Midnight Tides by Steven EriksonDecember 29, 2010 at 1:26 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 2 Comments
Tags: Steven Erikson
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.