How does one review a book like Memories of Ice? A book with so many plot lines that are so effortlessly integrated that the book presents itself as a...moreHow does one review a book like Memories of Ice? A book with so many plot lines that are so effortlessly integrated that the book presents itself as a gordian knot of story and narrative? I could try to carefully tease out the various overlapping agendas, plots, and schemes different factions in this world have. I could try to paint a complex tableau that encompasses the many nuances of the characters that are encountered and how they grow and evolve over the course of the story. I sing the praises of its highly detailed and heart breaking battle scenes, which encompassed most of this book :-), while noting how the action drove characters to make tough, consequential decisions.
Or I could give it a cursory review and then list lots of fun things about the book.
Since many others have said some much more, so much better than I could hope to achieve, I am going with the last option.
So Memories of Ice returns us to the characters from the first book in the series, Gardens of the Moon while at the same time introducing us to a whole new slew of characters because Steven Erikson is physically incapable of of writing a book without introducing a bunch of new major characters. We see some absolutely AMAZING battle scenes, learn more about the series's universe and its many players, and see several tragic, unexpected, and major deaths. The writing and imagery is superb and the world building is top notch. I had immense difficulty putting the book down. Thanks to two transatlantic flights I was able to get in some solid reading time. I thought it was much better than Deadhouse Gates, but that could be due to me just knowing more about the world this story takes place in. In any event this is an excellent addition to the series and I highly anticipate the next book!
Now on to the things I found fun about this book:
Great insights into the human condition: For all the fantasy and magic and clashing armies, this series is very much about the mortal experience (albeit one where immortal being use us puny mortals as play things). Erikson has some really nice turns of phrase about the nature of human existence that I thought were worth highlighting.
We each survive as we must, and when time comes to die, we find our places of solitude...
Death and dying makes us into children again, in truth, one last time, there in our final wailing cries.
Expedience always comes arm-in-arm with discomfort.
Forces of nature are indifferent to justice... Thus it falls to us sentient beings, no matter how unworthy, to impose the moral divide.
War is not a natural state. It is an imposition, nd a dmaned unhealthy one. With its rules, we willingly yield our humanity. Speak not of just causes, worthy goals. We are takers of like. Servants of Hood, one and all.
"Diversity is worth celebrating... for it is the birthplace of wisdom."
Kruppe: Possibly the greatest character of the series, this rotund, loquacious gentleman always has fantastic lines and physical comedy (not to mention his... associates as you will see below):
"Kruppe is suitably honoured by your formal, nay, respectful welcome - what a vast display, Kruppe wonders, will you formidable warriors unveil when greeting the Council of Darujhistan's official representatives? The sheer escalation now imminent has Kruppe's heart all a apatter with anticipation!"
"Dear boon companion Coll! Your lack of faith crushes frail Kruppe to his very toes which are themselves wriggling in anguish!"
Ah, yes! Truths, squirming like puppies around Kruppe, upon which he laid patting hand on each one and all in turn, as would any kind master."
"Nonsense, Wizard! Hold to your unassailable self-confidence - aye, some might call it megalomania, but not Kruppe, for he too is in possession of unassailable self-confidence, such as only mortals are capable of and then rightfully but a mere handful the world over. You've singular company, Kruppe assures you!
"Kruppe assures deadly wizard that silence is as Kruppe's closest mistress, lover unseen and unseeable, unsuspected and unmitigatigable."
"Kruppe and the truth are lifelong partners, friend Coll! Indeed, wedded bliss - we only yesterday celebrated our fortieth anniversary."
"Kruppe denies the existence of elusive complexity regarding self, worrisome wizard. Simplicity is Kruppe's mistress - in joyful conspiracy with his dear wife, Truth, of course. Long and loyal in allegiance, this happy threesome."
"Kruppe sees beyond the wrinkled veil, my dear. In all things. Thus his midnight mistress is Faith - a loyal aid whose loving touch Kruppe deeply appreciates."
"Wisdom, after all, is Kruppe's blood brother."
"Not in the least, but perseverance is Kruppe's closest cousin..."
I could seriously read a book that was nothing but Kruppe traveling around frustrating important people. He even gets the better of Quick Ben and that is no easy task!
Gender Politics: It is refreshing to see an author put men and women on the same footing in a fantasy series. All too often women are relegated to support parts or window dressing. Erikson does a wonderful job putting females right into the mix of things be it as foot soldiers in an army or a coniving ascendent women play just as big of a role in this series as the men do. One character even states how foolish it is for a city to NOT recruit the women in the population for its defesnse, seeing it as a major waste of potential.
What we have here is... a failure to communicate: The speed (or lack there of) of communication in sword and sorcery settings can lead to some painfully ironic statements. Point in fact, the following quote from Paran about his family: No matter what, Tavore [his sister] will take care of Felisin [their youngest sister]. That, at least, I can take comfort from.
My guess is the next family reunion will be REEEEEEAAAAALLLLLLYYYYYY awkward.
Realism in Warfare: It is very easy for a writer to sacrifice accuracy for spinning a tale about clashing armies. I think Erikson does a great job getting a lot of details right. Napoleon is right when he says an army marches on its stomach and Erikson uses the importance of logistics to influence how his characters behave.
Erikson also recognizes the importance of paying troops. He quite accurately states that without gold coming from Darujhistan, Dujek's army would be suffering from starvation and desertion. Concurrent to this read I was reading a book about the Thirty Years War and a major problem all armies faced was keeping armies paid and deployed in the field.
All in all I was very pleased by the realistic approach Erikson took to military matters.
World Flavor: While I am not entirely convinced chapters are strictly necessary for Erikson's writing style (seriously, some chapters were 20 minutes long, others an hour and twenty minutes long), I did like the flavor texts new chapters and sections provided. No doubt they will make a lot more sense after I finish the series but for now they are enjoyable nuggets about the greater world and history.
One liners: It shouldn't be lost amidst the crunch of massive armies and the machinations of ascended gods that there are some damn spiffy one liners in this book (by people other than Kruppe that is). Among my favorites:
"Thank you. I'll not deny I am impressed by your mastery of six warrens, Quick Ben. In retrospect, you should have held back on at least half of what you command." The man made to rise. "But, Bauchelain," the wizard replied, "I did." The divan, and the man on it, fared little better when struck by the power of a half-dozen bound warrens than had the wall and Korbal Broach moments earlier." Shades of Watchmen anyone?
The fallen trees - wood and branches liberally drenched in lantern oil - lit up in a conflagration as the first of the burners exploded. Within the span of a heartbeat, the trail and the entire company trapped upon it were in flames. Abyss below, we're [the Bridgeburners]not a friendly bunch are we.
[A paragraph of Kallor monologuing as all villains do] "Enough," Draconus growled. "Your prattling grows wearisome, Kallor."
"If you refuse to go further, then... nothing. Apart from irritating me, that is. The Azath is patient. You will make the journey, though the privilege of my escort occurs but once, and that once is now." "Meaning I won't have your cheery company next time? How will I cope?" "Miserably, if there was justice in the world."
I cannot recommend this book enough and, if you are having doubts about this series after the second book let me assure you that this book is spectacular and really kicks the series into a higher gear.(less)
Is there a plan? Does God have a plan or are we at the mercy of an uncaring universe where bad t...moreSpoilers for My Name is Asher Lev and this book below.
Is there a plan? Does God have a plan or are we at the mercy of an uncaring universe where bad things happen to good people? The question of whether or not the universe is ordered permeates this book, though in a rather subtle way. The book doesn't actually provide an answer to this question, but this question weighs on the minds of the characters as their world becomes more uncertain.
I'm not going to lie, I thought the ending of My Name Is Asher Lev was a major downer. Asher ends up alienating his family and community, leaving Brooklyn to create art in Europe. He was smash hit artistically but it seemed like his relationship with his father was irreparably damaged.
Flash forward 20ish years and Asher is a well established, world renown artist coming off a commercially successful but critically panned exhibition. He is the father of two children and happily married, spending his days painting in southern France before a family tragedy calls him and his family back to Brooklyn.
This book was similar to My Name is Asher Lev in terms of the writing. It is focused on Asher and his internal state of mind throughout the course of the months he spends back in Brooklyn. We see how he views his loving (but still traumatized from the war) wife, his children, his parents (whom he has reconciled with nicely, though not fully), and the community he returns to. We seem him struggle with doubt stemming from the fallout of his Paris show and the balancing of his familial obligations with his drive to create art. It had some gorgeous prose and was quite accessible.
Unlike My Name is Asher Lev, there is no tension in this book between Asher's art and the Ladover community (save for the occasional "How could you create those paintings" comments that popped up, though there were just as many supportive voices as well). Instead the main tensions seemed to be between the Rebbe wanting Asher and his family to stay longer and Asher wanting to return home to France.
It slowly dawns on Asher that there is a deeper purpose to the Rebbe's attention towards Asher and especially his son, attention that will have long term affects on the entire Ladover community and Asher's family. Where the first book left me sad but hopeful for future reconciliation, this ending left me with a deeper sadness that Asher will forever be apart both from his family and his community because of the drive he possess to create art. It is a bittersweet story of a family coming together while at the same time being separated by an ocean and a lifestyle.
Much like My Name is Asher Lev, there are many side storylines that crop up: the disposition of Asher's Uncle's surprisingly amazing art collection, touching base with some friends back in Southern France, his daughter's asthma, settling a debt tot he family of a deceased friend, etc. These were all enjoyable diversions on their own, but unlike the previous book, they did not come together together in an elegant manner that amplified the thrust of the book's message. Instead they struck me a small, self contained vignettes. They were nice adornments but ultimately felt under developed or inadequately related to the main theme of the book.
Overall I thought this book did no live up to its predecessor. It still had Potok's excellent prose and imagery, memorable characters, and a fascinating plot, but it struck me as a bit too loose in the plotting. Perhaps I am missing some subtle connection between all the encounters Asher had, but I never felt Potok drew the whole book together in the end with the same elegance he demonstrated in My Name is Asher Lev. It was a very good and engrossing read (hence the four stars) but I did not have the same transcendent feeling I had when I finished the first book.(less)
So how does someone review a book as large, in depth, and complex as this one? This conflict, which I certainly learned less than nothing about in sch...moreSo how does someone review a book as large, in depth, and complex as this one? This conflict, which I certainly learned less than nothing about in school, was a brutal, long, and devastating war that ravaged many parts of Central Europe. Modern estimates put total losses at 15%-20% of the Holy Roman Empire's population, a loss rate greater than that suffered by the Soviet Union during WWII.
I still cannot conceptualize just how terrible this conflict was. There were domestic armies crisscrossing the land, taking what they needed to sustain itself like a heavily armed swarm of locusts, foreign armies taking advantage of the Empire's weakness to pick off territory, economic collapse, the plague (!!!), and massive population displacements over the course of 30 years. The land was so devastated that by the later parts of the war military strategy had to take into account what regions were still even capable of supporting an army.
Wilson does an excellent job walking the reader through the immense complexity of the war (though the book would have been immensely improved by the addition of more maps). Wisely starting in the years leading up to the actual outbreak of hostilities. The politics that culminated in this devastating conflict were a toxic brew of ambitious nobles, religious zealotry, familial relations, imperial politicking, and the sabotage of existing imperial institutions that could have served as a venue for developing a consensus and compromise.
"Imperial politics was thus a series of formal meetings or rulers and their representatives at irregular intervals, supplemented by lesser assemblies to discuss specific issues... Contact was maintained in between by couriers or informal meetings. The large number of relatively weak elements made it difficult for anyone to act alone, discouraging extremism and diluting any agenda to a minimum that all could agree."
What surprised me most was the proto-representative structures that were already in existence within the Empire. It was nothing close to the representative institutions that exist today, but did provide some degree of representation, even if only among the nobles and other notable citizens. The HRE was much less imperial/autocratic than I initially assumed and there was much too be admired in its structure when compared to its neighbors. Unfortunately those institutions were not strong enough to prevent war (partially through sabotage by religious militants and partially by a very stubborn emperor).
Another thing that surprised me about the conflict was how little religion impacted events. Yes, there was certainly a religious influence on the political decisions of rulers and rebels, but it was not a hard a fast barrier. Protestants served and attained very high positions in the Imperial army while Catholic powers such as France allied with protestant Sweden to take advantage of the Empire's weakness. While being the same religion as your superiors was an advantage, protestants and Catholics served under the banners of all sides. Political gain, more so than religion, was the driving force of nation states with confessional alignments serving as convenient to propaganda efforts.
Speaking of protestant Sweden, it is often forgotten this now benign Nordic country was a world beater back in the 17th Century and successfully invaded and held a portion of the HRE for quite a while. While it had a small population, it more than made up for it by hiring mercenaries and recruiting Germans into its forces. In fact, the vast majority of its army for most of the war was comprised of Germans who preferred the yolk of Sweden to the rule of the HRE. So remember, the next time a volvo cuts you off, they could mean serious business (as long as their were Germans to hire to do their dirty work).
Another fascinating aspect of this war was the inability of contemorary states to sustain the country in a time of war. Financial systems were just beginning to develop their more modern aspects, but were still small and weak. Taxing the population was a difficult activity and rarely raised the expected amount of revenue. Shortfalls were made by loans, IOUS, and granting lands and titles to secure financing. Because this conflict lasted much longer than previous conflicts and had such high stakes, nations, even rich ones such as Spain which could draw upon New World silver, had to take out more and more loans to maintain itself. Sufficced to say, the interest costs ballooned rather quickly:
"Of this [Spanish government expenditures], 30.5 million went to the civil budget; 44.2 million directly to the armed forces; and 175.8 million to bondholders and contractors for loans and interest."
Not surprisingly the lenders had little interest in any sort of public good and could care less if the world went to hell:
"The formal structure of ordinary taxation became little more than a front behind which the financiers carried on their affairs with studied indifference towards the damage that they did to the government and contempt for the suffering of the tax-paying element of the population."
This financial weakness made seizing property from enemies even more important and led to further crimes against civilians and their property. This, in turn, made it more difficult for states to generate tax revenues, continuing the cycle of loans, interest payments, pillaging and more loans. Continue this for 30 years and you can see why this was such a terrible war.
A final note I would like to add is just how few battles there actually were over the course of 30 years. It was primarily a war of maneuver, siege, and diplomacy. Armies lost many more soldiers to desertion and disease than enemy contact. In fact the biggest problem most generals faced was retaining soldiers so that they could threaten the enemy with maneuver and sieges. Unlike the battles and wars we see in so many fantasy novels even crushing victories in the field would not guarantee success in the war. The campaign seasons were short making it difficult to follow up smashing victories, cities and towns could hold out against siege forces that were attritioned through hunger, desertions, and disease, the Empire was large with little in the way of major transportation arteries apart from rivers, and even in victories the winning army would often be severely diminished themselves.
"[Military] Operations were essentially intended to secure local military advantage to lend weight to these negotiations and compel the other side to be more reasonable."
Military victories had to be paired with diplomacy that could extract concessions from the defeated party. Before Clauswitz rulers of the time knew war was merely politics carried out by other means.
All in all reading this book reinforced by fervent belief that a representative secular government is the ideal arrangement for a nation. The Thirty Years War provides a striking example of just what can go wrong in a state so closely tied a specific religion and with so little recourse among the ruled.
"Though they are now largely silent, the voices from the 17th century still speak to us... They offer a warning of the dangers of entrusting power to those who feel summoned by God to war, or feel that their sense of justice and order is the only one valid."
Some other passages that struck me as ringing true and still relevant to today's world:
"Nevertheless, then as now, militancy proves especially dangerous when combined with political power. It creates a delusional sense in those who rule of being chosen by God for a divine purpose and reward. It encourages the conviction that their norms alone are absolute... their faith is the only really true religion."
The two [law and faith] were considered indivisible because religion provided the guide for all human endeavor: since there could be only one truth, there could be only one law. But now Catholics and Lutherans both claimed to be right."
"...while the Germans as a whole were regarded as backward and boorish, too busy gorging themselves on fatty foods and guzzling barrels of beer to achieve the heights of Castilian civilization. They lived in a rain-soaked land of dreary forests... and expensive, uncomfortable inns." Wait, how did that one get in here?
"Factions in both Spain and the [Dutch] Republic saw war as the means to assert control over their own governments and promote what they regarded as their country's best interest."
The Imperialists occupied Meissen and dispatched Croats towards Dresden with the message that Johann Georg would no longer need candles for his banquets as the Imperialists would now provide light by burning Saxony's villages." Mostly because this was the most badass line in the entire book.(less)
I am writing this in an effort to salvage our relationship, a relationship I have enjoyed since we first met. You weren't like a lot of the other space operas out there. You didn't give a damn about things like character development, or subverting traditional sci-fi tropes, or trying to tell a new type of story. You knew what you were, a hard sci-fi military pulp story. You gave me pages and pages of amazing space battles, daring military maneuvers, and spiffy futuristic technology that didn't devolve into magical hand waving. But you also had a sensitive side, showing me a world through the eyes of aliens radically different from our own. These qualities excited and thrilled me. I consumed you at such a rapid rate I didn't know what I had lost until I had finished your most recent book.
Sure, I knew you had your flaws. You couldn't be troubled with actually developing compelling human antagonists, instead falling back on tired old cliches that demeaned Europeans as cowardly, sniveling, appeasers, Mexicans as wanting the Desert SW back, Big Government being evil, and portrayed Americans as virtuous, freedom loving, manly-men (and women). Most of your characters were cardboard cut outs, barely large enough to contain the tropes you assigned them. And your constant refrain about GRIN Technologies and the Alcubierre Drive in every book became tedious. But you always knew how to treat me right, keeping this flaws hidden in the background, minimizing the negative and accentuating the positive.
But now I don't know what to think. It is like you looked at everything good we had and decided to throw it away. As though you entered some sort of mid-life crisis but instead of buying a sports car you decided to complete change your identity, shedding everything I loved about you and embracing all that made you weak.
Where were the epic space battles? They certainly weren't in this book. I remember, when we first met, being treated to an opening battle comprising the first quarter of the book. That was special, that was something no other series had the cajones to do. It wasn't a one time fling either, you kept giving me those glorious space battles in book after book. But I felt you didn't even try this time. The battles seemed half-hearted and formulaic, as though you were just going through the motions, borrowing from your previous battles but not bringing anything new to the table. They left me wanting more, but you had nothing to give. Even the aliens you introduced were given a short shrift, barely having time to come into their own as a civilization, instead falling victim to monster-of-the-weekism.
And why was that? Because you were trying so hard to build some sort of political tension on Earth. You spent so much time playing up the conflict between the Europeans and their allies and the rest of the world. Political maneuverings, talking, more maneuvering. This isn't what you are good at. It is like seeing a duck try to start a fire underwater. You can bless its little aquatic heart for trying, but it won't keep you warm at night. Compound this with the terribly developed tropes you pass off as characters and I could practically see the villains of this morality play twirling their mustaches like Snidely Whiplash after he tied a damsel to train tracks. This was but a faint echo of the shadow of the conflicts of the past four books. And honestly I think you maybe watching too much Fox News with all the unsolicited Anti-Big Government rants you subjected me to.
And the way that conflict resolved made me question if you were really committed to this plot line at all. Not only blatantly stealing Psychohistory from Isaac Asmimov, but doing a terrible job of it. Just because you say meme a lot does not mean that an entire confederation spanning peace movement will spring up overnight to follow a fictional person to overthrow the government within a week. Asimov understood that such things take time to slowly buildup momentum, they don't just materialize out of thin air because it is convenient for your timeline. It beggared my suspension of disbelief and that made me sad. And don't even get me started on your passing reference (but not actual attribution) to the comic Watchmen of all things. Have you no shame!?!?!
I was particularly confused by your incessant need to mention 20th century scientists and intellectuals. Dawkins, Lovelock, Hawking,and Penrose to name a few. Why are you telling me this? I want to see giant spaceships fighting and you are pontificating on the Gaia theory of environmental consciousness. Do you even remember what I like?
Finally, and most damningly, you couldn't get out of your own way when it came to relaying information. Some people complain about infodumps in books, but when done properly they can enhance the story and draw the reader in. What you did, instead, was lay out an intricate field of info-land mines. I would be reading along one of your few space battles and out of nowhere I would end up with several paragraphs about Saturn's ring formation. Humans are about to be attacked by space aliens and one characters explains to the other how the aliens about to eat them are biologically capable of eating them EVEN THOUGH AS A READER WE ALREADY KNEW THAT!!! There is literally no reason for the characters to be discussing this with death imminent. (Speaking of literally, you actually used a sentence that literally had literally in it twice. Come on, you should be better than that). Or when a ship loses power and the bridge has to be lighted by a service member's sub dermal luminescent tattoos and you spend a paragraph explaining the history of tattoos and their place in the navy, both historically and contemporaneously. I wonder if this book was originally called Star Carrier: Exposition: Revenge of the Info-landmines before the publisher made you change.
I hope this letter wasn't too harsh on you, but I want to save this relationship. We had some great times together and this turn you have taken stylistically deeply concerns me. I want to go back to the good ole days where you showed me epic space battles with fascinating aliens and didn't let anything get in the way of that. So reflect on what you have becomes and, for our sake, change back to what you were before.
If you don't and continue this descent into cheap jingoism, half-hearted battle sequences, and near constant exposition I am afraid it will be over between the two of us.