Tag Archives: The Malazan Book of the Fallen

Deadhouse Gates

It has been a stupidly long time since I finished listening to Gardens of the Moon. Literally over a year! Like, how is that even possible? (Answer: obviously, I don’t spend enough time listening. Particularly, what should be an obvious commute activity is mostly taken up by a radio show that I continue to enjoy greatly.) But: I did finally finish my reread (relisten? both are technically incorrect) of Deadhouse Gates. I definitely reacted differently from last time, and I’m not sure why. I mean, I have guesses, but there are a lot of variables, so.

The primary thing is, the Chain of Dogs. I have always remembered that tale, and I know it made a huge impression on me even then, due to documentary proof. This time, it took pretty much last place. I was most interested in Fiddler and Kalam’s quest to have an, um, discussion with Surly. As for Felisin’s path… I would be better able to discuss my new reactions if I remembered what my old ones were, but I definitely found her sympathetic despite her best efforts. But yeah, Duiker and the refugees: either knowing the outcome in advance deflated the tension entirely, or else something about the performance undercut it. I’d bank on the first one, though.

As usual, most or all of the secondary and incidental characters were fully realized (as honestly is the world, despite my sometime inability to fully understand what I’m seeing). Including one Iskaral Pust, upon who I partially based my most recent RPG character. I very much look forward to continuing, and I suppose I can, now that I’m not behind on reviews again. Maybe I’ll do a better job on the speed, this time?

I’m pretty sure my friend Kenn had read at least a handful of these prior to his consecutive reading of the full series, and I’d be interested in whether his thoughts parallel any of mine, here, assuming he remembered the individual volume well enough. Alas, he has no way of knowing that this review exists.

Gardens of the Moon

51Fl5aumCbL._SL300_First thing: I’ve read Gardens of the Moon before, but I’ve never reviewed it. Some number of years ago, I tried to read it again in conjunction with the person who maintains this site for me, but he failed me, so I only got through like the first third. But now, in the wake of having gotten an Audible subscription in order to listen to the Nightvale book for “free”, I decided that maybe the thing to do is use that book a month to listen to series that I would otherwise have to reread to get caught up on.

This has as its upside that I can read new books in the meantime, and as its downside that I have been slowly, by piecemeal, listening to the same book since February. As you can imagine, that’s way, way too long to hold onto a book[1] if you aren’t previously familiar with it.

That said: these are an exemplary series. I know I like later books a good deal more than this one, but everything that was troublesome about it has been rendered fine and dandy by my general knowledge of the world, and what is left behind is a beautifully meandering prologue into what promises to be an even more beautiful story of the end of the world. As opposed to Martin, who while also writing a story about the end of the world, is writing the grim, filthy version of it.

Last, the narration: it took me a while to warm up to Ralph Lister, but in the end, it turns out he’s an incredibly talented artist. I cannot come up with as many different voices as he has done, much less keep them all straight in my head over the course of a doorstop fantasy novel. That said, the direction or perhaps assembly of the book leaves a lot to be desired. You know how scenes change within a chapter, and there’s a line break in the book to delineate it? There damn well needs to be a pause in the audio to match that, or things can get very confusing, even when I have read the story before. Man, I hope they figure that out by the next book, or, ever.

[1] I feel bad for my father now, to whom I’ve been reading It for better than two years. Um. Oops. I’ve been busy?

Toll the Hounds

One of the very few problems with the Malazan Book of the Fallen is that, like The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the title of the series is kind of a massive spoiler. But since it’s ten books long, and with approximately that many ancillary books published or on the way, I suppose it’s pleasant to at least have an inkling of what you’re getting into. And yet, at no point (well, okay, at very few points) does the series wallow in its bleakness. The death and tragedy serve as contrast for the heights that humankind (well, personkind, as there are lots of non-humans around, and most of them reasonably immortal to boot) can aspire to. Toll the Hounds alone covers camaraderie, duty, leadership, self-sacrifice, and even that old semi-Vulcan saw about the needs of the one outweighing the needs of the many.

Okay, and the other big problem I have is the same problem I have with every sizable series; it’s impossible to review after a certain point. Nevermind that he’s not really in this book nor that I have yet to draw in my mind a clear diagram of who is on what side of the war against him, why he among all the unlikeable gods needs to be fought, or even what he actually wants: you don’t even know who the Crippled God is! And, okay, reading over that, it doesn’t sound like I do either, and maybe that’s a valid place to start, when you consider that I’m thinking about this review in terms of an absent character. But I have nowhere to go from there either that doesn’t lead me down the same path of worries about how much is too much to repeat again and again and also where would the spoilers lie?

But, okay, I think the theme of this book is dissolution. It happens literally  during the climax, more than a few times, but that’s not really what I’m talking about; it only serves to reinforce my point. Dissolution of conspiracies, of the bonds of friendship, the decay of skills once proudly held, of family ties, and from several different directions, intent to dissolve the whole of civilization itself. (Obviously that cannot happen in the eighth book of a ten book series[1], though I am impressed by my belief that it could really be the direction the series is going.) And if that sounds bleak, just like the series as a whole does from the title, I will say again that there’s a lot of good happening, and that it is served all the better by the high contrast against the bleakness of a theme celebrating entropy’s inevitable victory.

I’ll say it again, and probably one or two more times after this, but you really ought to read Gardens of the Moon. It’s a good start to a thusfar amazing journey.

[1] Sure, it can happen in the first book of a series of any duration, if the post-apocalyptic is what the goal was all along. But not four-fifths of the way through anything, is my point. Later or earlier, okay.

Reaper’s Gale

If you’re wondering where I’ve been all this time, it’s a fair question. I mean, I’ve been wondering too, and this is speaking as someone who knows! But to answer you, no, I don’t have an incredible backlog of stuff that I need to get out in a rush, before I forget every little remaining detail of all those books. This is because, quite simply, I don’t have any backlog at all. I’ve been behind this one Malazan book the entire time. And after all this time, the better part of a month, I don’t have a lot I can really say. Reaper’s Gale is the seventh book of a ten book series, and it’s not just that I’d be worried about spoilers (although I would), it’s that it’s really no longer possible to describe the plot in meaningful terms to people who aren’t fellow readers, and I know there are not very many yet.

What I can talk about is the gamut of emotions each new book brings.[1] First of all, there’s the vividness of it all. I can cackle at one scene, cringe at the next, and feel terrible at the (almost never overblown) pathos of the random vagaries of life in a third. I can watch a genocidal war prosecuted and not really hate any of the characters involved in it even while feeling the horror, not just at the fact of it but at the separate fact that the characters know what they’re doing. It’s not just that almost every character is likeable in his or her own way, it’s that the entire series is most heavily concerned with redemption, and it’s available to everyone who really wants it. Happiness is often fleeting and never guaranteed, victory is as changeable as the sands of the desert, and justice, well, it turns out that justice is out there, but since I would link it with redemption, that just makes sense.

At the end of each of these books, I am torn between wanting to dive ahead and knowing that I have to move on to something else, and frankly wanting that pretty badly too. But sometime in the next few years after I’ve finished the series and let it settle, I’m going to have to go back and read the whole thing in a row, even though it will take me half a year or better. Not because I don’t remember what happened, but because I want to see how things look in development when I know how they will end. If you had asked me, I think I would not have predicted being this attached to a doorstop fantasy series that defines itself by who has died.

[1] Or at least what this one brings; after all, it’s been a while since I read any of the others.

The Bonehunters

It’s true, I’ve been reading the same book for the past month. Which, wow, this is not traditionally my way. I guess I’ve been actually that busy, on top of, of course, how very long the book is. And make no mistake, The Bonehunters is yet another extremely long book in Steven Erikson’s extremely long fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Despite the apparent lessons of the ’90s, this is not a warning. For one thing, he has consistently released a new book every year, and now has only two left to complete. For another, this is pretty much better than any of the doorstop series you may be thinking of right now. It feels like it might be objectively better than any of them, but I’m not quite prepared to go that far.

The Bonehunters wraps up a lot of the plotlines from the first two books of the series in order to clear the way for the rapidly approaching confrontation between the Crippled God and those who oppose him. Of course, the sides aren’t as clear as that sounds; there are a lot of people whose side is still unclear or undecided, and many more whose side is unclear to them as characters although not to me as a reader. And sure, that’s part of what makes the series continue to be dense at best and actively confusing in its ever rarer worst moments; but at the same time, it’s one of the series’ greatest strengths. There are almost no unlikeable characters! Writers talk about the fact that there are no people who consider themselves to be “the bad guy”, but these are among the only books I’ve read that really manage that self-image over such a large cast, and also among the only books that manage to make almost every character compelling, whether noble or base, ascendant or tragic.

I’ve said before that I want to reread the series because it has been so dense and so long, which together conspire to make me think I’m missing things. And I probably am, but not enough to take away from my exceptional regard for each book as I read it. All that said, though, I found a new reason to want to reread the series: it’s pretty much my favorite story-arc being published today, and maybe period. (I have pretty high regard for a couple of episodic series too, but that really is a different genre entirely, in terms of commitment.)

The Gardens of the Moon. Pick it up. Trust me on this one, even if it seems implausible as you read it. You’ll thank me later.

Midnight Tides

You would not think that by the fifth book of a ten book series, it would be prudent to be introducing what is essentially a completely new cast of characters in a completely new situation. And sometimes you’d be right. To my surprise, though, not always. Midnight Tides marks another high water mark in Stephen Erikson’s epic tragedy of the Malazan Book of the Fallen.

It has a lot of oddities relative to the rest of the series. It’s almost completely prequel, in that it tells the story of a character first met in the fourth book and how he came to the dire straits the reader first found him in. (Or it pretends to do that, though ultimately it stops short, leaving us with only the flavor of that betrayal. Which is okay.) It essentially leaves out the Malazan Empire entirely. And there’s considerably less warfare than I personally am used to from the series.

Nevertheless, it has a lot of what I’ve come to look for, too. For one thing, the Crippled God is here in force, revealing enough of his nature that it’s finally fair to pick a side. But mostly I’m not talking about plot elements, because these aren’t books you come to for the plot, good though it is. It would be like admiring Monet’s work with stippling and never bothering to step back to see the actual image on the canvas. We have tragedies galore; mirrored families on both sides of the conflict, one betrayed by the empire they are sworn to uphold, one doomed by attempts to tear down the evils they see in an empire that has long since outlived whatever good it may once have brought to the world. And within the families themselves are betrayals and true brotherly spirit alike, sometimes from the same brother to the same brother, in the same action. It’s a complex tapestry against which to weave the fall of an old, old empire to the ascendancy of a bloody new one that has forgotten its own ancient past, wrought in bloodier betrayals still.

This is also the funniest of the books so far, perhaps in an attempt by the author to cut the horror and tragedy to bearable scales? It worked, in any case. It’s been a while since I’ve laughed so often at a book that wasn’t written to make me laugh. Best of all, there are a few people left to play meaningful roles in the future of the tale; I’m pleased, because these are all people I really want to see more of.

One off note, which I suppose is inevitable these days. Was I the only one who saw the Letherii Empire as a blatant caricature of a popular external view of modern America? It’s not that the overt politicizing of a really good story would bother me (although it does, a bit), so much as that on more than one occasion it forcibly pulled me out of that story. That, I really don’t care for.

House of Chains

Sometimes, it is unreasonably hard to keep up, for no particularly good reason. The upshot of all the happenings in my life (and various irrelevancies that also slowed me down, mind you; I’d never claim after being more than a week late that it was exclusively the fault of how busy I am) is that I have far less to say about Erikson’s fourth tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, House of Chains, than I feel like I ought to have.

Four books is a long way into a series to feel like one finally has a handle on what’s going on, it’s true. I can completely see why it would put people off. And it’s not like I can explain the first book well enough to talk people into reading it, so far. What I do know is this: despite consistent four-digit page counts and a real struggle to figure out what’s up, these are the only new books in the past several years that have made me want to drag them out and avidly reread them, despite a hip deep to-read pile. (As opposed to, say, the Martin series, which I feel like I should reread to know what’s up, but the task fills me with dread.) Mind you, I won’t be doing so for some months yet, but my point is, I resent that I don’t have time to.

In summation: it’s nice to read a book where the human emotion and the sweeping events are balanced well enough that readers looking for either one as their key ingredient will think this is the right fantasy series for them. Gardens of the Moon is available in America these days, which means (as I probably already said once before when I did book three) people should start reading these now. Lots. (Caveat: Yes, the cover is terrible. But it looks like all the other books are being published with their original covers instead of stock fantasy crap covers, so don’t let that fool you.)

Memories of Ice

51B5H7HRP0LThe problem is, I’m about to gush here, and I don’t really want to, because who would take that seriously? Anyway, I decided to pick up Gardens of the Moon last year after seeing it praised so often on my Usenet hangout. And I gotta say, good book. I was confused for the first few hundred pages, and in some ways I still am, but it wasn’t a ‘story is incomprehensible’ confusion, just an ‘I know there’s a lot more here that I can’t see yet’ confusion. (The book is now being published by Tor, which means that it’s more available at a slightly cheaper price, but has worse cover art.)

I grabbed the next one a few months later, was a lot less confused, and by the end… wow. This Steven Erikson guy knows what he’s doing. I’m thinking that each of these books has its own enclosed theme, and that the theme of this one was sacrifice. Also, I’m thinking that he has, independently of whatever else he hopes to accomplish over the ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen series, set out to become the definitive author of war imagery. There might be a better depiction of an army on the march through hostile territory, bereft of supply lines out there in the vast expanses of the written word. I know I haven’t found it, though.

And now, Memories of Ice. Both it and the second book, Deadhouse Gates, are sequels to Gardens of the Moon. As such, one could probably choose to read the pair in either order and not have the story spoiled. Of course, the reveal of his world’s secrets is linear, so a few parts of that aspect would be ruined. Most importantly, though, if book 2’s theme was sacrifice, book 3’s is redemption, and that’s not really the kind of thing that you’d want to get out of order, for fear of cognitive dissonance.

Although there are lot more familiar characters that have returned for this volume than for the previous, Erikson never stops introducing new ones. Characters that are almost instantly likeable and, more importantly to me, that are often instantly important to the overall story being woven. The problem is, characters die almost as often as characters are introduced. This is inevitable, though. The very title of the series demands a price in blood. What’s hard to distinguish, from an external perspective, is if the price is ever worth the gain. Don’t take that as a criticism, though. It’s almost always worth it from the perspective of the players, and that’s important. It’s only from my perspective, where characters that I like die to save faceless and often explicitly unworthy civilians, that the cost is high.

Speaking of war, Erikson’s grasp for the definitive this time is the siege. For about a hundred pages in the middle of the book, the city of Capustan is surrounded and assaulted by (of course) vastly superior forces. He put together a chapter that covers a straight 24 hours, in excruciating detail, while at the same time managing to convey the fog of war. And the horror of it; I will now digress for a moment. The soldiery is, for the most part throughout these first three books, very egalitarian regarding gender. As close to a 50/50 split of men and women as makes no difference. Erikson presented evidence of a female soldier having been raped by a male of the invading forces, and I had to do a triple take before I realized that the point they were making is that this kind of thing basically never happens. Brutal though that world is, I was impressed at how much more right they have it than we do, sometimes.

I have three complaints. One is that there’s a decided Fizban factor at work. It may not be the direct analog I was sensing early in the book, but until I find out exactly what’s going on, I’m going to stay annoyed by it. And quite possibly after I find out, if I’m correct. The second is minor, because it’s so brief. There’s a 5 page digression where a few of the main characters meet up with the army’s assigned painter (to capture the history and all, you understand) and his critic, a talking toad. It came from nowhere, and led almost nowhere. (There’s a slight bit of payoff loosely attached to my third complaint, but not enough to justify the jarring weirdness of it all.) The third… well, I’m not sure how to go into it while avoiding major spoilers, so it will go below the cut.

In any case, read these books. They’re each very long, so I can understand how they might seem like a slog if the first book doesn’t immediately do it for you, but there is some real payoff later in the series. And more to come; after reading this one, the titles of the next two (House of Chains and Midnight Tides) mean enough to me to expect more of the same out of the overarching story that ties it all together. And the quality of the writing is enough to expect more of that buttery goodness.
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