Reaper’s Gale by Steven Erikson

April 14, 2011 at 1:33 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Malazan Book of the Fallen reviews:


The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

April 4, 2011 at 1:59 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 3 Comments

The sixth book in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, The Bonehunters, is the third set in Seven Cities, following Deadhouse Gates and House of Chains. It is also the first not to introduce any major new storylines. Narrative convergence has finally begun and the cluster of storylines from Seven Cities have been merged with those from the Genabackis novels Gardens of the Moon and Memories of Ice. While most of the characters from the series’ fifth novel Midnight Tides do not appear, by the end of Bonehunters the story is well on its way to bringing those in as well.

At this point in the series, it is easy to recommend. If you haven’t read any of the Malazan books, start with the excellent Gardens of the Moon, not here. If you aren’t going to like Bonehunters then it’s extremely unlikely you liked the first five books enough to get to this point. As you would expect in book six of a ten book series, not a whole lot gets resolved, and my usual practice of reviewing series rather than their individual novels seems like a good idea at this point. But since I’ve already been reviewing these books individually, it’s worth considering how Bonehunters develops the ongoing concerns of the Malazan series and the degree to which it shares the flaws and virtues of the earlier books, at least as I see them.

More so than previous books in the series, Bonehunters gets off to a distinctly slow start. The first third of the novel reintroduces dozens of characters from previous books and sets them in motion. Characters are traveling every which way on the Seven Cities continent, and since mapmaking is apparently a popular pastime for the series’ hardcore fans, it would be interesting to see an animation of the various characters and groups of characters criss-crossing the continent with their journeys. Much of the content of these traveling scenes takes the form of introspection, as characters think about where they’ve been (probably to help readers who didn’t recently read the previous books), where they are now, and what they hope to be doing in the future.

It would be easy to overstate the problem here. It’s not boring, exactly. Erikson’s characters are thoughtful and have interesting observations. But in a series this long, for someone like myself who has been reading these books in a relatively short time period, it’s inevitable there’s some repetition. How many times have characters in these books looked at the landscape around them and meditated on how the passage of time has laid low cities and wrought many changes while still leaving evidence of the ancient patterns? More pragmatically, much of the first half of the book is spent with the titular Bonehunters, and their concerns are much the same as they were in House of Chains: the poor morale of the army, uncertainties about its commander, and so forth. The plot doesn’t help matters, for like several previous novels in the series there is a big set piece battle in the middle of the book, and the novel’s climax is such a direct echo of Deadhouse Gates that it must have been intentional: Laseen is confronted over her conduct (though a rather different conclusion is reached than in Deadhouse) and again Kalam has to have a cartoonish battle with dozens of disposable Claw ninjas in Malaz City.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the introspect moments is they tend to emphasize one of my least favorite elements of the series, namely the way the characters so often seem weakly motivated. Why do Apsalar and Cutter work for Cotillion? Why is Fiddler still in the army? What is Kalam doing with his life now that he’s out of it? Where is Karsa Orlong going? The characters themselves wonder about these questions to varying extents, which is never a good sign. Since one of the series’ principal themes seems to be humans standing up to their gods and seizing their destiny, it’s frustrating not to see a little more, well, seizing.

This notion of character motivations is an interesting one in light of the fact many of them are in the Malazan army. Fundamental to military service throughout history has been the abdication of agency. A soldier follows orders and therefore does not have the freedom, or the burden, of deciding what to do. Although Bonehunters spends a lot of time portraying the life of the ordinary soldier, it rarely shows the compulsive side of military service (making a joke of it, for example, when Ganoes Paran is mistaken for a deserter). Veterans like Fiddler and Gesler are frequently presented with opportunities to desert without any consequences. As these characters have some contact with the overarching high fantasy storyline, returning to the army and remaining subject to its discipline is to some degree an endorsement of the Adjunct’s objectives, and by extension those of Empress Laseen and the Malazan Empire as a whole. Fiddler, understandably, finds the choice difficult, for he doesn’t have even remotely enough information to judge Laseen, nor does the reader. Militaries in the real world can sometimes seem mysterious because their actions are the output of vast bureaucracies, but in the Malazan army the confusion stems from the leadership. The Adjunct is a mystery to everyone, and Laseen even more so. When Kalam confronted her at the end of Deadhouse Gates, Laseen seemed like some sort of mastermind. Confronted again in the similar scene at the end of Bonehunters, she seems weak and desperate, helpless in the hands of malicious advisors. Which portrait is more accurate? Who knows? Later books will settle the question, I assume.

Of course, not all the characters are aimless. Ironically, Icarium, a character who is defined by aimless wandering, finally gets a purpose in this book, and his scenes are some of the most entertaining. But the ruminations of the purposeful characters are even more frustrating since Erikson isn’t willing to give the reader more than the tiniest hint of what they know and what they are trying to do. Quick Ben, for instance, is full of plans as always, none of which are ever communicated to the reader. Ganoes Paran arrives in Seven Cities and is at the center of some of the book’s best scenes, but exactly what he knows and what he’s trying to accomplish tends to stay vague. In Memories of Ice, I was surprised I found it exciting when characters got together and talked about things. The reason, which I partially understood at the time, is that these conversations forced their motivations, ideas, and goals out into the open instead of being hoarded away from the reader’s view. This doesn’t happen often in Bonehunters, with characters sometimes going to improbable lengths to avoid cluing the reader into what’s happening (I’m thinking here of when Kalam, Fiddler, Apsalar, and Quick Ben are all traveling together and do their best to avoid talking to each other about their plans). I’m well aware of the narrative principle involved here. In a heist film, often the viewer isn’t told the plan, lest it become boring watching it actually carried out. But when this information is concealed over thousands of pages and dozens of viewpoint characters, it’s hard not to feel a little resentful toward the author, fair or not.

The differences in these two types of characters stem from the way the novel combines high fantasy and low fantasy. People like Quick Ben and Ganoes Paran are living in a high fantasy story as they struggle against the Crippled God and his allies. The soldiers of the Fourteenth Army, many of whom are colorfully fleshed out in the early parts of the novel, are in a low fantasy story about a military campaign. This allows us to view some of the same events from two very different angles, but it does make it that much more difficult for the myriad viewpoints to coalesce in the reader’s mind. The high fantasy characters tend to have strong motivations and clear goals, but they do their best to hide them from others, including the reader. The low fantasy characters are caught up in their machinations and wondering if they should be trying to free themselves, but they know even less than the reader about what’s going on.

The battle at Y’Ghatan is in the middle of the book, but it serves as something of a climax to the low fantasy side of Bonehunters. Certainly it brings the questions about motivation into sharp relief. Why are the soldiers risking their lives attacking Y’Ghatan? Is the rebellion in Seven Cities really a going concern? Leoman’s army is plagued by the same questions. Their rebellion has clearly failed, so what is there to fight for? Leoman, of course, produces a startling answer. The resulting battle is another of example of one of Erikson’s recurring motifs, the battle as hellscape. Y’Ghatan is a rather more literal manifestation of this than Pale and Capustan, though the effect is somewhat diminished by the repetition. The Fourteenth Army finds in Y’Ghatan the fires of hell, and the survivors must journey through what is again a literal underworld in order to escape. This, it is implied, is the sort of event that may forge the Fourteenth into something more than just a ragtag army. The Bridgeburners apparently had it easy: they just had to walk through Raraku. The idea that collective identities can ascend toward the divine just as individuals can is one of the most interesting in the Malazan series, and the contrast between the Bridgeburners and the Bonehunters raises the question: just what is required, here? Why isn’t it happening all the time? The mechanics of this is vague, as is everything magical in the Malazan series, and the scenes where Paran summons the ghosts of fallen soldiers muddy the waters still further.

I suppose I’ll have to wait for to find these answers until I read the concluding novels of the series. Certainly Steven Erikson said as much when he was responding to what I wrote about some of the earlier books in the series, feeling that it was presumptuous to speak about the themes of the series without seeing how they are fully developed. While the character of Ormulogun, official artist of Onearm’s Host, and his arguments with his “critic” Grumble are clearly a humorous take on the relationship of an author to his critics, Bonehunters also provides another model. In Deadhouse Gates, much was made about the importance of Duiker surviving to tell the story of the Chain of Dogs, although I was much less enthusiastic about this, assuming it would merely fuel more bloodshed. In Bonehunters we find that in Seven Cities, the Chain of Dogs is worshipped by a growing cult made up of the very rebels who once hated and feared it. In the Malazan Empire, on the other hand, slander has taken root which blames the Wickans in general and Coltaine in particular for the disasters that struck the Chain of Dogs and the army at Aren, resulting in vicious pogroms against Wickans. Only the survivors of Coltaine’s army in the Fourteenth know better. Duiker’s mission to tell the world the truth about what happened seems to have been a miserable failure. What are we to make of this? Is every historian helpless in the face of the biases and ulterior motives of readers? The answer is important because, with apologies to Ian Esslemont, surely the preeminent historian of the Malazan Empire is Steven Erikson.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen reviews:

Talion: Revenant by Michael Stackpole

February 1, 2011 at 3:15 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Talion: Revenant was a book I really liked when I first read it, but that was back when I was in high school. Deciding to reread it now, I felt a little apprehension. It’s always disconcerting to revisit a book and have a totally different reaction. We like to think of ourselves as being constant, yet this is one case where we obviously are not: the book doesn’t change, so if the opinion is different years later, that’s down to the reader.

Talion: Revenant is about a man named Nolan who works as a Talion Justice. The Talions are an interesting institution. At one time they were the administrative, judicial, and enforcement apparatus for an empire, but that empire fell long ago. The Talion organization survived, remaining aloof from the various successor nations and serving as an international peacekeeping agency. Most Talions are soldiers of one sort or another, working to stabilize the international order by training the armies of the post-Empire nations up to some minimum standard (presumably in exchange for payment that funds the Talion administration as a whole, although if that was directly spelled out I missed it). The exceptions are those of the Justice division. Like a fantasy FBI, they rove the countryside enforcing the common law of the old empire, usually working alone. Although generally a Justice is just an ordinary person whose authority is recognized by most nations, he or she does have a slightly magical sword and a tattoo that can remove a soul from a body in a particularly feared sort of execution. I don’t remember it bothering me originally, but now the thought of lone people roaming the countryside acting as judge, jury, and executioner sounds, ah, problematic. There are a couple checks on their authority: first, they have to report in detail to the head of the Justice division, but second and more importantly, the tattoo is tied to a ritual that supernaturally kills anyone who acts unjustly. If that still makes you feel uneasy, well, this is a book that questions how to properly administer justice, but not what justice is.

The book is structured so that “present day” chapters of the adult Nolan at work as a Justice are interleaved with scenes from his childhood training. At first, these training scenes mainly provide a colorful background, but eventually it turns out Nolan’s mission in the present will force him to face demons from his past and it all comes together. The whole thing is told in a first person narrative that is mildly didactic in its quieter moments (this is one of those fantasy novels where the protagonist takes the time to explain details about magic, culture, and so forth as they are encountered in the narrative) and choreographist when the fighting starts.

So is it any good? Well, not everything about it works. The childhood training scenes feel a little hazy and indistinct, with only three other students are given any characterization. It’s not Stackpole’s fault, but a year after this book was published, the first Harry Potter was published in the UK. While the worldbuilding of the Harry Potter books leaves a lot to be desired, the early books provided–and set future expectations for–a depth to the fantasy school experience that Talion: Revenant can’t hope to match with only half its narrative. There is also a little bit of a Mary Sue issue with many of these scenes as the teenage Nolan constantly performs amazing feats that outdo anyone in the history of the training system. Some justification for this is provided (Nolan came unusually late to Justice training so he thinks outside the box) but it gets to be a little much. Luckily, it’s counterbalanced by the adult Nolan chapters, as in that era Nolan is mainly known for certain high profile failures.

However, the principal selling point of the novel is the Talion organization in general and the Justices in particular. As a Talion Justice, Nolan is essentially a superhero. He wears a costume that conceals his identity, he has special powers (albeit modest ones), and, of course, he fights crime. His mission in the novel even requires him to adopt an alter ego. The Talions graft the superhero model on to a military structure, giving the book much of the appeal of both superhero and military fiction. Though technically not a soldier, Nolan’s friends from his training days were literally comrades in arms in increasingly military-oriented exercises and the requirement that he absolutely obey the orders of his superiors within the organization becomes an important issue as the novel progresses.

Talion: Revenant was apparently the first novel Michael Stackpole wrote, even if it wasn’t the first he published, and the prose has some of the awkward moments you’d expect from a first novel. Since most of the novel is spent exploring the nature and implications of the Talion organization, the rest of the world can sometimes feel like a stock fantasy setting. Stackpole definitely sets out to provide interesting twists on some of the generic ideas he uses, however. His elves are xenophobic warrior savages, for example, and in a particularly memorable sequence, his goblins turn out to live in underground colonies much like ants.

Despite occasional discussions about the proper role of fear in the administration of justice and some rather melodramatic climactic scenes, Talion: Revenant is content to be–and succeeds at being–a fun, adventure fantasy. Although apparently considered too long when Stackpole first wrote it, by modern standards it’s of average length and tells a single, self-contained story. Michael Stackpole has promised to write a sequel if the electronic version sells a sufficient number of copies, but rest assured it would be the old-fashioned kind of sequel, not a direct continuation.

Wolf’s Cub by Mackay Wood

January 9, 2011 at 3:20 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Fantasy tends to be like historical fiction in that it psychologically recalls a certain time period. Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical fantasies do this explicitly, of course, but A Song of Ice and Fire has the feel of Europe’s High Middle Ages and The Malazan Book of the Fallen has echoes of the early Roman Empire. Even “weird” fantasy like Perdido Street Station draws unmistakably from the experience of the industrial revolution in England and Germany. Still, like historical fiction, some periods are more popular than others. Wolf’s Cub takes a road somewhat less traveled by positioning itself in the western Europe of the Early Middle Ages.

This isn’t obvious at first, with the labored cod-medieval infodump in the prologue and the protagonist Prince Herric’s horror at having his engagement with the love of his life broken in favor of a treaty-sealing marriage with a child. Whatever reservoir of sympathy I might have had for hereditary nobility’s difficulties with arranged marriage has long since been exhausted by other authors, but Wood doesn’t end up making a huge deal about it. Herric moves on with his life because he’s got bigger problems: the unceasing raids by Viking-analogous northmen have brought Herric’s nation Athgar to the brink of collapse.

Although Wolf’s Cub is a vaguely Arthurian romance, the choice not to use the trappings of the elaborate monarchies of the High Middle Ages (the time when Arthurian legends got traction regardless of when the real Arthur, if any, might have lived) gave the story a pleasantly unique feel, at least for me. The monarchy of Athgar claims a direct connection to a mighty past, but it’s clear that while they live in the ruins of a magnificent civilization, the novel’s Athgarian nobility are a tiny warrior elite who have lost all the civic institutions that made a continent-spanning state possible. None of the pomp that I associate with medieval settings is present: the nobility is too busy with real combat to bother with stylized forms like jousting and dueling, the peasants are too close to dropping below subsistence level to levy in large numbers if at all, and with the low agricultural productivity cities and markets cannot be supported. This is a kingdom that, whatever its history, is in serious danger of collapse. Not to some dark lord, either, but to northmen sent raiding by population pressures at home.

This is still fantasy, so there is something of a dark lord in the picture. It seems the good old days were made possible by wise kings using wizards as a sort of civil service. But in the chaos surrounding the collapse and fragmentation of the old system, the wizards withdrew to a few mountain kingdoms and were persecuted whenever found in most of the small successor states. Athgar has its share of trouble with the neighboring wizard nations, but the question as to whether these wizards (thought to be irredeemably evil by a prejudiced populace) are really dark lords instead of rational political actors is a major concern of the Athgarian monarch given how weakened the nation has become due to the raiders.

I generally don’t read romance novels unless they are genre crossovers like Time Traveler’s Wife or A Civil Campaign, so I’m not really qualified to judge the romantic elements. All I can say is, I found Herric and his young bride to be sympathetic and believable. Unlike (I gather) typical romance stories, not only is their relationship is not really the center of the book but to a large extent it’s not even the center of their own lives. Perhaps their relationship is just a bit too understated, actually: the business of producing an heir is ignored (and not even discussed!) for quite a few years after it becomes possible, but I guess I can forgive the story this small anachronism.

Ultimately Wolf’s Cub is kind of hard to pin down, something that probably hasn’t done it any favors when it comes to finding an audience. It’s a character-oriented romance whose main character spends more time fighting battles than he does with his love interest. It’s a “gritty” fantasy in the sense that it takes place in a world of moral grays filled with bloodshed and difficulties, but its main characters are fundamentally good people whose lives are clearly destined to fulfill a prophecy of restoration. It’s also a book about the costs of war and the importance of peace that doesn’t try to shock the reader with descriptions of blood, entrails, and suffering. Finally, it’s a book that examines prejudice and the myths society tells about itself while also unironically portraying its protagonist as a hero. If there are other books along these lines (YA fantasies maybe?) I haven’t read them.

One final note: originally published in 1998 by a publisher who I believe went out of business, Wolf’s Cub and its sequel are back in print as ebooks. The death of the concept of “out of print” is the best part of the transition to electronic formats and I hope more authors do this as the market grows.

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

January 3, 2011 at 12:48 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

Iain M Banks is the sort of author I like to use as a reviewer benchmark. Most people have read at least one or two of his novels, and while some are more liked than others there isn’t wide agreement on his best and worst. If you feel the same way, I’ll break it down for you: I think Use of Weapons is his best work, and indeed it’s one of my favorite science fiction novels of all time. Player of Games was also very good, of course. Consider Phlebas and Against a Dark Background were fun but a little too depressing in their nearly nihilistic outlook. Feersum Endjinn, Excession and Algebraist (at least the first two thirds of it) were fun although a little lightweight compared to his early work. I felt Matter had all the joie de vivre of Consider Phlebas without the humor and kinetic action. And Transition I found to be a complete, unmitigated disaster.

Right away, Surface Detail has some parallels with Transition. Like that novel (or at least part of it), Surface Detail is concerned with the morality of torture, or rather the lack thereof. Starting from the common idea of mind uploading, Banks speculates that civilizations would use it to provide a virtual reality afterlife for their citizens. In addition to the Heavens you would expect, sometimes these afterlives would include Hells as well. The central conflict of the novel is the humanitarian struggle to get rid of these things, for Banks’ idea of Hell (and by extension, every Hell ever created by civilizations in the novel…there doesn’t seem to be any diversity) seems pretty much taken from Dante. I found this disappointing, to put it mildly. Don’t get me wrong, when it comes to torture Banks has a reputation for creativity that goes back to his earliest novels (Consider Phlebas in particular is infamous for opening with the main character’s captors executing him by drowning him in excrement) and he hasn’t lost any of that spark. But ultimately the pro-Hell argument seemed very much a straw man to me. Dante’s Inferno is seven hundred years old, after all. Yes, people still believe in this version of Hell, but I’m going out on a limb and guessing none of Banks’ readers do. Well, I guess no one is reading Banks to learn about cutting edge Christian theology, but Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God” is far more interesting and has much more to say on this subject despite being a short story instead of a novel. Still, I would have been much more interested to see Banks turn his formidable creativity toward what the various virtual reality Heavens might look like, since heaven remains just as elusive a vision today as it was when Dante wrote the Paradiso.

Then again, the Culture is a sort of secular heaven, even if it is more accurately called a utopia. However, one of Surface Detail‘s main characters Lededje (his novels might be uneven but the aesthetics of Banks’ character names are, ahem, consistent) literally dies and, thanks to a device that transmitted her neural state at the time of death, wakes up to find herself in the Culture at the beginning of the book. She’s had a hard life up to this point to say the least, but instead of exulting to find herself in secular paradise, she immediately starts heading back to her homeworld to get revenge on the man who repeatedly raped and ultimately killed her. That’s understandable, but what’s less understandable is that while the Culture politely scolds her for wanting to kill someone, it doesn’t seem to have any therapy or counseling options available besides, well, being in the Culture, and that’s obviously not enough in this case. In any case, Lededje is given a new body but no psychological help, so off she goes. Her quest takes up a fair amount of the novel, but it ultimately doesn’t have any real impact on events.

Her murderer, Veppers, is a technocrat with a corporate empire in a non-Culture human civilization. In addition to being a serial rapist and a murderer, he literally has a harem and also holds gladiatorial events on his massive estate. A substantial chunk of the novel is told from his perspective, but this is made bearable by one of Banks’ literary superpowers: his ability to infuse charisma into over-the-top villains like Veppers and Transition‘s Adrian. Bearable, but not, in my opinion, worthwhile. These utterly self-centered characters have showed up frequently in Banks’ later work, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence they are absent from his best novels. In any case, most of the civilizations operating Hells turn out to have contracted out administration and maintenance to Veppers over the years, and he has a convoluted scheme to turn the galactic debate over their morality to his advantage. In the end, however, his schemes come to nothing and it seems unlikely they could have ever succeeded.

Prin and Chay meanwhile are anti-Hell activists of a nonhuman race that operates a virtual reality Hell, although to avoid censure from both domestic and galactic sources, this Hell is kept secret. With the aid of hackers, they enter their race’s Hell while still alive with the intention of escaping and then going to the media with their story. These are the scenes that let Banks construct his infernal theme park, but additionally Chay’s story in particular turns out to have some interesting moments. Overall, however, this was a frustrating storyline. The only argument presented by the pro-Hell side justifying their virtual reality Hell, which I remind you is a secret, centers on its deterrence. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see how it can deter anything unless people know it exists. Meanwhile, Prin’s goal is to testify before some sort of galactic tribunal of unspecified powers, but plenty of civilizations seem to admit to operating Hells and no one has stopped them yet, so I’m not sure what this was supposed to accomplish. Ultimately Prin and Chay’s crusade is overtaken by events elsewhere, so their heroism doesn’t end up changing the outcome.

The only Culture citizen of the viewpoint characters is Yime, a human working for a branch of the Culture’s Contact bureaucracy that specializes issues relating to uploaded dead people. I don’t see why the Culture wouldn’t just call these “people” since really there’s nothing dead about them, but in any event she is sent after Lededje in hopes of…well, that’s never made clear. She’s just supposed to get to Lededje and trust this will be useful somehow. This seemingly simple task proves unexpectedly difficult, but Lededje turns out to be unimportant, so Yime’s mission is even more so.

The final viewpoint character is a man named Vatueil. After much acrimonious debate in galactic diplomatic channels, the pro-Hell and anti-Hell activists apparently decided to settle the issue by fighting a virtual war and swearing to abide by the result. Vatueil fights in this war for hundreds of subjective years. In the end, the losing side doesn’t respect their oath and starts a real war instead, so Vatueil was apparently completely wasting his time. I think Banks was trying to be ironic here, something along the lines of war being hell and Vatueil finding himself in a virtual hell about virtual Hells. Maybe. If so, it didn’t really work.

Incidentally, Banks is fond of twist endings, and there is a revelation in the epilogue relating to a previous Culture book. For once I anticipated one of Banks’ little twists from miles away (and even figured out the relevant anagram while reading), but even if I hadn’t, it amounts to a “hey how about that” and doesn’t change much of anything about the novel (or the novel it references).

From these summaries of the viewpoint characters, you may notice a common theme. Although they frequently seem like they are about to influence the course of events, the characters all turn out to be spectators to the story. To a certain extent this is an inherent problem with the Culture setting. The intellect of the artificial intelligences that control the Culture is so vast that humans end up being mere bystanders. To the extent that the Culture is heaven, or at least a utopia, it begins looking suspiciously similar to Veppers’ life. Much of the time Banks spends with Veppers seems aimed at demonstrating how empty his life is: being wealthy, he can have virtually anything he wants, and he indulges himself with ridiculous pastimes as well as nearly constant sexual activity. Well, this really isn’t that different from the life we see Culture humans leading. Their post-scarcity economy gives them basically anything they want, they fritter their time away in outlandish hobbies, and of course seem to have as much sex as they want. While the Culture doesn’t allow the rape, murder, and slavery that Veppers also practices, these things are basically tangential to his lifestyle, and in any case if I recall correctly the Culture allows people to indulge such tastes in simulations.

Although there are some interesting contrasts here, it’s not really anything new if you’ve read previous Culture novels. It’s been a while since I read it, but I’m pretty sure the meaninglessness of life when it’s reducing to being a mere pet of machines was at the core of the Idirian opposition to the Culture in Consider Phlebas. While Banks has added a few new departments to Contact as well as a sort of galactic equivalent of the United Nations that ends up working out in practice rather similarly to the patronage system in David Brin’s Uplift novels, this is basically the same Culture setting being brought out of the toy box for another round. If you haven’t read Banks’ best work like Use of Weapons and Consider Phlebas, you should be reading those and not this novel. If you have, however, you might want to know if this novel is worth reading. Given all my complaints about the treatment of Hell and the powerless characters, I’m sure you would expect me to say no.

The thing is, when it gets going, this is an enormously fun novel. The Culture warship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints steals every scene it finds itself in, and Banks makes sure it’s in plenty. I’ve often noticed that although people talk about wanting to see big battles in space opera, it’s really the sort of thing that comes across much better visually in a film or TV show than in prose. Banks squares this circle by letting us watch a complicated engagement with the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints‘s running commentary. The ship’s breezily casual attitude toward combat, its relentless sarcasm, and its smirking asides are the prose equivalent of big budget special effects, at least for me.

Additionally, while as I’ve said there’s no substantive development of the Culture setting here, I feel out of all the Culture novels this one best captures the dark cynicism of Special Circumstances. Usually we see it from the inside, or else in retrospect, but most Culture characters in Surface Detail aren’t part of it and in fact both dislike and fear it. Even though this feeling is evoked and then not developed intellectually the way Banks’ early novels did, it’s nice to see Special Circumstances in its proper light without the distraction of the James Bond antics of their operatives.

In the end Surface Detail can be called a minor Culture novel, but it’s one of the better ones. Science fiction authors are well known for tailing off late in their careers and Banks has been writing for a long time now, but there’s more than enough good here for me to keep holding out hope that Banks has another great novel in his future.

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:

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

November 19, 2010 at 1:27 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 3 Comments

Steven Erikson’s The Crippled God is coming out in February 2011, finally bringing his ten book series Malazan Book of the Fallen to a close. My usual policy with series is to wait until they are finished, read them all at once, and review them as a single work. However, a few years ago, after being told the early books stand on their own, I read the first few Malazan books to see what the fuss was about. That was during a period where I’d succumbed to laziness and stopped updating this site with what I was reading, so you’ll have to just take my word that I enjoyed the books. Having heard the series gets more tightly linked as it goes on, I stopped pretty early…to be honest I’m not completely sure where, but I think after the third book, Memories of Ice. With the series about to be completed, however, it’s finally time to read the whole thing. I’m starting a little early, but with nine books totaling almost three million words to read, I don’t think I’m likely to be done before February. Since the early books in this series, while linked, have distinct plots and often distinct sets of characters, I’m going to review them separately, at least for now.

Enough about that, let’s actually start talking about the first book, Gardens of the Moon. From the beginning this was described as the first of ten books. What kind of story needs that sort of space? As the novel opens, the 2nd Army of the Malazan Empire has been fighting for years against the Free Cities of the continent of Genabackis. Although only two cities remain outside Malazan control, the campaign is in danger of failing. Malazan morale is dropping rapidly, and the officers, if not the entire army, think they are being set up to fail by their Empress. To their opponents, resistance against Malazan tyranny is a patriotic struggle for freedom, but one they can’t hope to win in the long run. This is more than enough to sustain a novel, but as the book goes on, all this turns out to be just the tip of a vast iceberg. Perhaps the highest praise one can offer a book of this size is that after finishing it I was eager to keep reading more.

Like most fat fantasy novels, this is a very broad book. There’s a huge cast, many of whom serve at least briefly as viewpoint characters, and although the action of the book ultimately centers on the Free City of Darujhistan, it first ranges through other cities and even other continents. Insomuch as it can be boiled down, there are two main threads. In one, the few survivors of an elite 2nd Army regiment are given a new captain they don’t trust and a mission they believe impossible. In the other, a diverse group of friends in Darujhistan struggle to stay afloat amid the corruption and intrigue of a city in the shadow of an invading army.

When summarized so briefly, it takes on a realistic air, but this is very much of the swords and sorcery branch of the fantasy genre. Magic use is restricted to a small subset of the population, but that subset is large enough for it to be far more pervasive than in most fantasy novels. The range of power, meanwhile, is as wide as any novel I’ve read. The army has fairly weak “squad mages” mixed in with its soldiers, but there are High Mages capable of leveling armies by themselves. Beyond the human majority there are various types of immortals, from the elf-like Tisti Andii fighting for the Free Cities to the undead army of T’lan Imass commanded by the Malazan Empress. Complicating matters still further, gods and near-divinities called Ascendants are interfering in mortal affairs so much they make the gods of the Iliad look like the Swiss. There’s a ton of people groups, concepts, and powers to digest, and no doubt readers new to fantasy must find it all pretty dizzying, but for the experienced reader there’s nothing very unfamiliar. While it sounds harsh to call Erikson unoriginal, the fact is just about all the fantastic elements he uses have precedents from other prominent genre works. What distinguishes Erikson’s work, apart from its scale and ambition, is the mood he strikes.

You see, as with most sword and sorcery stories, and especially given its kitchen sink approach to fantasy tropes, there’s a danger that Gardens of the Moon won’t quite pass the giggle test, what with its floating mountain, assassins and thieves guilds, and hulking fantasy stereotype Anomander Rake. Erikson defuses this by starting off grim. By present standards, Gardens of the Moon is not a really dark book, but its darkest moments are at the beginning to set the tone. Before sitting down to reread this novel, I had forgotten almost everything from my original Malazan reading, but you can be sure that I still remembered the aftermath of the siege of Pale.

From this bleak beginning, Erikson moderates the tone and eventually introduces various elements that, considered in isolation, would seem pretty silly. But these are defused by the inertia of that serious beginning and the constantly down-to-earth attitude of the main characters. This is still high fantasy, but where most novels would feature a larger than life character like Anomander Rake prominently, Erikson is smart enough to leave him on the periphery, just as remote from the experience of the main characters as he is from our own (alas, whoever designed the cover pictured at the top of this review wasn’t so circumspect). Although some of the main characters are more powerful and influential than others, all are at the mercy of larger powers they cannot control, a surprisingly unusual theme for a genre that always seems to put the fate of the universe in the hands of the main character in the penultimate chapter.

The book’s relentless narrative momentum contributes to this feeling of being tossed by the winds of history. It might seem hard to believe given the length and complexity of the book that this is actually a very fast paced story, but with so many characters doing so many different things, Erikson is actually pressed for time. In traditional fantasy, diverse groups of characters band together to achieve some sort of goal. In Gardens of the Moon, everyone has their own thing going on, resulting in not just one plot, but over a dozen. Only strong unities of place and time keep the novel from feeling more like a short story collection.

However, it must be said that in the end it gets pretty messy. There is a point where it seems everything will come together explosively at a Darujhistan socialite’s party, but there are so many storylines to resolve and so many characters who need to take a bow that the ending is denied much of its punch. The result isn’t bad, per se, but it’s certainly not as effective as it would have been with a little more focus. With barely enough space to resolve the many stories, it almost goes without saying that there isn’t a lot of depth to the characters. Some are more effective than others (I really enjoyed Kruppe’s third person monologues, though I can see how some might find them annoying), but the timespan of the book is short enough that they don’t have very much time to change. As a standalone book, then, the characterization seems fairly shallow and very much beholden to the plot, but hopefully in the context of the longer series there will be better development.

Since I think the plot is messy and the characters are nothing special, you might be forgiven for wondering why I enjoyed it so much, and why this novel was successful enough to launch a ten book series. I think there are two factors. The first and probably most important is the world Erikson creates. The second, less important but more interesting to discuss, is the novel’s worldview.

Let’s start with the world. While some settings are more interesting than others, I sometimes make the mistake of treating them like a commodity, assuming that since every published fantasy book will have its own world, the mark of a strong book is its plot and characters. Reading Gardens of the Moon was a reminder that no, not everyone does this equally well. In fact, Erikson’s setting is the most effective of any I’ve encountered besides Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Given the by now well-known story of how the Malazan series came to be, I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising. If you don’t know, Erikson and a friend, Ian Esselmont, created the Malazan setting for a pen and paper roleplaying game back in the early eighties. Later, they tried and failed to sell a screenplay based on it to Hollywood. Finally, Erikson wrote Gardens of the Moon. By the time it was published in 1999, there was well over a decade of thought put into the setting. Middle Earth had the depth it did because Tolkien spent literally his entire adult life working on it. Erikson perhaps hasn’t spent quite so long, but he had the advantage of a partner in Esselmont.

Right from the beginning of the novel, the depth of setting is obvious. Unlike Tolkien, who eased readers into his world one step at a time, Erikson dives into the deep waters almost immediately. Some people report bouncing off the book because of this, and I don’t blame them. It’s a lot to process. But for those who manage to integrate it, the result is powerful. Again turning to Lord of the Rings as a useful model, the timespan of that story caught almost every important event. Aragorn had been alive for over a hundred years when he meets Frodo, but little of what he was doing had much impact on the outcome of the story. The same is true for most of the other characters. Ask a character after the events of Lord of the Rings when the important time of their lives was and all would point to the War of the Ring. Gardens of the Moon is completely different. The older characters (and even some of the younger ones) have been active for years and this is just the latest situation they’ve had to confront. It’s serious, but they’ve seen worse, and they’re worried they may someday see worse still.

But the setting’s history goes back a lot farther than just a few decades. Tolkien probably felt our world was about 6,000 years old and so was his Middle Earth. Erikson no doubt sees our world as much older, and this is likewise reflected in his fiction. The Malazan Empire is just the latest of a thousand civilizations, a tiny sliver of hundreds of thousands if not millions of years of history. And this being a fantasy, there are immortal characters who have seen a sizable fraction of that history. Unlike Tolkien, who maintained a generational distance from the events of myth (Elrond was present only for the events at the very end of the Silmarillion), the influential immortals of Erikson’s present were just as influential in past millennia. This results in a unique effect where the past can feel extremely distant in one scene and very immediate in the next, depending on who is present.

Now, having made such an extended comparison to Tolkien, I have to make clear that although Erikson’s world has a depth similar to Tolkien’s, he is a very different writer. He doesn’t share Tolkien’s gift for languages, nor does he lavish nearly so much attention on the landscapes. Erikson was a professional anthropologist, so the details he emphasizes are those of culture. When Tolkien described a hill topped with ruins, he spent most of his time on the hill, whereas Erikson lingers on the ruins. The result is that Erikson’s landscapes are not beautifully evoked, but they come off as being genuinely inhabited (whether now or in the past) in a way that Tolkien’s empty countryside does not.

It’s worth continuing this contrast with Tolkien when we turn to the novel’s worldview. Tolkien’s setting was a conscious evocation of the high medieval period, however idealized. Most of his lesser successors have followed him in this, although they both loved and understood it less than Tolkien did. Erikson goes back much farther, and while his Malazan Empire is not an exact replica of any previous society, the closest analogue is probably the early Roman Empire. Whereas Tolkien’s world was fundamentally Christian, Erikson’s is thoroughly pagan. His gods are capricious and quick to interfere in the affairs of mortals. There’s no sense that humanity has dominion over the earth…the opposite, in fact. The distance between gods and men is small. Dangerously small, since the difference in power is vast. That disparity in power is perhaps the most old-fashioned element here. It’s easy to forget that for all the inequalities of wealth in our era, most people deny there is much difference between the average person and, for example, the American president. But to the ancients, there was an enormous gulf between the lowly peasant and Pharaoh, son of Ra.

However, mixed into this authentically ancient outlook is a very modern flavor. Unlike traditional Tolkien-influenced fantasy, the past is not considered better, nor is the present a slide down into a faded future. Oh, there were still powerful races and empires in previous eras who forged mighty artifacts and fought incredible battles, but while they are certainly due some respect, ultimately there is an assumption that modern magic is just as good as the old stuff, if not better. Even the Jaghut Tyrant, an ancient evil feared by all and the closest thing in the novel to a Dark Lord, is implied to be somewhat obsolete and rather out of his depth.

As for the gods, they may be active in the world, but ordinary people seem to mostly ignore them and hope to be ignored. Although there are cults and priests, we don’t see sacrifices being made or rituals undertaken to maintain the balance of the world. The only thing that resembles the consultation of omens or oracles is the Deck of Dragons, the ingenious tarot-like game that allows certain talented people to visualize divine affairs. The gods are of the ancient conception, then, but religious practice is about as pervasive as it is in the modern developed world (that is to say, not very). The pagan deities in, say, Rome could be capricious, but ultimately their favor could be bought through sacrifices and their protection assured through the proper administration of rituals. Erikson’s deities are complete free agents, depriving the masses of any hope of influencing the world around them.

This lack of influence extends to the characters, although Erikson does something rather tricky there. Again and again, he shows us that his characters are other than what they appear. Kruppe is a bumbling fool, Crokus is an insignificant thief, and Paran is a neophyte officer. Or are they? The named Bridgeburner characters all act like war-weary soldiers from gritty military fantasy like that of Glen Cook: despite cynicism about high command, they push forward and follow orders. Right? Actually, it turns out that Sergeant Whiskeyjack is no mere Sergeant, that Quick Ben isn’t a lowly squad mage, and so forth. The Bridgeburner characters are slumming. They are far more powerful than they appear, but that just makes them a target of the world’s great powers. For the moderately powerful in such a dangerous universe, false humility is the only alternative to destruction.

Since they are both long fantasy series, it’s inevitable that Malazan Book of the Fallen is often compared to George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s interesting that they end up being exact opposites in the way their characters interact with the world. A Song of Ice and Fire is full of ordinary humans who act just like we would expect historical nobles to act, bickering and self-centered, but they are caught amidst the events of high fantasy. Erikson’s characters, meanwhile, are surrounded by what are really quite mundane events. The Empress takes the throne through assassination, slowly purges those who were personally loyal to the previous Emperor and replaces them with her own partisans, and finally bleeds the armies dry trying to win military glory. But for the fact the person in charge is female, this could easily refer to any number of Roman Emperors. But in fact no one’s motivations, from high officials like the Empress and High Fist Dujek to seemingly ordinary grunts like Sergeant Whiskeyjack and Quick Ben, are even remotely like what they appear. They have the motivations of high fantasy characters, but these play out in a way that resembles the mundane games of empire.

Perhaps the most modern element of the novel is the depiction of the military. Although I said that the Malazan Empire feels similar to Rome at times, it has armies, not legions, and they are broken down into squads the way modern armies are. The participation of women and the use of winged animals for airlifts also has a modern ring. But by far the most modern aspect of Erikson’s warfare is its carnage. It’s caused by magic or supernatural powers rather than technology, but nevertheless the capacity for mass destruction is unmistakeably modern in nature. The empires of our past were capable of inflicting horrifying atrocities, but they did so slowly and deliberately. In Gardens of the Moon thousands of people can be killed by a single errant magical attack.

This modern and therefore very high destructive potential is combined with ancient and therefore low valuations of human life. Since World War II, the ever-escalating cost of war between two developed nations has become so frightening to contemplate that asymmetric war is the only kind anyone is willing to fight. In Gardens of the Moon, leaders are not so squeamish. To his credit, Erikson makes sure the terrible cost of the resulting warfare is put front and center. It’s no accident that the novel opens with not just one but two horrific battlefields where the soldiers who died never had a chance to fight back. Despite the huge number of characters who are soldiers, assassins, mercenaries, generals, etc., fighting is never glorified. Even the Bridgeburners, who are indeed glorified as a legendary military unit and present some of the most interesting and sympathetic characters, turn out to be ambiguous at best, given they attempt to orchestrate murders and then prepare a terror attack on a civilian population. They are well-intentioned, but so are their enemies who live in Darujhistan. When they meet in the right circumstances, people from the two different sides even become fast friends. Yet the intentions of ordinary people cannot change their world, so the conflict continues, grinding up human lives in the vast gears of ambition and intrigue.

It’s this theme that motivates the book’s odd title, whose meaning escaped me in my original reading. After finding the corpse of a man killed in the political infighting surrounding Darujhistan’s panicked politics, the naive but supernaturally attuned Apsalar tells her friend Crokus about the oceans on the moon:

Its oceans. Grallin’s Sea. That’s the big one. The Lord of the Dead Waters living there is named Grallin. He tends vast, beautiful underwater gardens. Grallin will come down to us, one day, to our world. And he’ll gather his chosen and take them to his world. And we’ll live in the gardens, warmed by the deep fires, and our children will swim like dolphins, and we’ll be happy since there won’t be any more wars, and empires, and no swords and shields. Oh, Crokus, it’ll be wonderful won’t it?

Crokus’ initial reaction is to consider this absurd. It’s Erikson’s achievement (and this is, in my opinion, a considerable achievement) that not only do we as readers immediately have the same reaction as Crokus but we have it for the same reason. Immersed in the Malazan world with its manifold deities and deep magic, there’s nothing implausible about the idea of beautiful gardens under an ocean on the moon tended by an elder god. No, the only thing that seems unbelievable about Apsalar’s description is its last image: “There won’t be any more wars, and empires, and no swords and shields.” An end to suffering and war? That’s just fantasy.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen reviews:

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