In most fantasy worlds, the author starts with a fairly ordinary situation, develops the world and the magic underlying the world gradually, and then...moreIn most fantasy worlds, the author starts with a fairly ordinary situation, develops the world and the magic underlying the world gradually, and then develops the situation from there. Along the way, there typically is a good deal of repetition. In some multi-book series, the repeated explanations of how things work, or where the characters stand, becomes tedious at best.
Erikson goes to the other extreme. The situation at the start of this series is far from normal, even for the Malazan world. The characters don't even get introduced to the reader. Rather, like a play, they appear onstage, and we have to make of them what we will. And the magic system is far from clear. Indeed, its not entirely clear how well people in the world understand it, even while they are using it.
All of this makes for a very steep learning curve, and makes this book almost impossible to understand on a first reading. "Isn't enjoyment a kind of understanding?" So said a poetry teacher of mine in college. And fortunately, I found enough enjoyment in this book the first time through to continue in the series. More and more, I'm thinking that this is far and away the best fantasy series I've read. (And it ranks up there with the Palliser series by Trollope, and the Marlowe books by Chandler, as a favorite in any genre.)
My impression of this book improved dramatically on re-reading. The first time through I was alternatively amazed and confused. This time, most of the confusion is gone, and I would have to say that I was alternatively amazed and moved. The striking thing for me is how fully Erikson has a grasp on each of his characters, and how he had this incredibly complex web in his head from the start. Read this book/series if you like fantasy, if you like tragedy, if you like originality, if you like dark humor. Stay away if you need spoon-feeding and have little tolerance for being confused. These days, its rare for me to re-read anything at all. I have perfect confidence that this book, and probably the whole series will get at least a third reading. It's that good.
In lots of fantasy, and in series in particular, I get frustrated with authors continually repeating their explanations and descriptions of certain th...moreIn lots of fantasy, and in series in particular, I get frustrated with authors continually repeating their explanations and descriptions of certain things. For example, how many times does Robert Jordan remind the reader that an Aes Sedai has an ageless face? Goodkind's Sword of Truth series would probably be less than half of its current length if not for all the needless repetition.
No-one will ever accuse Erikson of having this failing? The main frustration I have in these first books is that there is never reminders of who someone is, or what some race is, etc... In this book, one of the main characters is Mappo. He is a Trell. What's a Trell? I still have no idea. It's possible that Erikson told me somewhere in the beginning. But he doesn't distinguish between what's important and what isn't as he is writing, so I didn't catch it, if he did say so. Mappo has a companion named Icarium, who is a Jhag. What's a Jhag? I still don't know. Again, its possible that its in the book, but its not brought out in a way that held my attention. Maybe this is my laziness, and maybe not. My sense, however, is that Erikson prefers to hide information from the reader, and sometimes it feels to me like he's hiding it simply for the sake of hiding it.
So why four stars? Mostly because the book unfolded in a way that was very satisfying. The ending is really great. There are more than a handful of characters that I liked following. And it does now feel like this is shaping up to be a really big story that may be worthwhile when completely told.
ON REREAD: Bumped to five stars. The structure of this book is much tighter than I realized on the first read. And I came to have genuine felling for several of the characters, making the various endings even more heartbreaking than they were on first read.
Looking at my early review, I now know what a Trell is, and what a Jhag is. Does it matter all that much for my appreciation? Hard to say. I think its more important to understand the relationship between Mappo and Icarium, and how touching that relationship is. If I had understood what it meant that Icarium is a Jhag, I might have gotten more the first time around from the stunning reveal in the Azath house at the end of this book.
I no longer think Erikson hides information for the sake of hiding it, or at least not solely for that reason. He's an archeologist, and he's trying to give some of the pleasures of archeology to his readers. But that means that the readers, like the archeologist, must often dig with teaspoons, and must also keep careful track of what they have already found. The job of making the connections is the reader's job, not Eriksons. This can be frustrating, and first go round, it definitely was. But the second time through, it was even more enjoyable. And I still have the sense that I would probably discover more on another reading.
And then for the great stuff: Erikson has a tremendous sense of humor, and its needed, because he also has one of the keenest gifts for tragedy. And this book delivers both on very grand scale. In the Gardens of the Moon there is a passage where a character asks a T'lann Imass what he is thinking about. "Futility." he answers. The questioner then asks if that is what other T'lann Imass think of. He says: "No, they mostly refrain from thinking at all." Why? the questioner asks. "Because it is futile."
This book takes the question of futility and lifts it up for study. The entire Chain of Dogs can be seen as either impossibly heroic, or impossibly futile. Perhaps both. And the same goes for Mappo's "guidance" of Icarium, and for Kalam's quest to assassinate Laseen. (less)
First read - 7/10/10 This was easily my favorite so far in the series. There was easily enough in this book for two shorter books, and I sometimes won...moreFirst read - 7/10/10 This was easily my favorite so far in the series. There was easily enough in this book for two shorter books, and I sometimes wonder why Erikson doesn't break up his books into shorter chunks. As it is, the books are enormous, and in the previous books, I've sometimes felt either lost or weighed down. That didn't happen here. But I guess the trend of epic fantasy has been longer books and longer series, and if that's so, then Erikson is right up there with the longest and the longest.
What sets this book apart is that it had emotionally satisfying endings. Here, not only at the end, but there was also a point in the middle of the book that could have acted as the same (after the amazing siege). Not only that, but after 3000 pages, I feel like I'm really getting to understand some of the characters, and also feel like I have some grounding in the way this fantasy world works.
There's still an annoying tendency to hide information and/or motivations, for what simply seems the sake of hiding it. But I felt that there was less of that here than elsewhere. And in some parts, it became clear that part of the reason for the "hiding" was because the characters themselves don't understand what's going on. One great example was towards the end (Minor Spoiler Coming) when one new "Mortal Sword" has a conversation with another more experienced "Mortal Sword". Part of the conversation is about what it means to be a "Mortal Sword," and ultimately neither one of them have a clue. It was a great conversation, and one of my favorite moments in the book.
Overall, Erikson shows here that he not only has a good sense of tragedy (which was on display in the previous books), but he can also carry off elegy in a very satisfying way. This book has at least four resolutions that I found to be very, very satisfying. The satisfaction came because Erikson seems to be getting better and better at writing characters and making me care for them.
I have some other books to attend to before I turn to the next mammoth volume in this series. But I'm now pretty confident that I will be sticking with this series all the way through.
On Reread: This book was the turning point for me the first time through the series (or I should say the first eight books - I still haven't read the last two). After reading it, I finally became convinced that Erikson had a masterful command of what he was doing. On re-reading, the most I can manage to say is that I'm even more amazed at what Erikson has done. When all is said and done, this series is over 3 million words long. The confusion that I had at the beginning stems mostly from the book being so tightly written. Just imagine what it takes to envision a work that's over 3 million words long and have the main problem for readers be that the writing may be too concise. The mind boggles.
2/7/11 - Erikson begins by treating us to a 200 page prelude about a new character named Karsa, who also starts out as one of the most purely despicab...more2/7/11 - Erikson begins by treating us to a 200 page prelude about a new character named Karsa, who also starts out as one of the most purely despicable characters I've ever read. He starts out on his quest for glory, which basically means slaughter and rape. He gets captured, and grows into one of the best and most interesting characters in the series. Erikson is always audacious, and never more so than with this prelude. It's probably the best writing so far in the series, and the remainder of the book doesn't quite live up to it.
On their own terms, the other parts of the book stand up very well. The gradual building to a showdown between Tavore and Felisin, the two sisters who lead opposing armies, is very good. And because of that sort of thing, this book is easily the most personal, and the least political of the books so far. On top of that, there were times when I had a sense of what was going on, and what the grand scheme of this world. Of course, Erikson is still as capable as ever of leaving me wondering what just happened, or what some new development or revelation might mean or might have to say about everything else.
Not only is this world difficult on its own terms, but the playing field and the alliances keep shifting. it's hard to know which characters are really aligned with each other. Of course, that's one of the main themes of this book. Felisin is holding together a rebel alliance, while it seems every faction leader is conspiring against her and against each other. The web of conspiracies and betrayals is so deep and complex that it becomes very hard to keep it all straight. I sometimes think that a re-reading from the beginning would help me make sense of things, and to an extent it probably would. But I also think that many things in this series are just deliberately opaque. Sometimes that's frustrating, but I think its also one of the things that makes the series so compelling. You never know where you stand, with anyone -- and most of the time, they don't know either.
Reread (with Spoilers ahead)- The Karsa Orlong story was even better the second go round. On the first read, I mostly focused on the personal confrontation between Felesin and Tavore, but that was largely because so many connections in other stories went completely over my head on the first reading. And also, I had little appreciation for the depth of what I was reading, because I didn't know what was coming. I know that seems strange, and I can understand why some people might consider it unsatisfactory writing. But let's face it, really good literature gets better on re-reading mostly because there is true substance to what's going on. And Erikson has things play out, rather than explain every detail.
This time around, I had a much deeper appreciation for several characters that didn't mean much to me the first time around: Trull and Onrack, Pearl and Lostara, the interplay between Gesler and Fiddler. And I was, if anything, even more moved by the tragedy of Felesin, and the parallel tragedy of the Whirlwind goddess (which went completely over my head before).
Also, I absolutely love a passage toward the end of the book, where Quick Ben and Kalam are working out what has happened. Ben comes to the realization that the Bridgeburners have ascended!. Kalam asks: What does that mean? And Ben, one of the smartest characters in all of fantasy fiction, says: I have no diea. It's marvelous stuff. On our reading lest here on Goodreads (called The Malazan Fallen if you are interested), we have been discussing what it means to "ascend." It turns out that its a word that some people use in this world, but even the most knowledgable people don't really understand it.(less)
4/28/11 I might write more on this later. This easily could have been the first book of the series, or a standalone novel. It is easily the most coher...more4/28/11 I might write more on this later. This easily could have been the first book of the series, or a standalone novel. It is easily the most coherent narrative of the books so far. But at the same time, for me, it didn't have the tragic scope of either Deadhouse Gates or Memories of Ice. And there is no character in this book who can compare to Karsa Orlong in Chain of Dogs. Even so, I came out of the book feeling satisfied, both with how the book worked on its own, and how it fits into the overall mosaic of these Malazan books.
The one thing (I should say the main thing) that keeps puzzling me is the time frame. Basically I'm trying to fit the timing of the events, which seem to take place sometime before the last books, with what was going on with the Crippled God in those books. And, frankly, its not making much sense to me. That's probably my lack of understanding, but it's gnawing at me all the same.
Reread: 7/24/13 - I take back what I say that no character in this book compares with Karsa in House of Chains. He stands a head above everyone else in that book. Here, Erikson has managed to create depth in a number of new characters. For sheer badassery, Iron Bars and Silchas Ruin might be on a par with Karsa. For depth of characterization, I think Bugg, Udinaas, Trull, and Seren are all in the same class as Karsa. And there are a host of other characters here that are not far behind.
Given the promise at the end of House of Chains, this book is the tale of the events that led up to Trull's shorning. The number of betrayals going on here, and their complexity, rivals Deadhouse Gates. The situation is much different, but it's enough to say that a prophecy foretells of a new Empire forming, and their are lots of different factions vying in their own way to set up their puppet as Emperor. So even if people appear to be working together, they are probably involved in some form of betrayal.
Against this background, Erikson tells several tragic stories. But the two that I found most touching are the tales of Trull and Udinaas. Both try to remain loyal, and both end up being branded as betrayers. But then, everywhere you look in this book, there is another tragedy.
To balance that out, this book also probably has the most humor in the series. Bugg easily rivals Kruppe and Pust in delivering laughs. Overall, for me, Bugg rivals Karsa as the standout character in the series (so far).
Looking at other people's reviews, it seems like most of the problems people had with this book result from it introducing an entirely new continent, with a whole new set of characters. That didn't bother me at all the first time around, and even less so here. Sure, I'd love to see more Quick Ben and Kalam, and Fiddler, etc... But the amazing thing is that Erikson has now introduced a new crew of characters, and I feel as strongly about some of them as I do with my old favorites. And by now, I'm used to the idea that Erikson will defy my expectations, and so I'm much more comfortable with simply trusting him while going for the ride.
Finally, there seems to be quite a bit of focus on solving the puzzle of the back story. And I'm almost as much of a sucker for that kind of intricacy as other fans seem to be. But what keeps me mesmerized by these books is the extraordinary interaction among the characters that takes place during the story itself. The intricate backstory for the most part strikes me as a bonus. And I'm sometimes dumbfounded at how intricate and well thought out it all is. But the part that grabs me, is the stuff going on in the here and now. This book ends with Trull being faced with a truly horrific choice. And the story has unfolded in a way that makes me bleed with him when he has to make that choice. I don't see that sort of thing very often in any fiction, much less in a fantasy fiction. But Erikson delivers this sort of thing again and again, and almost always in new, and startling ways. It's truly amazing stuff.(less)
10/10/11 - This series keeps getting better. This book doesn't work as a standalone novel, but that's not too surprising in a book for number six in a...more10/10/11 - This series keeps getting better. This book doesn't work as a standalone novel, but that's not too surprising in a book for number six in an ongoing saga. Rather, this one felt to me like two novels in one. First, there is the baptism by fire of the Bonehunters. And then second, there is the Return of the 14th Army to Malaz Island. Both of these sections stand up with anything already in the series.
GRR Martin got famous by killing off a beloved character. He did it once, and since then the main characters have been pretty much safe. Not so with Erikson. By now, he's killed off many of his main characters, and I don't have the sense that anyone in these books is at all safe. I have pretty much zero idea who is going to make it through to the end. Also, I've now gotten over Erikson bringing back the dead in these books. It no longer feels to me like Gandalf redux, and is simply a part of his world.
The main difficulty I'm now having with these books is my level of confusion with some of the characters motives. Almost every character we see in these books is both a puppet and a puppet-master. They are all manipulating things according to their own plans, while at the same time being manipulated by others. This makes things fascinating, and it makes the characters very intricate, but it also keeps me more than a little disoriented at times. For example, its not easy for me to figure out the relationship between Quick Ben and Shadowthrone.
For that reason, my poor simpleton brain gets a strange feeling of relief whenever Karsa is on the scene. He's refreshingly blunt, and unmoved by the manipulations of others. More than anyone else in this book, he is simply his own man. He's a bastard, but a pure one. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I suppose, is Quick Ben. Instead of being his own man, he's twelve people literally rolled into one. He deals and double-deals with gods. At no point in these books have I been fully clear where he stands, nor with whom he is truly allied (except probably Kalam). He's an amazing character, and very cool, but I find him to be very confusing.
When I'm done with this series, I may have to go back and re-do my ratings for the individual books. Even though I haven't given any of the books five stars yet, the series as a whole is shaping up to be a five star series.
OK, I'm doing my re-read before finishing the series. I did this for some other series, rereading the series as each new book came out. Then I decided never to start a series until the author was finished with it. That's a vow I've already broken, both accidentally and deliberately, but I still think its a pretty good rule of thumb. Now that we are through book six, I'm getting pretty excited that we are only two books away from new territory for me.
I got very frustrated at two points in this book. First, there's a conversation between Paran and Hood. During the conversation Paran asks Hood what he really wants in exchange for a big favor. Hood tells him, and the narrator hides the information from us. There's an enormous amount of stuff in this series that you have to remember and store away. There are connections you need to make on your own. But usually, you don't have the narrator deliberately thumbing his nose at the reader. And for the life of me, I can't figure out what Erikson is gaining by deliberately hiding this stuff.
My other frustration arose from trying to figure out what Laseen is doing. If you assume that she still has a firm grasp on her power, then her actions make no sense. So, the only conclusion I can draw is that she's lost her grip on her power. Somehow she let Mallick Rel and Korbolo Dom subvert her authority. This should have been a great story on its own, but here it is simply elided.
From another standpoint, the elision makes sense. I was expecting a book about the Malazan Empire, and while the books are the Malazan Books of the Fallen, the story they tell does not center on the Malaz Empire. Instead, the story Erikson is telling deals with the clash between the gods, and how some mortals get involved in that clash and influence the outcome. The Empire is decidedly secondary.
Here, the story is how the Bonehunters become its own, independent functioning unit, and its a great story. The seige at Y'Ghatan is a remarkable set piece. The conflagration itself is done amazingly well, but the aftermath in the tunnels underneath the city is even better. Later, there is a set piece where dozens of jade meteorites, all filled with millions of souls, comes crashing to the earth, threatening to destroy the world. Here, we finally get to see what the true meaning of "shield anvil" as Heboric catches and absorbs all that energy into himself and saves the world.
The first time through the book, I didn't understand this passage at all. There's only so much of the book I could focus on at any time, so there were fairly wide swaths that I just let roll over me. The same thing goes for the entire involvement of the Eresal. This time, I have more appreciation for what Erikson is doing on the more cosmic levels, and its truly extraordinary, and unlike any other fantasy I've read.
Then, despite my frustration with the motivations of the Empress, the finale is amazingly well done. There are so many different things going on at once, and they are all done almost perfectly. The last two chapters are a tour de force. And Erikson does this while keeping everything fairly grey (or should I say shadowy). For example, Pearl is functionally a villain, leading the assassins who are trying to kill Kalam, Tavore and T'Amber. And he uses dishonorable means to poison Kalam. And yet, it pretty much tears my guts out when his lover finds him dying and has to put him out of his misery. Conversely, T'Amber seems like a true hero and a badass, and then its revealed that she's been possessed by a "good" god, and all I can do is feel terrible for a person that we never even got to know, and to have some reserved doubts for a god who I basically thought was a good guy.
05/21/12 - We've passed the point in the series where it makes much sense to be reviewing individual books. On its own, this book probably doesn't hol...more05/21/12 - We've passed the point in the series where it makes much sense to be reviewing individual books. On its own, this book probably doesn't hold up too well. In some ways, the structure did not feel as tight as some others. But that may just be because Erikson seems to rely less on big set pieces here than he has in other books. And once again, this book features almost everything I like and dislike about Erikson. There's still great humor, a fine sense of tragedy, great characters, and more than enough moments that left me a bit dumbfounded and confused.
Karsa Orlong has got to be one of the greatest characters in fantasy fiction. Erikson took several books to get to the final duel in this book, and then to its aftermath. I was wondering how he was going to be able to pull it off, and I'm very glad to say that I was not disappointed.
There's some great stuff with Quick Ben, and we even finally get to see him unveil some of his power. On top of that, Hedge became a better character after his death than he was beforehand. And Fiddler is as good as ever. There's a host of other interesting people in here: Beak, Bottle, Toc the Younger, Omrack etc... And, as ever, there is absolutely nothing to stop Erikson from doing away with any character at any time. (This is a contrast to Martin, who made a career on killing Ned Stark, and hasn't been able to bring himself to kill off anyone else who really mattered since.)
Ultimately, the weakness of this book probably lies with me more than the book itself. This series is a long haul, and it demands alot of attention. I definitely think its worth it, but I also sometimes have the feeling that I should know more about what's going on than I actually do. On top of that, while this book has satisfying endings to its story lines, it still feels like a middle, and a very long middle at that.
At the rate I'm going, I might finish this series this year. The real test, I think, will be whether I'm tempted to start over again once I finally make it through.