House of Chains by Steven Erikson

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

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  1. Thank you for these reviews. Once in a while I can’t help but be all “Ba abababaaaaa!! You can’t say THAT about Erikson!!!”, but mostly you’re just right. ;)

    Also, it’s Steven Erikson, not Scott. (first sentence)

  2. Oops, thanks for the heads up. I always have to make sure I don’t spell the last name “Erickson” but I’m not sure where Scott came from. R. Scott Bakker, maybe.

  3. Hello Matt,

    enjoying your writing and blog.

    Some fleeting observations:

    *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.*

    It is practically impossible. Ironically, this provides the cycle with a very high reread value, because you end up reading a *new* book. That makes it, however, somewhat frustrating for somebody that runs a genre blog, because it is obviously counter productive. Erikson certainly did not have you guys on his mind when he tackled MBotF the way he did.

    *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.*

    That is something of a discussion among certain parts of the readership. Midnight Tides steps the whole thing up, because it starts the third leg of the cycle. It has been a turn-off for some, even though I believe you might find the most straight-forward, *easiest* read of them all…just not, or only barely, tied into what happened in the first four volumes. The Bonehunters is the volume that first tries to bring all the strands together, somehow.

    *Meanwhile we never learn anything about Tavore….[]…but while I did care somewhat, I just don’t know Tavore at all.*

    SE does this on purpose & is one of his *gambles*. So far, up to DoD, Tavore has assumed a POV position only once. As for the rest, she is one big enigma. Plot device ? Contrivance ? I don´t know. This is one specific issue that will definitely only be resolved with tCG – for better or for worse.

    *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.*

    Nails it perfectly, especially re Seven Cities. Re Tavore´s army (14th), we have a curious set-up that made the convergence in Raraku seem kind of limp, not as spectacular as Coral. The Bridgeburners were introduced right in GotM as something of a myth, but pretty much on the way out, i.e being eradicated. Which happened in MoI. The 14th is something of a successor, a bunch of green, unproven grunts that will always have to measure to the myth, with questionable success. In Bonehunters, a term will be coined that defines as follows: Motto of the Bridgeburners -*First in, last out*. Motto of the 14th, aka Bonehunters: *Last in, looking around*. SE builds them up as the antithesis to the Bridgeburners. The latter an army *burning* in myth and glory, the Bonehunters just getting f*cked over or, at best, deprived of any real catharsis. Once again, contrived ? I do not know. Frustrating/weird ? Kind of. But a damn interesting take that put the Bonehunters way closer to Cook´s Black Company than the Bridgeburners…and makes this cycle much more a story about the former than the latter. Just my two cents.

  4. Hello Mat.

    *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.*

    You might want to read this article from Steven Erikson, where he addresses specifically the creation of the Karsa character:

    “In the fourth novel in my series I introduced, rather brutally, a character emerging from an isolated tribal culture, who finds himself first a slave, then an escaped slave, within the far larger world of civilization of which he previously knew nothing. He ultimately concludes, after numerous travails, that civilization is an abomination, and so he vows to destroy it.

    As this character is terse and rather inarticulate, he rarely expounds on the reasons for his conclusion. As the author, however, I needed to give much thought to such matters.”

    http://www.stevenerikson.com/index.php/commentary-endgame-vol-1-and-2-by-derrick-jensen/

    Very interesting article, especially re some of the motifs of this cycle you keep elucidating.

  5. Just an interesting juxtaposition from SE´s article and your comments re security & civilization in HoC:

    *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.*

    Steven Erikson:

    “In this respect, I see civilization as but a particularly efficient expression of what has always been with us (and may be implicit in all life—even the virus kills its host and then moves on). The primary distinction between hunter/gatherers and the hierarchical systems that followed was one of efficacy. Hunter/gatherers could alter and manage their environment to some extent (and we may look at large mammal extinctions in the New World around the period of the first specialized big-game hunters, the Clovis Culture, as an example of that); but never to the extent that horticulturalists, pastoralists and agriculturalists could. The fundamental urge was/is one of control and stability, which together comprised safety.

    We desire stability and security above all else, even love. The tragedy lies in the very short-sightedness of such concepts as stability and security. Stability requires stasis, the kind of gesture to achieve equilibrium that we see in a deer caught in the headlights. Security measures safety in moments, not weeks, not months, not even years.

    Culture is the pursuit of these two things above all else, which is why it is universally incapable of collectively focusing on the long-term. Individually, we are generally forced to such long-term considerations after the traumatic annihilation of all immediate stability and security, and even then we seek the first place of safety we can find—somewhere from which to take measure, to recover what we can of our equilibrium. It seems likely that our species will, as you say, suffer a corresponding trauma, that of collapse. There will be those who escape, who hunker down, and likely survive. Most won’t.

    As I mentioned earlier, sometimes I just want to howl.”

    Please note that this out of context.

  6. Kencyrath:

    Re: Bridgeburners vs. Bonehunters…interesting. I’ve always been a little uncertain what I think about the way the Bridgeburners are supposed to be a legendary military unit, because I can’t think of any examples in armies ancient or modern of the same kind of thing. Units going back to the Roman legions have histories and traditions, but people outside the units in question usually don’t care about these things. The Bridgeburners, on the other hand, are famous inside and outside the Malazan Empire, to the point that it seems like tons of people know the names of relatively low ranking soldiers. Of course Whiskeyjack, Kalam, and Quick Ben didn’t use to be anonymous grunts, but then if people know their names then they still aren’t. Even Fiddler is famous enough he feels he has to use a pseudonym when he re-enlists in House of Chains. It gets even worse when I consider that, if memory serves, there were 5,000 soldiers in the Bridgeburners before Pale.

    Re: Erikson’s Endgame essay…Abalieno posted a link in the comments on my Gardens of the Moon review, though I didn’t read it until after House of Chains once I saw he mentioned a character from that book. As he says, Karsa is terse and inarticulate, and I never got the impression he was going to destroy civilization at the end of the book, especially given his statement to the Malazan army at the end of House of Chains.

    I think it’s interesting that Erikson, in that article at least, is such a pessimist about civilization. Perhaps that’s why he seems more willing to entertain the idea that Malazan imperialism might ultimately a good thing. Most modern authors (the ones that think these things through, at least) are very anti-imperialist, and that comes through in popular entertainment as well, from Return of the Jedi to Avatar. But if Erikson thinks our current civilization is headed for ruin, perhaps he’s willing to think about giving enlightened despotism a second chance. But I’ve got a lot more reading to do before I can say that with any confidence.

  7. Hello Matt.

    Bridgeburners vs. Bonehunters: The pattern of that relationship becomes clearer farther down the road, simply because there is much more written track record on the Bonehunters, while the memory of the BBs lingers like a shadow over them. Beyond mentioning Cook´s influence, I have never read SE talk about this, but considering that he likes to set up the tropes to subsequently deconstruct them, he uses the BBs as the *uppers* and the BHs as the * downers*. So far, at least. Can only give a final verdict after tCG.

    Karsa respects the Malazans, but his plan to destroy civilization is not abandoned so easily; not even clear if at all. That guy follows a very interesting path, outcome unclear yet & not at all predictable. SE ends up doing a very nice job on that one.

    Re Erikson and imperialism: *lol* Nope, that guy sure as hell is NOT pro-imperialism, even if to save civilization. Definitely not at all.
    Once your read Midnight Tides, you´ll understand why I am grinning – he just fucks with the concept of imperialism / enlightened despotism. No, my take is, the guy is a full-fledged nihilist, not because he likes it, but because he is convinced that, no matter what we do, humanity is predestined to go to shit, becaused we are programmed to do so – no matter whether within the benevolent-imperial context of a Malazan/Roman-type empire, the framework of a decadent mercantilist empire like Lether or those pre-industrial/frugal *Dances with Wolves* societies that, in the end, once you take the romanticized component out of them, are no less destructive to their surroundings than we are nowadays. This theme will repeat itself continuously starting Midnight Tides, which IMHO ended up turning off some readers that enjoyed the first few volumes.
    One pointer I would give you: Give the character Tehol Beddict and his servant Bugg a very close look – not at their banter, which is hilarious, but actually at what they DO. They´re like Unabomber and Madoff doing a Marx Brothers routine.
    I don´t know – does the term *dystopic fantasy* exist ? That guy may just have created it…

  8. Note: Steven Erikson posted a fairly critical reaction to this and my other Malazan reviews in the comments of the Tor.com reread here. Although he is responding to my reviews of the first four books, I think some of his most pointed comments are about this one and perhaps the comments here as well.


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