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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  1. Very well written.

    I won’t go again with a long commentary on the commentary but you’re going well beyond the typical review that says whether the book was good or not.

    Instead of simplifying you’re taking out some of the building blocks of the series and unveiling their merits. You also see very well where Erikson plays actively with some canons instead of being slave to them, that’s something that most people seem to miss and use as a way to diminish the books. Lots of suggestions (and your analysis was also quite focused and left out a lot of other themes and plots), which is a good reason to read and enjoy the books. I imagine you’re trying to parse where Erikson is going with this and anticipate how it develops. I’d say House of Chains will streamline even more, stylizing the kind of subversive perception of the three books in the first 100 pages. Yet, even if the story continues to have a staggering expansion, you’ll also see how everything seems to come down to shared core, and things that seem disparate are instead already well known (similar to how in MoI the Barghast are revealed to have a common origin with the Moranth, despite the apparent differences).

    I usually absolutely love the “Council of Elrond” parts in fantasy books, not just because they offer lots of details but especially because characters that are often wandering alone interact with each other and come to life. In MoI instead I don’t think that part was an high point. There are some brilliant fun sparks, like the subplot about the table where Paran’s symbol appears, but as a whole it felt like a disjointed collection of short scenes and the characters were too much stranded in their own obsessions/diversions. The moment of clarity and companionship that usually follows those reunions just wasn’t there in this case.

    I also think it’s a problem that the book is so rich of ideas that it’s also so wasteful. That’s also why characters motivations can’t be smoothed completely and sometime you arrive to a point where things just don’t match up. A bit patchy. Part of this due to some actual flaws of internal consistency, and part because Erikson just doesn’t want to make characterization clear and shadows-free.

    When I finished reading MoI my worry was that Erikson spent all his ideas on those pages and I was wondering how he could keep the thing still fresh and powerful in the next book. House of Chains showed me how and I ended liking it even more than the previous three. The scope is still huge, yet Erikson seem much more in control and at ease than usual with all the moving parts. While for others readers that book is at the bottom of their preference, so lots of mixed reactions. It will be interesting to see yours, also considering that most think DG is one of the best while you seem to rate it lower than the other two.

  2. You make an interesting point about “Council of Elrond” scenes…I think that usually they take place in moments of safety and serve as a time out from the dangers that lurk in the shadows of a traditional quest narrative. In Memories of Ice the alliance is very uneasy and they are always on the verge of coming to blows, so there’s no sense of rest.

    I think I am giving Erikson a bit of a pass on some of the character inconsistencies because he’s obviously holding back a lot of information which may or may not improve the situation. I hear he’s going to write a trilogy about Rake now that the main series is done, so perhaps even by the end of the series everything won’t be out on the table.

    I’m a little ways into House of Chains and so far I like what I see, but there’s a ways to go yet.

  3. That book switches back to quick PoV changes after 200 pages or so, but those are like a self contained story that plays some of the tricks of perspective used through the series. It is relatively closed, short, and uses basic elements of the lore already known to empower the perspective of the reader. It’s Karsa’s PoV but the reader can see much further than Karsa, creating in the reader the same illusion of truth that Karsa has, only for Erikson to play one of his trick and suddenly reveal that even the perception of the reader is completely wrong (so the reader sharing Karsa’s path, only on different levels). I love those kinds of turnabouts, and that story has them one after the other and doing some very wicked things (not just the Teblor origins and gods, but also about Karsa’s grandfather and so on). It works particularly well because instead of hiding truth through deliberate obfuscation it just uses its known elements well. You aren’t left confused, but just surprised by the plot. Then I just love the banter and characters.

  4. Hi Matt, I just finished MoI tonight, and I agreed with your guess that I would enjoy it more than Deadhouse Gates – I did, much more. Though, like you, I feel the books are by no means perfect, I cut Erikson a lot of slack for actually trying to write a truly epic fantasy – the term is much sullied these days I think. There’s something quite exhilarating in his “go big or go home” mentality, and it lets me forgive the minor trespasses, especially in this case because the ending – neat as it was – was quite satisfying to me. Two things, however, still frustrate me with the series.

    Number one, you mention yourself; “Erikson here perhaps spends a bit too much time describing the seemingly endless profusion of blood and corpses” – I couldn’t agree more. I see what he’s going for with the hyperbolic grand guignol, and can understand that in some respects it’s just more hyperbole in books filled with it. But, I don’t think he achieves what he wants, and instead cheapens both the books and the meaning with his endless piles of dismembered limbs etc. It’s interesting that he devotes far more pages to random violence than he does either meaningful violence or any of the many love (or just sex) scenes that pepper the books, instead preferring a fade to black in that regard (for which I’m largely thankful, don’t get me wrong!).

    After cannibalism and necrophilia, I wonder how he will top himself in subsequent books – and I fear he will try. The emotional story of the T’lan and Jaghut, and sacrifices involved had far more resonance for me, than the B-Movie schtick.

    Number 2 is more of a niggle, but in a book filled with many powerful women (though regrettably few as major major characters to match Brood, Rake, WhiskeyJack, Paran etc.), tonnes of sex and many a happy lesbian, the world of the Malazans seems curiously bereft of any gay men, especially in armies that are teeming with pragmatic men.

    I feel like it’s little things like both the above that bely Erikson’s pretensions to literature. I mean, he’s no Terry Goodkind in either by what he writes or his assumption of its place in the canon – thank god – but I do chuckle seeing some of the very high-faluting things he’s had to say on the internet and the horde of fans that eagerly lap it up. His antecedents show, and they are, I think, somewhat adolescent and male – a bit homophobic and very “boysy”. It’s not a terrible thing, and there are certainly far worse offenders. Indeed, some of those elements are what I respond to most – I feel like an eleven year old reading Dragonlance for the first time at points in the Malazan books. But I do wish his ambitions were spread a little more evenly – an ambition to write epic, beyond epic fantasy, if you know what I mean. To engage with things like an Ursula LeGuin in her prime might (or other writers of that league).

    I think Erikson thinks that’s what he’s doing at points in the novels, but I would submit he has a ways to go there, in both subtlety and depth. We’ll see what further books in the series bring.

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