence, the Okeke people say about children of rape like Onyesonwu, assuming that she will be as violent and evil as the act that created her. Her lover Mwita (and, I’d imagine, most readers) assume the answer is to invert this and embrace non-violence, perhaps something along the lines of Ghandi. “This is not what we are!” Mwita reminds Onyesonwu halfway through the book when she’s about to use her powers to smite some would-be assailants. “No violence! It’s what sets us apart!” But although Onyesonwu seems sympathetic to Mwita’s view, she is still enraged by the atrocities she encounters and can’t help but answer them with violence. She struggles to rein in her temper (an extremely destructive one when coupled with her powers) but never completely succeeds. She’s human, in other words.

All the characters in the book, in fact, with the possible exception of her biological father, are drawn with an impressive amount of nuance. Although Mwita is Onyesonwu’s closest friend, they disagree and argue like real people. Her friends like her more than they like Mwita, and as circumstances put them in greater stress the friendships fray. The wise elders that Onyesonwu turns to for help and training give her mostly good advice, but they too are subject to various prejudices and superstitions. Even the practice of female circumcision is handled with a surprising amount of moderation. Okorafor doesn’t pull any punches in describing the pain of the procedure and its lamentable results, but participating in what even some characters (including Onyesonwu’s parents) call a barbaric ritual provides Onyesonwu with links to her community she otherwise wouldn’t have. I suppose it’s part of the book’s broader theme that some good can come from evil, a truth reflected in Onyesonwu’s very existence.

It’s this subtlety that makes this a great novel despite an ending that, in my opinion, doesn’t quite pay off what came before. I’m not totally sure what I think about the juxtaposition of a real-world crises with a fantastic solution, however. It reminds me a little bit of John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar. Reading that novel, I concluded that this sort of solution is a form of despair, saying essentially that there really is no way out except via magic. However, despite its frequently depressing subject matter, Who Fears Death has a surprisingly optimistic undercurrent since it ultimately is a novel of empowerment, even if the method of empowerment (hereditary magical ability) is unlikely to be available to any of its readers. Perhaps the fantastic element is a way to allow people who find articles like the one I linked above too horrifying to contemplate for long (I am one of these people, I’m afraid) to cope with a novel-length examination of these problems.

I really don’t read even remotely enough new fiction to be justified in making pronouncements like this, but I’d be shocked if Who Fears Death isn’t considered one of the best fantasy novels of 2010.

Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson

December 29, 2010 at 1:26 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 2 Comments

While each of the Malazan books provides a good deal of closure in addition to serving as part of the on-going series, Midnight Tides is the closest to genuinely being a standalone novel so far. Taking place chronologically before the previous four books, it doesn’t continue anything left unfinished, nor does it take time out from its main story to set up later novels.

That’s not to say Midnight Tides should or even could be read first. At the end of the epilogue of House of Chains, Trull Sengar begins to tell his story, and this is his story. Well, sort of. Erikson sticks with the multi-viewpoint third person approach he’s been using throughout the series (probably a wise move) and includes viewpoints that Trull surely knows nothing about it. But while this isn’t literally Trull telling his story on the island of Drift Avalii, he is still one of the viewpoint characters, perhaps the most prominent.

The story sets up another clash of civilizations. On one hand, there are Trull Sengar’s Tiste Edur tribesmen. Although they live in villages and even cities, their culture is completely oriented around fighting. A man gets no respect until he is “blooded” as a warrior…that is, has shed blood (an enemy’s blood, presumably, although if this was made entirely clear I missed it). Like the ancient Spartans, this warrior culture is supported by a large slave population made up of the captives of earlier wars and their descendants. There are, incidentally, a whole lot of these Tiste Edur, far more than there were of any historical analogue, at least that I’m familiar with, but they are after all not human, so perhaps their unspecified but apparently quite long lifespan makes this possible. The contrasting civilization is that of Lether. If the Tiste Edur worship war, than the allegedly more civilized Letheri worship money. Not only is social status tied to wealth but falling into debt essentially relegates the debtor to slave status. Even among the Letheri captives of the Tiste Edur, none of whom actually can be said to own anything, to be Indebted (or in that case, to have been Indebted when captured) marks that individual as low caste. Although theoretically not expansionist, the Letheri nation has been expanding prodigiously as it pursues its commercial interests. However, unlike the commercially oriented countries I’m familiar with from history, the Letheri have a standing army and don’t make widespread use of mercenaries.

In House of Chains there was some discussion of the “corruption” of the outlying Teblor clans through contact with human traders, but since Karsa’s own clan was yet to be reached it was always a distant issue. Here the problem is very much foregrounded. At the beginning of Midnight Tides, human tribes adjacent to the Tiste Edur have already been exploited in a process reminiscent of the Native American experience: the import of civilization’s vices and not its virtues, one-sided treaties that take advantage of the tribe’s lack of sophistication, and finally becoming stuck at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Many on both sides of the divide think the same thing is going to happen to the Tiste Edur, but they have one advantage those human tribes (and the Native Americans, for that matter) didn’t have: their disparate tribes have recently been united under the Warlock King, a powerful mage. Any student of history knows that it’s bad news for the surrounding civilizations when a fractious warrior culture suddenly unites and focuses its martial appetites outward rather than inward, but the Warlock King hopes to use his position merely to secure the Tiste Edur from Letheri predation. Unfortunately for absolutely everyone involved, the Crippled God has other ideas.

In his spirited reaction to what I’ve written about the series so far, Steven Erikson said he didn’t have to present both sides of a conflict (one of my criticisms of Deadhouse Gates), and he’s right, he doesn’t. But Midnight Tides shows how effective it is to juxtapose perspectives of the two sides. With viewpoint characters on both sides of the Edur-Letheri conflict, we can see how most people are doing the right thing by their lights. Oh, sure, there are a few bad people here and there, and of course the Crippled God’s machinations are making everything a lot worse than it would be otherwise, but like typical portrayals of the devil, the Crippled God doesn’t produce evil where none was present, instead encouraging what already lurks in the hearts of mortals. Not everyone is blind to what is going on, of course. Trull Sengar and Tehol Beddict in particular are sharply critical of their own societies, albeit each in their own way. The Beddict brothers, in fact, seem to represent a set of responses to an unjust system: repudiation (Hull), subversion (Tehol), and change from within (Brys).

It’s worth mentioning that another of my complaints about Deadhouse Gates (and to a lesser extent House of Chains) doesn’t apply here. I was fairly critical of how the character of Felisin was handled in those books, feeling that although she got a lot of the narrative’s time (in Deadhouse at least) the reader didn’t get enough information about what she was like before her misfortunes or after her arrangement with the Whirlwind Goddess to really understand her. In Midnight Tides Rhulad Sengar has something of a similar experience, and this time we get a good view of him before and after. The result is a portrait that is, I think, the most moving of the series so far. Initially, seen from Trull’s perspective, Rhulad seems like he’s an inveterate troublemaker, the bad apple of his family who’s going to ruin everything. Before everything changes on their fateful trip to the ice, however, we realize along with Trull that he’s misread Rhulad. It’s not that Rhulad is actually a totally good guy, but he’s no cartoon villain. His faults stem from his insecurity and the pressure he feels to live up to his brothers’ example. As sympathetic as Trull is to the reader, he hasn’t been much of a positive influence either. All this makes Rhulad’s descent into desperation and madness tragic and, for me at least, quite affecting.

Most of the time, Midnight Tides is a pretty grim affair, as are the other Malazan books and I guess most modern fantasy novels, but the sections from Tehol Beddict’s perspective are a curious exception. Erikson has had comic characters before (Iskaral Pust being my personal favorite) but virtually every scene with Tehol feels like it’s out of a comic fantasy novel. Initially this was a little strange but after I got my head around the idea I thought it worked surprisingly well. Tastes in comedy will vary and Terry Pratchett probably doesn’t have anything to worry about, but a lot of these scenes are at least amusing, if not laugh out loud funny. Although Tehol doesn’t end up having much of an impact on the actual plot, the comic relief is helpful and he turns out to be, as I’ve said, a useful perspective of the Letheri lifestyle.

Before writing this I wouldn’t have said this was my favorite Malazan novel, but upon reflection while I enjoyed parts of Memories of Ice, Gardens of the Moon, and even House of Chains more, I think overall I’d take Midnight Tides over any of them. I’m not positive if this Erikson becoming a stronger writer or me becoming more acclimated to the series (becoming a better reader, I guess you could say), but perhaps it’s some of each. Regardless, this bodes well for the second half of the series. I’m told that after Midnight Tides Erikson is done introducing storylines and that now the trend is toward convergence. If I’ve learned anything from reading dozens of trilogies and series over the years, it’s that these things are apparently harder to wrap up than to get started, but if anyone can keep hold of all these characters and storylines it’s Erikson.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen reviews:

House of Chains by Steven Erikson

December 20, 2010 at 3:25 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 8 Comments

Although House of Chains is the fourth book in Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen series, it turns out to be essentially a direct sequel to the second book, Deadhouse Gates, just as the third book Memories of Ice was a sequel to the first, Gardens of the Moon. The Malazan Empire has sent a new army to Seven Cities to put down the rebellion that started in Deadhouse Gates, but waiting at the oasis in the center of the Holy Desert of Raraku is Sha’ik Reborn, leader of the armies of the Whirlwind Goddess. The scene is set for a decisive battle between the inexperienced Malazan army and the fractious rebels, but as is always the case in the Malazan series, nothing in this conflict is quite what it appears to be.

I talked at length in my review of Deadhouse Gates about what I felt were that novel’s failings, but to quickly summarize, I didn’t like the way the rebels seemed demonized and the Malazan forces, for the most part, were lionized. Much of the plot, meanwhile, seemed repetitive, aimless, and contrived. I thought House of Chains was a far stronger novel, both on its own merits and considered within the context of the larger series. This time we see both sides of the Seven Cities conflict, and there is a return of that feeling Erikson conjured so successfully in Gardens of the Moon, the feeling that everyone on both sides are caught up in larger machinations, a situation spiraling out of anyone’s control, even the Empress or the Whirlwind Goddess.

While this novel didn’t provoke me to re-examine my complaints about the way Deadhouse Gates handled the characters not associated with Coltaine, it at least gave them much more interesting things to do. For example, several times in House of Chains, Fiddler wonders what he was thinking when he rejoined the army, and all I could say was, “That’s what I’ve been wondering since you did it originally in Deadhouse.” But at least now instead of wandering around the landscape on a quest that comes to nothing, Fiddler and other veterans do the hard work of forging their army of recruits into a force that has a prayer of successfully engaging the rebel army in Raraku. Kalam has less to do, but what we do see of him is likewise satisfying (although there is a clumsy reset of his settling down at the end of Deadhouse Gates).

As with pretty much every Malazan novel since the first one, there are elements and characters that are there pretty much just as setup for future novels. In this case, for example, Crokus and Apsalar are (literally) given something to do that is unrelated to the Seven Cities rebellion and never really goes anywhere, although I’m sure future books will build off it. New characters Trull Sengar and Onrack are given more time but likewise are essentially a prologue for a later book.

Theoretically, the novel is centered on Adjunct Tavore and Felisin. They lead the opposing armies, their familial connection puts a personal spin on the conflict, and their final reunion at the end seems like it ought to be the climax of the novel. However, at least for me, there was no fire behind all that smoke. In a novel with dozens of viewpoint characters, we never get Tavore’s viewpoint and only a few scenes from Felisin’s eyes. Presumably this was intended to increase suspense: the reader sees these important characters through the eyes of their lieutenants and other advisers and has to guess at their intentions. Unfortunately I felt this left them mere ciphers. I complained in my Deadhouse Gates review that we never got to know Felisin before her traumatic experience in the mines, and now we don’t get to see much of how she’s been twisted by the Whirlwind Goddess. Meanwhile we never learn anything about Tavore. For instance, in the middle of the novel, Tavore is given news about the Genabackis campagin that includes some surprising revelations about her brother that surely were emotionally wrenching:

Tavore had been told of, first, her brother’s heroism, then his death…She had made harrowing sacrifices, after all, to resurrect the family’s honour. Yet all along, Ganoes was no renegade…There had been no dishonour. Thus, the sacrifice of young Felisin might have, in the end, proved… unnecessary.

Surely Tavore’s reaction will shine a lot of light on her character. right? Alas, we are stuck in Gamet’s perspective:

The Adjunct’s expression revealed nothing.

Great. I get that she’s stoic, and I understand what Erikson did with T’amber and it is indeed nifty, but this is just not enough for me. For one thing, despite what Gamet thinks, I wasn’t convinced all of this was news to Tavore. Did she really not know about the Empress’ scheme with Dujek? But more generally, it’s one thing to establish (and it had been long established by this point in the novel) that she controls her expression, maybe to a fault, but at some point I need to know what, if anything, she’s feeling. The canonical Eight Deadly Words are “I don’t care what happens to these people” but while I did care somewhat, I just don’t know Tavore at all. Felisin, despite being in a much more interesting situation that she was throughout her lengthy sections of Deadhouse, likewise remains elusive.

However, while I said the novel was theoretically centered on those two characters, one of the story’s ironies is that neither the Adjunct or Sha’ik turn out to have much control over events. The various characters who are given a lot of time are much more interesting and fleshed out, from veterans of past novels like Fiddler, Kalam, and Heboric Light Touch to newcomers like Gamet, L’oric, and Felisin Younger.

The character with the most time of all, however, is one I wouldn’t have expected going into the story. Putting the usual shifting viewpoints on hold, for its first seventy thousand words House of Chains has a single viewpoint character: Karsa Orlong. Karsa is a warrior from a tribe of Teblor, a race superior to humans in size and strength. More importantly, he is a barbarian in every sense of the word. Raised on stories of heroic warriors of the past, most recently his grandfather, Karsa desperately wants to follow in their footsteps. That this involves killing warriors from other tribes and raping their women doesn’t bother him in the least. Karsa is bold, even reckless, and decides to venture with two friends on the most audacious journey he can think of: going to the edge of the known world and back. Of course, the suffocating ignorance of his people is such that the farthest anyone has ever gone is to the edge of the valley system the Teblor tribes call home. There’s a human farm just outside these valleys and Karsa intends to raid it, though he’ll have to carve a bloody trail through several other Teblor tribes before he can reach it.

Much to Karsa’s dismay, the journey sees him pulled into the vast world that lies beyond those little Teblor valleys, shattering almost everything he was taught about his people, his heroes, and his gods in the process. Many fantasy novels begin with a narrator with very limited horizons journeying to and then past the limits of their knowledge, discovering more and more about their world along with the reader. Erikson chose not to do this in Gardens of the Moon, and because by this point the reader knows far more about the world than Karsa does, there’s no need to encumber the narrative with exposition as Karsa slowly learns his real place in the world. Instead, the focus is on Karsa’s reexamination of his culture and its values. He slowly starts to reconsider his willingness to slaughter anyone in his path, but instead of simply adopting the “civilized” values held by those outside the valleys (not to mention those reading the novel), Karsa remains deeply skeptical about civilization because he is horrified by the idea of giving up any freedom. As usual, Erikson infuses the novel’s title with multiple associations. The first chains Karsa encounters are literal chains shackling slaves, both human and Teblor; the most direct coercion civilization has to offer. Meanwhile, Karsa becomes involved with the House of Chains most directly alluded to by the title, the association led by the Crippled God, no stranger to chains himself. No matter one’s social status, from the lowliest slave to the gods themselves, civilization means surrendering freedom for security, an unacceptable choice for someone of Karsa’s background even if he now recognizes his previous life was nasty, brutish, and quite likely to be short.

This is an interesting new perspective on the Malazan series’ long running theme of civilization trying to impose order on a chaotic world, but it isn’t the only one offered. “Possession and control, the two are like insatiable hungers for some people. Oh, no doubt the Malazans have thought up countless justifications for their wars of expansion,” Torvald Nom says to Karsa at one point, summing up Karsa’s feelings. But his list of the “countless justifications” for Malazan conquest ends up sounding pretty persuasive:

It’s well known that Seven Cities was a rat’s warren of feuds and civil wars, leaving most of the population suffering and miserable and starving under the heels of fat warlords and corrupt priest-kings. And that, with the Malazan conquest, the thugs ended up spiked to the city walls or on the run. And the wilder tribes no longer sweep down out of the hills to deliver mayhem on their more civilized kin. And the tyranny of the priesthoods was shattered, putting an end to human sacrifice and extortion. And of course the merchants have never been richer, or safer on these roads. So, all in all, this land is rife for rebellion.

Torvald goes on to condemn civilization for incorporating rather than suppressing the hatreds of the people it is supposed to be restraining. Whether or not the Malazan Empire is as well-intentioned as it claims to be, for Torvald, the reaction of Seven Cities to Malazan paternalism just shows that “hatred is a most pernicious weed, finding root in any kind of soil. It feeds on itself.”

While Torvald describes this process as the manifestation of hatred, there’s a parallel with one of the fundamental principles of Erikson’s world, articulated by countless characters in every book so far: power attracts power. Every action invites a reaction. The unveiling of power risks prompting a convergence of powers, something which tends to happen at the climax of each book. What’s so remarkable about Erikson’s worldbuilding is that virtually everyone has taken this concept to heart, and the result is a world of gods, ascendants, and mages whose first instinct is to conceal their power. The Whirlwind Goddess violates this unwritten rule with her ostentatious display of strength, and the result is mages and ascendants circle like vultures looking to co-opt or outright steal her power (and wiser heads roll their eyes at her foolishness).

While this is (hard as it is to believe given how much prose the four books contain) not even halfway through the Malazan series, I want to mention that so far at least I think Erikson is doing an admirable job handling the difficulties of long-form fantasy, a difficult discipline for anyone, especially considering no one lives long enough to get very much practice. Although these are doorstop-class fantasy novels, they aren’t ever-increasing in length, and Erikson’s unusual partitioning of novels established right from the second book that he was going to leave out characters rather than stringing them along in padding segments. While there are some sections I consider overwritten (some of the Felisin scenes in Deadhouse, the dream sequences in Memories of Ice), if anything this tendency seems to be on the decline.

I do wonder how well people who read the books as they came out without any catch up are able to cope with the vast cast and their complicated allegiances and schemes. When I was watching Lost, I noted that, all other things being equal, people watching a season all at once on DVD seemed to have a more favorable opinion of the show than those watching week by week. I suspect there may be a similar phenomenon with a series like this. Reading them all at once as I am doing (more or less), I’m less inclined to be impatient or frustrated with Erikson’s choices and better able to see the series’ broad patterns and themes. Unfortunately, while a season of a TV show takes between ten and twenty-some hours to watch, it takes a lot longer to read a series like this. We’ll see if I’m still as sanguine as the series continues, but I can say that even if the whole thing goes off the rails starting in book five, the first four books are worthy of any fantasy reader’s time.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen reviews:

Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson

December 6, 2010 at 2:36 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 4 Comments

The third novel in Steven Erikson’s epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen turns out to be a direct sequel to the first, starting very soon afterward and involving most of the same characters. True to the promise at the end of Gardens of the Moon, Dujek Onearm’s outlaw 2nd Army is preparing to take on a new enemy: the religious cult turned empire of the Pannion Seer in the far south. Although Dujek’s forces have been fighting for years against an alliance led by Caladan Brood, the only hope of defeating the Seer is for the former enemies to join forces.

You wouldn’t want to read Memories of Ice without reading Gardens of the Moon first, and Gardens of the Moon is probably a better book considered on its own, but considered as an installment in an ongoing series I thought Memories of Ice is the best Malazan book yet. It’s more focused than its two predecessors, spending most of its time with the colorful cast of characters in the joint Malazan/Genabackis army as it marches south. It does have two other narrative threads, one following a caravan captain named Gruntle and the other picking up with Gardens characters Toc the Younger and Onos T’oolan as they approach the Pannion Domin from the south, but each of these side stories are tightly integrated into the overall Pannion war and complement the main narrative.

One obstacle for some people is that there is an awful lot of talking. Oh, there’s still action, including two spectacular extended battle sequences, but more on those in a moment. I’ve heard some people say that the Council of Elrond in Lord of the Rings was boring, and that they skimmed it, or even just stopped reading. I still remember reading Lord of the Rings for the first time and being excited by that chapter (as well as the also exposition-laden “Shadow of the Past”). There’s no accounting for taste, but my guess is the difference in reaction has to do with the reader’s worldbuilding buy-in. The reader learns about Middle Earth along with the hobbits, starting from a very parochial view and slowly learning more and more. The exposition chapters are, therefore, a chance to finally get a glimpse of what really is going on, with the added charge of watching important figures interact and learning about them as well.

I’ve indulged in another Tolkien digression here because it’s only a mild exaggeration to say that the first half of Memories of Ice is one long Council of Elrond. In his first two books Erikson was far more stingy than Tolkien was with vital information about the world, so if you enjoy Erikson’s worldbuilding most of these scenes are a relative bonanza of information. If you don’t enjoy Erikson’s worldbuilding, well, I’d be pretty surprised if you’d managed to keep reading the series up to this point anyway. Part of the reason these scenes go on for so long is the characters are learning about each other just as the reader is. Caladan Brood was just a name to both readers and Malazan soldiers in Gardens of the Moon, but now both get a chance to see what he’s like.

The characters also spend a lot of time trying to sound out each other’s strength. Erikson is sometimes criticized for having a D&D flavor to his work, and while I think a lot of that is reader projection from knowing the origins of the Malazan setting, it’s true that characters seem to have quantifiable stats. Characters with superior stats will never lose in a fight to someone of lesser power unless they are tired, injured, or ganged up on. These values are hidden, of course, which means there’s a lot of posturing and confrontation as characters work out who is stronger than who. This is a dramatic convention that goes back a lot farther than D&D since the same thing can be said of the Iliad, so I’m happy to just accept this for what it is. What it isn’t, though, is realistic, and perhaps that bothers Erikson a little bit, because at several different moments characters comment on the role of chance in battle. Nightchill, Kallor says, could be killed by a stray arrow when incarnated as a mortal mage. The same is said of the incarnated god Fener, and of more mundane wizards like Quick Ben.

But this is not really the sort of book where a stray arrow kills a great figure by chance the way King Harold died at the Battle of Hastings. Instead, you get societies like the Segulah, who rank themselves according to who can defeat who in a sword-fight. In the real world being a better warrior than someone else affects the probability of victory rather than being determinative, but apparently the Segulah form stable hierarchies this way, not just with each other but with outsiders like Onos T’oolan and Anomander Rake. Erikson mostly plays the Segulah for laughs, but within the world of the series they are not out of place.

If Erikson takes an idealized approach to the mechanics of combat itself, there’s nothing whitewashed about the results. In my review of Gardens of the Moon I spent some time discussing how warfare in Erikson’s world takes a horrifying human toll. While I complained about the way Deadhouse Gates treated its combatants, there’s no doubt it still emphasized the costs. Memories of Ice if anything ups the ante still further. The two huge battle sequences each in their own way drive home the horrors of war.

Occurring midway through the novel, the battle at Capustan could have seemed like a subplot. Most of the characters don’t participate, and Capustan strategically is just a single way station on the long road to a showdown with the Seer. However, the struggle of the Grey Swords to defend the city and Gruntle’s transformation from a drunk into Trake’s Mortal Sword turns out to be a highlight. As with Deadhouse Gates and its frequent scenes of deprivation, Erikson here perhaps spends a bit too much time describing the seemingly endless profusion of blood and corpses, but the moment when Gruntle raises the Child’s Standard is a high point not just of the novel but of the series. And unlike Deadhouse Gates, whose soldiers were emotionally flayed by despair, here it’s the carnage itself that strips the humanity from even the most noble of the defenders.

The battle at Coral is an attack, not a defense. Small groups of characters were scattered all over the city, and I started to feel frustrated at how confusing it all was. Then I realized the characters were just as confused as I was, fighting and dying without being sure where they were and how their efforts fit in to the overall battle, if at all. Rather than try to bludgeon the reader with descriptions of gore as he did with Capustan, Erikson lets the attachments the reader has formed with the various characters do the heavy lifting. This is no Tolkienian battle where only one or two minor characters who had maybe two lines of dialogue between them are the only ones to die. The whole cast pays a heavy price.

It’s natural to ask why the various armies in Memories of Ice are paying this price, but it turns out this question is surprisingly complicated to answer. The T’lan Imass, for example, fight Jaghut Tyrants to save themselves and others from enslavement, and they fight ordinary Jaghut because they think the only way to prevent Tyrants is to extinguish the entire race. To fight this war the T’lan Imass gave up what for lack of a better term we must call their humanity, and one of the many ways Erikson calls back to the title is in characterizing their memories as being reduced to only memories of ice, that is, memories of their war. Caladan Brood likewise has been fighting the Malazan Empire in the name of freedom for the people of Genabackis, although most of his soldiers are apparently mercenaries fighting for pay. The Tiste Andii fight with him because Rake tells them to, but it seems that, like the T’lan Imass, the Tiste Andii have lost any appreciation of life for its own sake and can only find a reason for living in other people’s causes.

Why, then, are the Malazan soldiers fighting? Although it’s not clear what the circumstances of the ordinary soldiers were when they enlisted, they seem to be a volunteer citizen army like that of the Roman Empire. They are professional soldiers, then, but none of the characters we meet are seem like they are in it for the paycheck. Many of them come from lands conquered within living memory by the same Malazan armies they have joined. Erikson is cagey in the first two books about just what the Malazan Empire means for these soldiers, but now one possible answer is proposed. Surprisingly, it doesn’t come from a Malazan but from Anomander Rake.

It seems the cause of liberty has been losing its luster. At the gathering of the T’lan Imass, Kruppe describes the change in the air from the T’lan Imass perspective:

There was but one enemy, then. One people, from whom tyrants emerged. But time passes, aye? And now, dominators and tyrants abound on all sides—yet are they Jaghut? They are not. They are human, for the most part, yes? […] Should a new tyrant emerge from among the few hidden Jaghut, he or she will not find the world so simple to conquer as it once was…The time has passed…for the Jaghut, and thus, for the T’lan Imass.

By itself this is a rather curious argument. There are now a lot more potential tyrants than there were, but their job is harder, so we don’t need to fight them any more.

But there is another aspect to the situation that Kruppe doesn’t mention. If you’ve read much epic fantasy, and this is definitely an epic fantasy series despite its swords and sorcery trappings, you know there are generally two flavors of epic fantasy villain. There’s the tyrant who wants to subjugate the world. If you’ll excuse one last set of Tolkien references (it’s just so useful to have a reference work I can expect everyone to have read) Sauron is this sort of villain, seeking to bend the world to his will. However many of those following in Tolkien’s tradition have turned to an even more menacing type, the villain who seeks destruction, not domination. Unlike the Tyrant there’s not really a lot of precedents from human history, but the destruction of the world (or universe, in works with a science fiction flavor) has a resonance with the modern mind thanks to decades spent in the shadow of nuclear war.

It turns out that the Crippled God is this sort of villain, seeking to destroy the world. Under his manipulation, the Pannion Domin is not a tyranny but a wave of slaughter. “It would be alive only on its outer, ever-advancing edges, spreading out from a dead core, a core that grew with it,” Gruntle says when the nature of the Pannion Domin is explained to him by Itkovian. The Pannion Domin is not a threat to freedom, at least not directly, for it is a threat to existence.

It is against this backdrop just over halfway through Memories of Ice that Caladan Brood and Anomander Rake, whose names and accouterments always threaten the seriousness of the narrative, have a philosophical discussion about the nature of governance. Brood starts things off by asserting they fight in the name of liberty (actually, he endorses Kallor’s assertion of the same, even though Kallor is a mass murderer and would-be tyrant). “Liberation of the commonalty may well result,” Rake says blithely, “but it cannot be our goal.” When Brood tries to morally equate the Pannion Domin with the Malazan Empire, Rake makes a distinction by appealing to the welfare of the citizens of Malazan-occupied territory. The Malazans keep the trains running on time, it seems, and in any case are less oppressive than any other likely government. This is perhaps debatable. Seven Cities did not appear to be well-governed from the few scraps of information we get about it in Deadhouse Gates, but the Pannion Domin is so monstrous Rake’s utilitarian argument is decisive. Kallor then explains the real reason they fight the Malazans: “In her Empire there would be no place for us—not one of us.” Rake then elaborates:

We cannot be controlled. The truth laid bare is we fight for our own freedom. No borders for Moon’s Spawn. No world-spanning peace that would make warlords and generals and mercenary companies obsolete. We fight against the imposition of order and the mailed fist that must hide behind it, because we’re not the ones wielding that fist.

This is an ugly statement, placing as it does Rake and Brood in the position of warmongers, part of a fantasy military-industrial complex. Brood, who apparently is not self-aware enough to have considered these things before, does not voice any objection to this characterization of his motives and the implication that he and Rake have been on the wrong side of their multi-year war with the Malazan Empire (a lot of lives could have been saved if Rake had volunteered these thoughts a few years earlier). Like the T’lan Imass, Brood and Rake have been fighting for freedom for its own sake, but the world has changed, and now there are threats to its very existence. In the face of such virulent danger, it seems enlightened despotism from the Malazan Empire is the best answer. And while no one from the Malazan side has precisely endorsed this description of their project, it fits in with the Empress’ persecution of mages. The only way to secure a world where magic gives individuals such terrifying power over others is to stamp out magic, just as in our world governments attempt to control the spread of guns and worse weapons.

But if a transition is taking place from a world of chaos to a world of law, there’s also the question of how to punish those who would break those laws. Rake’s sword Dragnipur serves as a portable prison system, allowing him to sentence anyone he deems worthy of it to an eternity chained within the sword. Rake generally seems cold and distant, but Draconus (himself a victim of his own sword at the hands of Rake) complains that Rake is too merciful, and therefore too reluctant, to use the sword. While I wasn’t totally convinced that a grizzled veteran like Whiskeyjack would have a problem killing the Women of the Dead Seed, the ensuing discussion about what fate they deserved–Dragnipur, or the comparative mercy of a quick death–proved to be a concern running throughout the novel.

“We do not countenance torture,” Paran says rather anachronistically when they are discussing what to do with Anaster, leader of the Tenescowri and what we would consider a war criminal. He is denied the quick death given to the Women of the Dead Seed, and in the end Paran allows Anaster to undergo Itkovian’s assumption of his suffering despite Anaster’s own clear preference for a quick death. Anaster’s fears prove justified and the ritual amounts to a mind-wipe, but no one seems too concerned about this. Meanwhile, many of the surviving Tenescowri he lead end up becoming part of the reborn Grey Swords and suffer no punishment at all. Finally, the Pannion Seer who theoretically directed all this, ends up being let completely off the hook, on the grounds that he was being manipulated by the Crippled God.

Unlike the discourse on governance, none of the characters advance a philosophical argument on on these matters. Like most people, they feel their way through situations and sometimes end up in contradictory places. One of the ironies of the novel is that several different characters have the chance to kill or otherwise deal with Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, but no one ever does. They are clearly responsible for a long string of murders and practice a thoroughly disreputable form of magic, but no one tries to stop them. Quick Ben seems to be motivated by pragmatism, wanting to leave them on the board as a piece that might be used in his game against the Crippled God, but he isn’t willing to come out and say so. Meanwhile, at the end of the novel, the ordinarily dispassionate Rake responds to Kallor’s inevitable treachery by saying, “He has earned Dragnipur.” An odd statement given Rake is surely aware that Kallor is a mass murderer par excellence, having killed an entire continent of people. If that didn’t earn him Dragnipur long ago, what does?

There’s a danger that, given the profusion of gods in the Malazan universe, once you let the Pannion Seer off the hook because he was being manipulated by a god, pretty much everyone can be excused of whatever they do. But it seems the Seer was something of a special case, because ever since the beginning of Gardens of the Moon Erikson has been developing the idea that the gods are no longer as powerful as they once were and mortals are seizing control of their own lives. “Prod and pull,” the wax witch says in the very first line of Chapter One of Gardens, “it’s the way of the Empress, as like the Gods themselves.”

As the series has continued, more characters have joined the Empress in assuming godlike influence over the world. Captain Paran throws off Oponn’s influence and in Memories of Ice rejects the advice of basically the entire pantheon when deciding what to do about the House of Chains. Quick Ben is even more assertive, nominating himself for the role of principal antagonist to the Crippled God. “What are gods, after all, if not the perfect victims…for Kruppe, whose sleight of hand is matched only by his sleight of mind?” says Kruppe early in Gardens. It seems like mere bluster, but in Memories of Ice Kruppe’s position has been reassessed by the reader and the characters, leading Whiskeyjack to the astonishing conclusion that he is “the greatest of minds” among mortals. If he’s right, Kruppe’s sleight of mind is imposing indeed. Although the gods have so far gotten off lightly, Fener was pulled down into the mortal realm in Deadhouse Gates and when Quick Ben threatens to do the same to Hood, the threat is taken very seriously. “In this age even a mortal can kill you,” K’rul told Raest in Gardens. “The tide of enslavement has reversed itself. It is now we gods who are the slaves, and the mortals our masters—though they know it not.” It seems the mortals are beginning to learn.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen reviews:

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