After struggling through to the finish of House of Chains (I really didn't care for that book), I took a few months off and returned to the series. At about the 60% mark, I've enjoyed the Bonehunters. It feels much more like the first two books in the series.
I intentionally skipped Midnight Tides. The story didn't look very appealing to me, and coming off of House, I figured I'd give up on the series if I tried to power through Tides.
I'm looking forward to Crimson Guard. I really thought that Night of Knives was a high point in the series, even though Esselmont's writing style is a bit stuffy.
The "depth" of this series is extremely impressive.
Fair warning - Dust of Dreams (I think it's book 9 in the main series) surprised me with how brutal and graphic a significant number of scenes were - particularly those following the Barghast and their practice of "hobbling". The books have been getting progressively more explicit in general, but I thought this in particular was needlessly gruesome and that it crossed a line. As is always the case though, YMMV.
They do this to women. First they lop off the front half of her feet, then press the flats of glowing hot sword blades up against the stumps to sear the wound. The hobbled woman is then a)unable to walk and forced to crawl and b)treated as communal property for the men and animals to have their way with sexually whenever they please until her mind is completely broken.
Just a head's up if you're bothered by such things. Personally, I really struggled with getting by it.
Its pretty gruesome stuff, but its not meant to be the Forgotten Realms or family friendly Jedi adventures tbh. Its fantasy as written by an anthropologist, and human history is infinitely more brutish than anything I'd be comfortable reading about as 'entertainment'. I'm glad he doesnt dwell overmuch on those facets the way some other authors do.
I am now two-thirds of the way through Esselmont's Return of the Crimson Guard.
I've now read five of Erikson's books and the first two from Esselmont. I prefer the latter's books. His writing style is very different (which is kind of jarring when you've read over 1,700 pages of Erikson back to back), but it's still fluid and I really like his story telling.
And in conjunction with the last couple of comments in this thread, it's not as gruesome as Erikson's.
I'm really liking the whole 'Avowed' thing in this novel.
I am going back to read Midnight Tides and get 'in order' next, but I am really impressed with Esselmont's work so far and look forward to getting to Stonewielder.
I am now two-thirds of the way through Esselmont's Return of the Crimson Guard.
I've now read five of Erikson's books and the first two from Esselmont. I prefer the latter's books. His writing style is very different (which is kind of jarring when you've read over 1,700 pages of Erikson back to back), but it's still fluid and I really like his story telling.
This is encouraging! I'm nearly done with Dust of Dreams and will then wrap up my Erickson reading with The Crippled God. I wasn't sure if I'd return to this setting with Esslemont's works or just be done with it, as I'd heard his style wasn't fluid and that it was actually a tad stunted.
@Dal - I struggled a bit with Esselmont's writing style in the first book (again, had just read a couple of Erikson's mammoth tomes). I think I even posted here it was a bit disjointed and his word selection was..different. But I felt like I'd kind of gotten the pattern by the end. Don't be put off as you read the first one.
Crimson Guard flows much better. Hasn't jarred me at all.
I thought that the story of Night of Knives was a nice change of pace from Erickson. Same with Crimson Guard. They absolutely DO NOT feel like filler to the series.
Updated potential reading order for the combined series (also, an updated world map):
Following the publication of Blood and Bone, it's now possible to work out a new reading order for the books to best account for the information given by both authors. This list is not the chronological order of the novels, which would likely be very confusing, but a 'best' reading list accounting for publication and chronological orders:
1. Gardens of the Moon
2. Deadhouse Gates
3. Memories of Ice
4. House of Chains
5. Midnight Tides
6. Night of Knives*
7. The Bonehunters
8. Return of the Crimson Guard**
9. Reaper's Gale
10. Toll the Hounds***
11. Orb Sceptre Throne****
13. Dust of Dreams
14. The Crippled God
15. Blood and Bone*** ***
16. Assail (forthcoming)
The placement of Forge of Darkness (and the forthcoming two other books in the Kharkhanas Trilogy) remains difficult. It is so full of references to things already-established in the Malazan series that reading it first is hard to recommend, but it does clarify some elements of the world and terminologies that may be much more helpful to newcomers than jumping straight in with Gardens of the Moon.
The side-novellas form a totally separate side-story. Aside from recommending that they be read after Memories of Ice, they can be read whenever.
* Night of Knives introduces several characters who play a role in The Bonehunters.
** Return of the Crimson Guard picks up shortly after The Bonehunters, whilst Reaper's Gale tells us explicitly that a year has passed since the events of TBH.
*** According to dialogue, Toll the Hounds takes place six years after Memories of Ice. According to every other piece of information in the whole series, this is flat-out impossible, and needs to be ignored. Orb Sceptre Throne retcons it to about two years after MoI. The presence of a child born after MoI who is five years old in TTH also has to be ignored.
**** According to dialogue and various events, Orb Sceptre Throne takes place before the conclusion of the Dust of Dreams/Crippled God duology.
***** Stonewielder has moved due to it sharing a scene with Blood and Bone (told from different perspectives), which also re-dates it to taking place simultaneously alongside the Dust of Dreams/Crippled God duology. This also places Toll the Hounds and its direct sequel Orb Sceptre Throne next to one another, which is beneficial.
*** *** Blood and Bone takes place simultaneously with the events of The Crippled God and immediately thereafter.
Jacuruku: an island-continent located south-west of Quon Tali and west of Stratem. Separated from the rest of the world by large ice floes, Jacuruku has long existed in isolation. The peoples of western Jacuruku lie under the dominion of the Thaumaturgs, mages of tremendous power, whilst the eastern half of the continent is dominated by the jungle of Himatan, domain of the goddess Ardata.
Now the Thaumaturgs have launched an invasion of Himatan, determined to find the fabled city of Jakal Viharn. But even as their army drives deep into the jungle, so their homelands come under threat from the desert tribes of the far south, now united into a formidable army by an invading foreigner...who may not be as foreign as he first appears. Also newly arrived in Jacuruku are the Crimson Guard, summoned to bring to justice their renegade warrior Skinner and those sworn to his service. For K'azz D'Avore and his Avowed, this is an opportunity to heal a painful schism...but at a cost.
Blood and Bone is Ian Cameron Esslemont's fifth novel, taking us to the hitherto unexplored (but oft-mentioned) continent of Jacuruku. The setting is the key to the novel, with the reader soon feeling the humidity and discomfort of the jungle terrain. It's actually rather unusual for geography to be so integral to a Malazan novel (normally it's incidental), and it's a new approach that Esslemont handles well.
In terms of character, the book has a substantial cast taking in Jacuruku natives, Thaumaturgs, demigods, Malazan mercenaries and Crimon Guardsmen. Esslemont takes the time to establish story arcs which are contained within this one novel (such as Saeng's journey) as well as furthering long-running storylines established in earlier books, such the Crimson Guard looking for a new purposes in the aftermath of the Quon Civil War. There's also some excellent use of the established backstory (Jacuruku was once the site of Kallor's empire, the one whose destruction resulted in the Fall of the Crippled God) to drive forward the storyline. Unusually for a Malazan novel, I felt I had a pretty good handle on what was going on throughout. Newcomers might be tempted to jump aboard due to the main storylines being more or less self-contained in this book, but will likely be lost by references to past and simultaneous events (the novel takes place simultaneously alongside Stonewielder, Orb Sceptre Throne and The Crippled God).
Esslemont's prose is readable and compelling (and more accomplished in this novel than ever before), but a little lacking in artistry compared to Erikson's. However, it's also far more concise and approachable. Esslemont handles his large cast and his complex, multi-layered plot quite successfully. In fact, Blood and Bone just about nudges it as his best book to date.
Blood and Bone (****½) is available now in the UK and will be published in May 2013 in the USA.
After jumping ahead to The Bone Hunters and Return of the Crimson Guard (Esslemont deserves more recognition for his books in the series), I went back to read Midnight Tides.
It's been better than I expected. And I absolutely love the Tehol storyline. It is something completely new and compelling. Which, since there's been some 4,000-5,000 pages already read in the series, is quite impressive. I read the other plot line, and it's fine, but I find myself wanting to get back to Tehol's scenes.
Really enjoying this bit.
I finished Midnight Tides. I think this turned out to be my favorite Erikson book so far. I enjoyed almost every thread in his tangled skein of plots, and overall, I thought it wasn't quite as dark as the others (it is not sunshine and flowers, of course). The Tehol situation continued to be interesting to the end.
Getting ready to start Reaper's Gale. I have read all but the last two books of the Wheel of Time. During the early books, I thought that Robert Jordan was as good a writer as any fantasy author I'd read. That was certainly no longer the case by the time I read Crossroads of Twilight (a one star review on amazon).
I don't believe that Steven Erikson has had a weak entry yet through his first six books. There has been no tailing off or padding. Excellent!
Side note: I've been reading fantasy since the mid-seventies. My vote for best author in the genre goes to Robert E. Howard. The fact that he wrote what he did before the field really even existed makes his Conan tales all the more impressive. And the El Borak stories are pretty darn good as well.
I recently started the tenth book, The Crippled God and I am having a tough time getting through it. There is one particular plot thread that shows up in the 9th book, following a bunch of strange kids in an unforgiving desert that for some reason I just can't stand. That thread continues in the 10th book, but I've not found any other threads engaging enough to really motivate me through the portions with the wierd kids. I'm stalled at a part right now where the antagonists are talking about their plans and I'm finding that I just simply don't care. It's kind of a let down at this point to suddenly lose so much narrative steam at the culmination of such a huge series.
Hopefully if I press on for a few more chapters things will pick up again.
Regarding Tehol, he is, by far, one of the most fun and enjoyable characters throughout the series. I'm also particularly fond of Ganoes Paran, Quick Ben, Bottle, Mappo & Icarium, and Anomander Rake. I'm also a big fan of Iskaral Pust, but he doesn't show up with nearly the frequency of these others.
For those who have finished the series (or, if you include Esslemont's books and the Korbalain & Broach novellas, the series of series), the first of a very-prequel-indeed Kharkanas Trilogy is out now.
The Forge of Darkness is a tale of Anomander Rake and his brother Andarist and Silchas Ruin, back when the Tiste Andii lived in Kurald Galain and Mother Darkness was all in charge and stuff.
It is in my queue, haven't had a lot of reading time recently, so I probably won't get to it for a month yet.
Assail, the final Esslemont Malazan novel (for now), is currently listed for release in November. Blurbage:
The final chapter in the awesome, epic story of the Malazan Empire.
Tens of thousands of years of ice is melting, and the land of Assail, long a byword for menace and inaccessibility, is at last yielding its secrets. Tales of gold discovered in the region's north circulate in every waterfront dive and sailor's tavern and now countless adventurers and fortune-seekers have set sail in search of riches. All these adventurers have to guide them are legends and garbled tales of the dangers that lie in wait -- hostile coasts, fields of ice, impassable barriers and strange, terrifying creatures. But all accounts concur that the people of the north meet all trespassers with the sword. And beyond are rumoured to lurk Elder monsters out of history's very beginnings. Into this turmoil ventures the mercenary company, the Crimson Guard. Not drawn by contract, but by the promise of answers: answers to mysteries that Shimmer, second in command, wonders should even be sought. Arriving also, part of an uneasy alliance of Malazan fortune-hunters and Letherii soldiery, comes the bard Fisher kel Tath. And with him is a Tiste Andii who was found washed ashore and who cannot remember his past life, yet who commands far more power than he really should. Also venturing north is said to be a mighty champion, a man who once fought for the Malazans, the bearer of a sword that slays gods: Whiteblade.
And lastly, far to the south, a woman guards the shore awaiting both her allies and her enemies. Silverfox, newly incarnated Summoner of the undying army of the T'lan Imass, will do anything to stop the renewal of an ages-old crusade that could lay waste to the entire continent and beyond. Casting light on mysteries spanning the Malazan empire, and offering a glimpse of the storied and epic history that shaped it, Assail is the final chapter in the epic story of the Empire of Malaz.
And yes, he's resolving the Silverfox storyline after Erikson left it dangling twelve years ago :-)
South of Genabackis and east of Korel and Stratem lies the mysterious continent of Assail. It is known for its inaccessibility and hostility, populated by tribes and mage-ruled kingdoms who slay outsiders on sight. Clans of T'lan Imass and companies of the Crimson Guard have disappeared on missions there. It has a reputation for being so unrelentingly hostile that even the formidable Malazan Empire has never tried to conquer it.
That has now changed. Across the world, massive ice floes are melting and new sea routes are opening up. Rumours of rivers of gold being found in the Salt Mountains of north Assail are spreading, luring thousands of adventurers, treasure-seekers and merchants to the continent. Converging on the land are the leaders of the Crimson Guard, the Summoner of the Imass known as Silverfox, ex-Malazan mercenaries and foolhardy treasure seekers from distant Lether. In the heights of the mountains they will find their treasure...and something far more dangerous.
Assail is the sixth and concluding book in the Novels of the Malazan Empire sequence by Ian Esslemont. Set on the world he co-created with Steven Erikson, Esslemont's latest book wraps up story and character arcs he set in motion with Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard (written in the 1980s but only published a decade ago), as well as drawing on elements established by Erikson in his own ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence. It's not the best place for newcomers to start, although the primary storyline of the book is contained within this one novel.
Esslemont has a tough job to do here. The continent of Assail is first mentioned in Erikson's Memories of Ice and is reported to be a place of ceaseless hostility where entire T'lan Imass armies are ground to dust in endless battle against remorseless, tyrannical foes. Repeated mentions in other novels only added to its mystique, with even gods and Ascendants urging avoidance of the continent at all costs. As it turns out the reality doesn't quite match up: there are extremely powerful, lethal sorcerers on the continent but they are indolent and not quite up to speed with the magical powers commanded by outsiders. There are fanatically xenophobic tribes who immediately attack outsiders on sight (or after a brief rest-break if they are sufficiently skilled) but who could probably be taken out by a determined-enough Malazan army. Amusingly, Assail not being as quite as lethal as previously hinted feeds into the narrative, with the fact that you can set foot on Assail without dying leading to overconfidence on the part of the invaders. There's also the late revelation that what lurks in the mountains is so potentially lethal to the entire planet that there's certainly a good enough reason to avoid the place.
In terms of longer-running story arcs, Esslemont does a good job here of wrapping up the storyline of Kyle and the Crimson Guard (even if their eventual destiny remains unclear), which has been a consistent thread throughout these books. However, other plot threads are left less clearly resolved. The Malazans now have a diplomatic toehold on Assail and there is still work to be done there, whilst the biggest unresolved plot element is the T'lan Imass. The Imass/Silverfox/Kilava storyline which Erikson kicked off fifteen years ago is still left unfinished at the end of Assail. Hopefully the Imass will return in Erikson's Toblakai Trilogy, otherwise their fate is both underwhelming and unsatisfying.
In other areas the book is a mixed bag. There is a lot of travelogue in this novel, with multiple characters crossing Assail from different directions to get to the Salt Range. However, several groups brave the Sea of Dread (noted for its somnambulist and lethal effects) and, as effective as Esslemont's descriptions of this dangerous route are, it does get a little repetitive. Fortunately, the characters are, for the most part, an interesting bunch. One character in particular, Jethiss, risks cliche by being an amnesiac Tiste Andii who is clearly an already-established character from earlier in the series. When he turns out not to be the character I thought he was going to be, there was a major sigh of relief. Erikson and Esslemont are both guilty of nullifying and cheapening previously powerful death scenes by resurrecting the slain character too easily and they dodged a bullet here by making sure the most iconic character in the series stayed in the ground.
The book ends in a massive convergence, as is traditional, which does two things. First, it establishes a reason for why the whole world has gone to hell in the last few years and how this can be resolved. This does explain what has been a weakness of the series, namely how with so many mages, races and elemental forces rolling around with continent-devastating abilities that the whole planet hasn't been blown up yet. This does suggest that the world will be a calmer place going forwards, at least until Karsa Orlong (not invited to the deal) decides to destroy everything a few years down the line. Secondly, the convergence explains the backstory behind the Crimson Guard's Vow and how they are so amazingly badass. The problem here is that everyone figured this out before Return of the Crimson Guard was done and Esslemont doesn't throw any curveballs into the mix, so this isn't hugely surprising. It also leaves the future direction of the Guard wide open, handy if the authors choose to revisit these characters later on.
Assail (****) is a mostly well-written, enjoyable novel that will satisfy Malazan fans for its resolution of long-running plot threads and its addressing of major backstory mysteries. What it definitely isn't (and it was partially billed as) is the grand mega-finale of the entire combined Erikson/Esslemont series which will out-climax Erikson's Crippled God. With at least three more post-Assail novels from Erikson on the horizon, it never could be this and I'm glad I always took this with a pinch of Salt (Range) as I'd have been more disappointed otherwise. Instead, we have a reasonably good book in the series, although not Esslemont's best. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
Interesting. Erikson has put the KHARKANAS TRILOGY on hold after disappointing sales of the first two books in the series. He's now starting work on the TOBLAKAI TRILOGY, which will follow the adventures of Karasa Orlong four or five years after the main MALAZAN series wraps up. First book is provisionally entitled THE GOD IS NOT WILLING.
Erikson still plans to finish the KHARKANAS trilogy later on.
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The continent of Quon Tali is divided into a morass of squabbling city-states, the days of the Talian Hegemony long past. But, in the south, the Kingdom of Kan is on the move. Its armies are moving on Li Heng, the great crossroads city at the heart of the continent. The Protectress of Heng and her powerful (but eccentric) cadre of mages are prepared to stand against them, but they are distracted by the arrival of a bizarre mage, a skilled assassin hungry to make a name for himself and a warrior of preternatural skills dedicated to the service of the God of Death. Unbeknown to all, these three will take a broken continent and forge out of it one of the greatest empires ever known.
The Malazan universe of fantasy novels (which now number twenty-one) has attracted a reputation for being unapproachable and difficult to get into, with the traditional first novel in the setting, Gardens of the Moon, having a confusing opening and little in the way of exposition. Some readers are fine with that, but many are not. Since then, authors Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont have mused on other ways to get into the series (you can arguably start with Deadhouse Gates or Night of Knives instead, or even Midnight Tides, but all have arguments against them). Erikson even tried to create an alternate entry point with Forge of Darkness (the first in the Kharkanas prequel trilogy) but only succeeded in creating a book that only makes sense if you've read the rest of the series first.
Dancer's Lament, on the other hand, is the first book in the series since Gardens that I would feel really comfortable suggesting that people start with. Unlike most Malazan novels, which are enormous, sprawl in lots of directions, have huge casts of characters (which sometimes completely change from one volume to another) and feature dense and sometimes obtuse writing, Dancer's Lament is tight, focused, relatively straightforward and relentless in pace. It has all the strongest hallmarks of the Malazan series - impressive sorcery, intriguing (but never overwrought) worldbuilding, good humour and the use of compassion as an overriding theme - whilst dumping most of the negatives. Or, to put it more primitively, Dancer's Lament is all killer, no filler.
The tightness comes from there just being three POV characters. Dorin Rav is an assassin beyond compare looking for fame and fortune. Malazan veterans will know him, of course, as Dancer, but in this book he's just a young man with real skill but who sometimes gets in over his head. Silk, one of the mages of Li Heng, is an arrogant and apparently amoral fop who comes to realise, in his darkest hour, how much this city and his employer has come to mean to him. Iko, a Kanese Sword-Dancer, is a formidable warrior who has invested so much time in her fighting skills that she has neglected her personal ones, and has trouble forming bonds with her fellow warriors as a result. Silk and Iko appear in other books (Iko under a different name, and it's fun for old hands to try to work out who she is), but here they're presented as newcomers and youngsters trying to find their way in the world.
The book takes place a century or so before the events of Gardens of the Moon and the central plot is refreshingly simple: Li Heng is under siege, the city's rulers are trying to repulse the attack, the attackers are trying to take the city and a whole bunch of other people are caught in the middle, most notably Dorin Rav who is navigating his way through the city's underworld in search of profit. The problem is that Dorin keeps tripping over his conscience, spending too much time worrying about the friends he's made on the way and is constantly distracted by a crazy mage he bumped into on the plains and now can't seem to avoid coming into contact with. The common complaint about prequels is that they're either not telling us anything we don't know or they're going out of their way to create new stories which don't gel with what's gone before.
Dancer's Lament skirts this problem quite straightforwardly. His earlier novel Return of the Crimson Guard features sections about one of the conflicts that is mentioned in this novel, but it turns out that a lot of those reports are erroneous or conflate two separate conflicts into one and it's entertaining seeing the "real" events unfold in this book. It also helps we're in a period of time a while before our protagonists even arrive on Malaz Island, so there's a lot of room to manoeuvre. Indeed, getting to know characters like the Protectress when we know what her ultimate fate is can add a bit more resonance to events. Of course, it might be that "what is commonly known" may not turn out to be the truth at all.
Esslemont has a more direct and sparse prose style than Erikson, which has sometimes made his books feel like a light salad compared to Erikson's four-course meals. Not so here, where Dancer's Lament leaps off the page with verve and confidence. The characters are vivid and feel real (Erikson's depiction of characters - even the same ones - can sometimes feel remote and alienating in contrast) and we come to care about even minor bit players such as the bird-keeping girl Ullara (a damaged, philosophical character who sometimes feels like she's been parachuted in from a China Mieville novel) and the various soldiers manning the walls of the city.
There are some negatives, but these are minor. Esslemont's brisk and energetic style in this book is very refreshing for the series but it leads to the opposite of the usual problem: if most Malazan novels could stand to lose a few dozen pages of repetitive and laboured introspection, Dancer's Lament sometimes feels too short and some storylines feel like they could have been expanded and spread out a bit more. The distribution of chapters between characters also feels a bit too uneven, with Iko sometimes vanishing for large chunks of time and the plots of the various city mages not really going anywhere (although some of them will be picked up chronologically later on, particularly in Return of the Crimson Guard, which revisits Li Heng at the height of the Malazan Empire). This does make the world feel alive and still changing and evolving outside of the focus of the main plot, however.
Dancer's Lament (****½) is, overall, a fast and satisfying read, the best Malazan novel in quite a while. It is available now (UK, USA). Its sequel, Deadhouse Landing, was published last month. The third book in the Path to Ascendancy series has the working title Kellanved's Reach and should be out in late 2018 or early 2019.
The first I time I read Gardens of the Moon, I just fell into the story and enjoyed it for the ride it was. However, buying the next few books and having totally different characters and places was jarring.
I struggled through the original series, how the same author can be so hit and miss each book is mystifying, but it left a blah taste in my mouth..so haven't been all that eager to read more of this universe.
But maybe Dancers lament might reignite my interest.
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Empires are usually born from great deeds and mighty events, order and victories rather than chaos and shadows. But a new power now stands on the brink of realisation. A crew of renegade Napans have washed ashore on remote Malaz Island and formed an alliance of convenience with a mad mage and an assassin. From the mainland comes a swordsman without equal. On neighbouring Kartool Island a high priest in the cult of D'rek is betrayed and seeks a new home where he can belong. Great powers are drawn to Malaz City, where a new empire will be born when it is least expected and, at its heart, lies the mysterious ruin known as the Deadhouse.
Dancer's Lament, the first novel in the Path to Ascendancy series, introduced the characters of Wu and Dorin, whom history will remember as Kellanved and Dancer, Ammanas and Cotillion, Shadowthrone and the Rope. That book chronicled their first meeting, their first acquaintance with Dassem Ultor, the Mortal Sword of Hood, and their first explorations of the mysterious Realm of Shadow. Deadhouse Landing is its direct sequel but in many respects is the book that I think more established Malazan fans were expecting first time out.
Deadhouse Landing is, simply put, the story of how Kellanved and Dancer recruited their "old guard" of friends and allies and took control of Malaz Island. It turns out this was less pre-planned than previous novels indicated, with Kellanved and Dancer's rise to power emerging from a sequence of improvisations, holding actions and comedies of error, most of them stemming from the idiocy of those who try to oppose them.
This is, remarkably, a slightly shorter book than Dancer's Lament (already one of the shortest books in the Malazan canon) but one that has a much bigger cast. As well as Dancer and Kellanved, the book focuses on the Napan refugees led by Princess Sureth (now reduced to a reluctant barmaid named Surly), Dassem Ultor's journey from Li Heng to Malaz City via a chance meeting with the Seguleh, the misadventures of the priest Tayschrenn in Kartool and the long-suffering indulgences of Tattersail, the mage-mistress of Mock. These are all major figures from the Malazan novels, legends we meet now in their younger days when they were far less wise, less seasoned and more human. We also see some pretty major events alluded to in later books, such as Kellanved's first entry to the Malaz Deadhouse and the running battles through the streets of the city with various criminal gangs.
These struggles in the Malaz City criminal underworld feel a bit overindulged, but at the end of the book makes it clear why we are spending so much time with these knife-hands and thugs, as many of them also show up in Steven Erikson's novels (particularly the early ones), almost all under different names.
Prequels can often feel creatively stifled, the author stymied by the import of actually depicting events which later books talk about as hushed legends. Esslemont has no such reluctance here. Instead, as with Dancer's Lament, this book fairly overflows with enthusiasm and energy. We lose the tight focus of the earlier novel on just three core characters, with the story rotating through a larger number of characters, with less time for each one. But Esslemont makes this work with short and punchy chapters which relate the story with relentless inevitability.
The book doesn't have too many weaknesses. One Malazan fan-favourite villain shows up but doesn't really accomplish anything. His story feels like it could have been dropped in favour of more focus on one of the other storylines, but then this isn't a long book and his total number of pages in the novel isn't very high. Others may complain that too many characters in this book show up to be previously-established Malazan characters from the chronologically later novels, but then that's kind of the point. These are the events that drew the "old guard" and many other famous faces together, so that's less of a bug and more of a feature.
Ultimately, Deadhouse Landing (****½) is another tight and enjoyable read, all the best for its focus and short length even as it describes the mighty events that shaped the Malazan Empire. It builds on the very fine foundation stones laid by Dancer's Lament. It is available now (UK, USA). The third book in the Path to Ascendancy series has the working title Kellanved's Reach and should be out in late 2018 or early 2019.
On the continent of Genabackis the Malazan army lays siege to the city of Pale, which sits under the protection of Anomander Rake, Lord of the Tiste Andii. As the final battle begins, the elite Malazan unit known as the Bridgeburners and several High Mages suffer a calamitous betrayal. Their next mission takes them to Darujhistan, City of Blue Fire, where an even more dangerous showdown awaits...
Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen began unfolding back in 1999 with this divisive novel. Strongly hailed by authors from Stephen Donaldson to J.V. Jones as an important, breakthrough work and found utterly baffling by others, Gardens of the Moon has acquired a bit of a reputation over the years as a hard book to get into.
I've always found this suggestion to be overstated, just as much on this fourth reread as on my first fifteen years ago. Gardens of the Moon is a busy, bustling and striking novel which has little interest in slowing down to providing worldbuilding infodumps. You cling on for dear life and follow the story through or you don't. Still, the benefit of fifteen additional years of books from both Steven Erikson and co-creator Ian Esslemont means there are now other, gentler introductions to this world and this story: you can also jump on board with Erikson's Deadhouse Gates or Esslemont's Night of Knives or Dancer's Lament, which all have somewhat easier opening sections.
Gardens of the Moon opens with a bang and doesn't stop for 700 pages. In that time it introduces a whole, vivid world dominated by a powerful empire, dozens of characters, a whole new (and rather vague, at this stage) magic system, a dozen races, multiple gods, a prophetic Tarot card game, undead Neanderthals, a race of elves who are also dragons and more nods to other authors (from Leiber to Donaldson to Cook) than it's possible to parse in one read. It's a mess, without reasonable exposition or grounding in the reality the characters find themselves in.
But it's also a glorious mess. Erikson's imagination here is bigger than a planet, his prose is erudite and far wittier than any first-time author has any right to be (this was Erikson's second-published novel but was written many years earlier), and through the confusion the chaotic charisma of characters like Whiskeyjack, Anomander Rake, Quick Ben, Tattersail, Ganoes Paran, Kalam, Fiddler, Rallick Nom and Caladan Brood is clear. Yes, Gardens of the Moon sometimes feels like starting watching a movie that's already been on for a film, but that can also be quite good fun.
Once you get through the opening, confusing section at Pale, the action moves to Darujhistan where nobles scheme, assassins plot and thieves fight a clandestine war on the rooftops and things become a lot clearer. From there on it's an easier ride to the big climactic showdown, which is epic, impressive and random (not helped by a deus ex machina resolution, although on rereads when you know what the hell's going on this is much less of a problem).
There are other niggling problems, mainly relating to "GotMisms", worldbuilding and character tics that Erikson put into this book which he changed his mind about in the nine years that passed until he wrote the second volume, Deadhouse Gates. In particular, if the key theme of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is compassion, that theme feels a bit absent in this book as Anomander Rake shows an uncharacteristic amoral ruthlessness (compared to later books) and no-one seems to know anything at all about the ancient races and history of the world whilst later on everyone seems a lot more clued up (one of the more relatable things about this novel is that the characters are often as confused about what's going on as the reader, which is less the case in later volumes of the series). Still, these continuity issues are minor and understandable given the protracted genesis of the series.
Gardens of the Moon (****) is by turns bewildering, confusing, rewarding, exciting and intriguing. It will bewilder a lot of people, but out of that bewilderment will come understanding. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is the most accomplished work of epic fantasy published (predominantly) in the 21st Century to date, and this remains the best place to start, setting the scene as it does for its two successors, which are simply two of the finest fantasy novels ever written. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
Madmen, seers and witches proclaim the coming of the Whirlwind, a rebellion of unprecedented ferocity, a scourge that will wipe the subcontinent of Seven Cities clean of the pestilence of the Malazan Empire. The rulers of the Empire pay no heed, denuding the occupied territories of troops to reinforce the faltering campaign in Genabackis. From that continent comes an assassin, a thief and a former plaything of a shadowy god, who are the unwitting harbingers of the prophecy, and from the east comes a broken women and a shattered priest, who will defy it. As the Whirlwind is unleashed, the Malazan Seventh Army is given an impossible mission: to escort thirty thousand civilian refugees from Hissar to Aren, more than a thousand miles, facing constant attack all the way. This is a task that no ordinary human can handle, only a legend.
Deadhouse Gates is the second novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, succeeding (but not a direct sequel to) Gardens of the Moon. Deadhouse Gates relocates the action to the continent of Seven Cities with an almost entirely new cast of characters and a whole new storyline. Although having read Gardens of the Moon will be a help in reading this book, it is not necessary and it is indeed not unknown for readers to be directed to Deadhouse Gates as their first Malazan novel. This unusual recommendation has a solid rationale: Gardens of the Moon is a fine novel, but one that has to overcome a confused and somewhat incoherent opening before it starts to make sense. In contrast, Deadhouse Gates ranks comfortably as one of the single greatest works of epic fantasy ever written.
Indeed, the year 2000 may go down in history as one of the finest for fantasy fiction. That year also saw the publication of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History and George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords, three of the defining works of the modern fantasy genre. Deadhouse Gates sits very comfortably in such company.
Compared to the potentially confusing opening to Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates follows four storylines in a much more linear fashion. In one storyline, and the most epic, the Malazan Seventh Army must cross the entire subcontinent, escorting a refugee train to safety. With echoes of Xenophon's Anabasis (itself later fantasised as Paul Kearney's The Ten Thousand), or even Battlestar Galactica, this is a story of epic battles being fought as the innocent are defended in the face of a remorseless enemy and - sometimes - their own hubris. It's here that Erikson establishes some of his most memorable characters, such as the Imperial Historian Duiker, the indefatigable Bult, the warlocks Nil and Nether, and of course, Coltaine of the Crow Clan, High Fist of the Malazan Empire having formerly been a bitter foe of it. Their story - the Chain of Dogs - is a stunning and gripping narrative in its own right, every league of the journey bringing with it new formidable obstacles to be overcome, new enemies to be defeated and new tragedies to endure. The Chain of Dogs is Steven Erikson's Red Wedding, except drawn out to the length of a novel: an emotionally taut and increasingly shocking story of heroism and betrayal on a colossal scale.
Most novelists would have settled for that, but alongside that epic story we have Erikson's most emotionally intense and internalised struggle, that of Felisin Paran (sister of Ganoes Paran, a key protagonist from Gardens of the Moon). Felisin, a pampered and spoiled noble girl, is arrested and sentenced to exile on a distant island, to toil in criminal slavery. She endures horrors that afflict her soul and she becomes brittle, angry and bitter. Eventually the story takes her to a destiny that she was not expected, and a responsibility she steps into for both vengeance and self-realisation. Felisin's story is hard to read but impressive in its emotional resonance. This is a realistic story, albeit also an incomplete one, with the other half of the story waiting to unfold in House of Chains (the fourth novel in the series; Book 3, Memories of Ice, returns instead to Genabackis and the story of the Bridgeburners).
Next to that we also have two smaller quest narratives: the story of Icarium and Mappo, two wanderers out of the wastelands whom we gradually learn are cursed to live a life of friendship, trust and bitter deception; and the story of some familiar characters from Gardens of the Moon, namely Apsalar, Crokus, Kalam and Fiddler, who are on a journey back to Quon Tali and a confrontation with the treacherous Empress, but who are sucked up instead in the chaos of the Whirlwind.
These four storylines - which ultimately combine to a degree - give the novel a sense of unifying coherence missing from Gardens of the Moon. Instead of the start-stop opening to that book, Deadhouse Gates starts much more slowly and traditionally, the novel gathering a relentless and inexorable pace as it evolves. Erikson's prose is vastly superior to Gardens, the result of the nine year gap that fell between the two books and slightly awkward circumstances that led to its creation: originally Memories of Ice was the second novel, but Erikson lost the manuscript to a hard drive error when he was halfway through writing it; unable to face it, he instead switched to writing what was supposed to be the third book in the series instead, inadvertently giving us the continent-hopping structure of the saga that would become one of its hallmarks. The result is a novel that fairly seethes with intelligence, memorable prose and ambition.
Weaknesses? A first read will occasionally brush against confusion (particularly the introduction of a certain jade statue and the events that spiral out from it), but beyond that there are none. Deadhouse Gates takes all of the strengths of Erikson's writing and loses almost all of the weaknesses.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen is many things. It is a comedy and a drama, but it is also a tragedy - as the title implies - and it is a series about compassion and humanity. Arguably later books in the series suffer to a limited degree from Erikson's increasing introspection at the cost of plot and character, but no such weakness is present here, or in the book that follows it. Deadhouse Gates (*****) is a fantasy novel that does that rare thing and makes you think and feel. It is a good encapsulation of the entire series.
A dark shadow has fallen across eastern Genabackis: the Pannion Domin, an empire of madness and death whose coming has been heralded by poison and chaos in the warrens of sorcery. The Domin's armies are now marching against the small city-state of Capustan, defended by an army of doubtful skill and the Grey Swords of Elingarth, a religious order of soldiers. Aware of this threat, the outlawed Malazan 5th Army - Onearm's Host - has allied with their former enemies: Caladan Brood's mercenaries, the Rhivi tribes, the Tiste Andii of Moon's Spawn and the city-state of Darujhistan. Their goal is to relieve Capustan and destroy the Pannion Domin. From the south comes another force, the punitive army of the Seguleh (consisting of an unprecedented three of the greatest warriors in the world). But the Pannion Domin is no mere mortal empire and three impossibly ancient, terrifying forces have joined together to spread its evil across the world, an evil which will challenge all that face it.
Memories of Ice is the third novel in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, returning the action to the continent of Genabackis, the setting of the first novel in the series, Gardens of the Moon and taking place simultaneously alongside the second, Deadhouse Gates. Memories of Ice is a direct sequel to Gardens of the Moon, so whilst is possible to start reading the Malazan series with Deadhouse Gates, it is not really possible to do so with Memories.
Like Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice consists of four major storylines proceeding in tandem. In the first, Onearm's Host has to ally with its former enemies to march against the Pannion Domin. This storyline follows the awkwardness of the former bitter enemies working alongside one another. In the second storyline, the entity Silverfox (created during the events of Gardens of the Moon) has summoned the undead T'lan Imass legions to undergo the Second Gathering, which will determine the future of the species and their endless (and increasingly pointless) war against the Jaghut, which has now spanned a quarter of a million years. In a third storyline, Toc the Younger and Onos T'oolan (both from Gardens of the Moon) find themselves on the other side of the continent, where they meet and ally with the Seguleh punitive army (all three of them) and the enigmatic sorceress Lady Envy. In the fourth, we join the Grey Swords as they strive to defend Capustan against utterly overwhelming odds. Numerous subplots - such as the fate of the Mhybe, Silverfox's mother whose lifeforce is inadvertently being consumed by her daughter; the journey of a T'lan Imass emissary with news of a desperate war on the distant continent of Assail; the misadventures of two necromancers and their long-suffering servants; and the story of Gruntle, a caravan guard who suddenly becomes something more - abound.
As with Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice is an epic and sprawling novel but which benefits from rotating its storylines on a regular basis to give the novel an impressive sense of momentum, so that it's 1,100 pages fly past at an impressive rate of knots once the story gets underway. That does take a little while, though. Memories opens slow, with the various forces gathering, and there's perhaps a couple too many intense strategy meetings near the start of the book as characters gather and discuss the plot. This is quite refreshing - the primary criticism of Gardens of the Moon is that Erikson fails to explain what's going on, whilst Memories of Ice is lot clearer on the stakes and what's happening - but it does mean that it takes a while for the story to start picking up.
Once it does, things don't let up until the end of the book. The storylines build towards a convergence (to use a favoured term of the author) in the city of Coral and it's fascinating to see the players moving towards this meeting. It's also interesting to see how our protagonists deal with having an unusual preponderance of force on their side, unlike the previous novel where the Chain of Dogs is up against superior odds all the way through the book. The combination of the Tiste Andii, the Bridgeburners, Caladan Brood, the Rhivi, the Barghast and, later, the Seguleh and the T'lan Imass give them an immense advantage over the Pannion Domin. This is later reversed when see what other forces the Seer can bring to the field, not to mention infighting within the alliance that threaten to shatter it, but it's unusual in epic fantasy to see characters realising the overwhelming power they have at their command and the moral responsibility this entails.
The Malazan series has always excelled in sometimes avoiding or inverting epic fantasy tropes and sometimes playing them straight, but always interrogating them. There is a lot of blood-letting, duels, battles and sorcerous enfilades in the series, but the cost of such violence is always laid bare. The core themes of the Malazan series (and one that I think belies its occasionally-claimed status as grimdark) are compassion and the moral cost of whatever conflict is to be fought. Actions result in consequences, some of which can stain the soul, and Memories of Ice is the novel that most directly, painfully and tragically deals with this cost, particularly through the moving story of Itkovian, the soldier who volunteers to carry the guilt and trauma of thousands on his own shoulders. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a tragedy and Memories of Ice is perhaps the novel that most dramatically embodies that, through the awe-inspiring finale (still one of the finest in all of fantasy fiction) at the city of Coral.
There are a few minor issues. In terms of pacing, the book takes a little longer to get going, so in that sense it's not quite as tight a novel as Deadhouse Gates (which is a clear 200 pages shorter as a result). Whilst the central conflict - the battle against the Pannion Domin - is resolved in this novel, the book is also a little more plugged in to the story arcs that will span the rest of the series, most notably the saga of the Crippled God. It's highly arguable - fans have been arguing about it for seventeen years so far - but it's also debatable that a late-novel act of profound treachery was set up a bit too obviously and supposedly intelligent characters should have picked up on that earlier and stopped it, but this feels a little bit too pedantic a complaint and one reliant on hindsight.
Memories of Ice (*****) almost matches the dramatic power and intensity of Deadhouse Gates, perhaps falling a little short in structure and tightness but making up for it with the sheer scope of the tragic (and traumatic) final battle. This is a fantasy novel about compassion, forgiveness, war, peace, sacrifice and everything inbetween, related through a huge cast of interesting and sympathetic characters. (Very) arguably, the Malazan series will never quite reach these heights again, but will often come close. One of the strongest books in the series and one of the very finest fantasy novels published this century.
North Genabackis. Karsa Orlong of the Teblor tribe sets out on a raid that will go down in infamy among his people and their neighbours. He plans to carve his name in blood and chaos across the north, and succeeds far beyond his original aims. But Karsa's journey also opens his eyes to a world that is far stranger than what he thought it would be.
Months later, the Malazan 14th Army arrives in Seven Cities to crush the rebellion known as the Whirlwind. Newly-appointed Adjunct Tavore Paran is untested, and so are most of her troops. Only a few key veterans can be found to hold the force together. Ranged against them are veterans of years of raiding and war, the Dogslayers and the formidable sorcery of the Whirlwind Goddess herself. The seeress Sha'ik's victory appears inevitable, but internal divisions threaten to tear her army apart. As the 14th Army marches on the Holy Desert, the Seeress chooses to wait. Elsewhere, a new threat has arisen: strange ships bearing powerful warriors sailing out of the western seas, seeking the Throne of Shadow on remote Drift Avalii. The god known as Cotillion seeks champions to defend the Throne, whilst one of those strange warriors - the disgraced Trull Sengar - turns traitor to redeem his honour, and that of his entire race.
For the three previous books in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson adopted a similar structure: the introduction of multiple plot threads which proceed in apparently isolated tandem for many hundreds of pages before meeting in an almighty final battle at the end. This structure didn't entirely work for Gardens of the Moon (due to a somewhat confusing opening) but was spectacularly successful for Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice, two of the finest epic fantasy novels published this century so far. For House of Chains, Erikson decided to change things up.
This is more of a collection of two separate novels rather than one long narrative. The first 270 pages or so form a continuous, self-contained story focusing on Karsa Orlong (think of Conan the Barbarian dialed up to 11) and his quite spectacularly bloody journey of self-realisation across Genabackis, a bit like The Pilgrim's Progress if the pilgrim was a psychotic ten-foot tall barbarian warrior wielding a sword so massive it would struggle to get into a Final Fantasy game. Karsa is the favourite character of many Malazan readers, for his clear character arc and growth (from psychopathic murderer to philosophical warrior-savant), his straightforward approach to solving problems (destroying them utterly), his clear nod to fantasy antecedents (like Conan and Fafhrd) and his cool action scenes. However, it's also worth noting that in his origin story, he's also a bloodthirsty maniac, repeat rapist and murderer. Erikson himself has noted that Karsa is a problematic character and was intended to be so. Karsa's odyssey is fascinating, well-written (Erikson's growing confidence in his prose skills from book to book is impressive to behold) and raises important questions, such as interrogating Robert E. Howard's old notion that barbarism is the natural state of humanity with civilisation as a brief interregnum which will end as soon as natural resources run out. There's plenty of black humour in the sequence as well, and it does explain at least part of what on earth was going on with that ship in the Nascent (a plot thread that's been running for three books now), but it's hard to entirely enjoy a story which relies so much on human suffering.
The remaining 750-odd pages of the book return to a more traditional format, with multiple story threads unfolding in tandem: Trull Sengar and his rescue from the Nascent by a band of T'lan Imass; the misadventures of a Tiste Liosan warrior party (who learn that their overwhelming arrogance is not helpful when asking others for help); scheming and backstabbing in the Whirlwind camp; Crokus, Apaslar and Kalam being recruited by Cotillion for various missions; and the march of the 14th Army towards Raraku (a sort-of reverse Chain of Dogs, except we spend far fewer pages on it). The shorter page count for this sequence requires greater focus from Erikson, which he achieves admirably: each story unfolds with verve and pace, and there's less long-winded moments of moral reflection as Memories of Ice occasionally threatened to unleash. The shorter page count does occasionally mean that some story arcs are sold a bit short, and the occasional Gardens of the Moon-esque moment of total confusion (such as the introduction of a new pack of psychotic magical hounds who are not the same pack of psychotic magical hounds as those who appeared in the three previous books, but are very similar) does threaten, but is mostly averted.
The book is also something of an anti-epic fantasy, and indeed, an anti-Malazan novel in structural terms. When I first read the book fifteen years ago I regarded it as a massive anti-climax, as the novel builds and builds to what appears to be a huge conflagration which never quite arrives (we do get it in the sixth volume, The Bonehunters, instead, which makes me occasionally wonder if Erikson could have restructured things so Karsa's arc was removed to its own novel and the Battle of Y'Ghatan was moved into the end of House of Chains; I suspect this would not be practical). On rereads the reasoning behind the far less epic (although still very bloody) ending is much clearer, and more laudable. House of Chains is a dark book in a sometimes very dark series, but also a series where compassion and shared humanity are key themes. These themes are explored further in this novel and given greater weight, contrasted against the dark insanity of characters such as the loathsome Bidithal. This is good, but it can make for hard going at times.
House of Chains (****½) is not operating on quite the same qualitative plain as Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice. It's a faster and more concentrated read, but it's also a darker and much murkier one, where the reader has to follow some very unpleasant characters for large stretches of the book. It's also the most philosophically and intellectually stimulating book in the series so far, asking big questions and refusing to offer pat answers. For some readers House of Chains marks a shift in the tone and feel of series which they don't much care for, away from a epic fantasy narrative and more towards musings on the human soul (which threaten to overtake later books in the series altogether), but for others it's the moment that Malazan grew up and started staking a claim to being the most literate epic fantasy ever attempted. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
So I just finished readong Gardens of the Moon. I must say that I found it mediocre in a plethora of ways, none of which are the ones usually discussed.
spoilers to follow.
People say it is bewildering and hard to follow, that you can't keep track of all the characters and places and magic systems and such. Honestly, keeping track was not an issue at all. I always understood at least the vauge shape of what people were talking about, except where information has been deliberately hidden. For many of the factions (Havelock, Shadowthrone, Oppon, Brood) motivation and sometimes even goals are simply never discussed or mentioned. I did not find this confusing, I just accepted it because, well, sometimes the fantasy genre is like that. Many other factions who were initially opaque did eventually get explained.
My actual trouble with the book is three pronged - writing, structure, and characters.
The writing was not awful, but kind of bad. Here's the climax of Empire Strikes Back, as written by Erikson:
With a swift stroke, Vader cut off Luke's hand, which tumbled into the abyss.
"Luke, I am your father".
"Vader, No, that is impossible - the hermit Obi Wan had told me you betrayed and killed him."
"Luke, Look into yourself and see the truth"
"you are lying, Sith Lord!"
Dialogs are stilted as all hell. The inner world of characters is not a part of how they are written, it is something to be inspected every now and then by a couple pages of pseudo-philosophical remblings, then discarded. At some point near the end of the novel, a Jaghut Tyrant shows up to destory the city, is stopped by Quick Ben who reveals himself to be stuipdly powerful, and is imprisoned by a weirdo tree that grew out of nowehre. None of this elicits any sort of emotional reaction at all for any of the characters that witnessed it. Like, nothing. There's even a line of dialog where a bridgeburner goes like, "oh cool the Tyrant is dead, let's get on with our original plans".
Structural mess. The story in this book has no shape. Tension isn't ramped up, nothing is resolved, no character has an arc. What little foreshadowing there is always happens a couple of pages before it becomes relevent (except for one neat trick I spotted with the spinning coin of Oponn), and ususally even that is lacking. Again, the problem here is not that I've been unable to understand what was happening - it is that it is not satisfying to experience a story that feels so much like a bunch of cool ideas the author had and wasn't sure how to tie them all together.
Telling rather than showing was also a persistent issue. Prominent example - we are told that Whiskyjack is some kind of badass, but what he actually does in the story is feel miserable and make sly poticial plans. He never fights during the entire book - in the one fight where he is even present, a random magical explosion disables him immediately.
Finally, most of the characters were simply uninteresting. Anomander Rake and Kruppe were two standouts, but between the stilted writing and the refusal to even explain the motivations of almost everyone, I simply didn't care about most of the people in the story.
Honestly, if Malazan didn't have such a strong backing, I would dismiss the series as one being written by an ameture and not particualrly skilled author at this point. As it is, I'm going to give Deadhouse Gates a shot. However, I must say - Gardens of the Moon really failed to impress me...
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It's worth noting Snow, that Gardens of the Moon was written years prior to the earlier books, and does struggle in many of the ways that one would expect for a first novel. Deadhouse Gates is by far superior (and probably my favorite of the series overall).
It's also worth noting that while each book does tell a story, very rarely is a character's arc and story explained and resolved in a single book. In Gardens of the Moon the primary themes, many characters, and even central plot threads are never even touched on, and in many ways it functions as an almost prequel to the series as a whole.
As for Whiskyjack, well, I'll let the series explain his character more as you dig in further. That said, a lot of the powers thrown around _do_ very intentionally dwarf the more human characters of the series like him. Whiskyjack is not really a character designed so that he'll go toe to toe with Anomander Rake or the Jaghut Tyrant.
Glad you're giving Deadhouse Gates a shot.
The expansionist Kingdom of Lether has subdued most of the rival kingdoms and tribes on its continent, establishing a hegemony built on notions of debt and service in the name of the king. Its eye now turns to the northern frontier, where the six tribes of the Tiste Edur have recently been united by the Warlock King of the Hiroth. A delegation sets forth to discuss peace and trade, but the true motives of the kingdom are baser. The Warlock King, aware of the growing threat, sends forth the Sengar brothers on a mission to recover a powerful item for him. When the wrong person finds the item, a sorcerous sword of alien origin, it changes the fate of a continent...and the world.
Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy sequence is one that continuously delights in wrong-footing the reader. All of the tropes of established fantasy are here, with powerful empires, great battles, impressive magic and monstrous creatures in spades, but there's also intelligent musings on human nature, philosophical asides on the weirdness of existence and thematic explorations of ideas ranging from colonisation to capitalism and family.
The first four books in the series explored the Malazan Empire and its conquests on the continents of Seven Cities and Genabackis. Although each of the four novels had its own focus and conflicts, common threads regarding the fate of the Empire and the gods ran through each book. Midnight Tides, the fifth book, completely upends this structure altogether. We're now not only on the remote continent of Lether (located far to the south-east of Genabackis or south-west of Seven Cities and Quon Tali), but we're also back in time, with the events of this novel taking place some time before the events of Gardens of the Moon. In fact, you could read Midnight Tides as a stand-alone fantasy novel, as its connections to the rest of the series are, at this point anyway, slight.
Midnight Tides is more traditional, in some respects, than the earlier books in the series. We have two factions, the Tiste Edur and the Kingdom of Lether, with protagonists and antagonists in both camps. Our main POV character is Trull Sengar, a Tiste Edur warrior with a conscience who becomes increasingly concerned over what is happening to his people. Trull is also a link to the rest of the series, as we met Trull at a much later place in his life in House of Chains (and the conceit of the series is that the Tiste Edur storyline of Midnight Tides is being told by Trull to his companion Onrack, although this is not particularly clear - or important - in this novel itself). Other major characters include Udinaas, a Letherii slave who wins the favour of the Tiste Edur ruler; Tehol Beddict, apparently a whimsical madman living in the Letherii capital who is far more than he seems; his brother Brys, the King's Champion; Seren Padac, a traveller, scout and trade factor; and Bugg, Tehol's manservant. It's probably Erikson's most vivid cast assembled so far (which is really saying something) and perhaps his most relatable: with one exception (not made clear until the end of the book) these aren't demigods or Ascendants, but relatively ordinary people dealing in extraordinary circumstances.
Midnight Tides is an enormous book (over 900 pages in paperback) and one that is trying to do a hell of a lot. The primary storyline revolves around the clash between the Tiste Edur and Letherii, a clash of ideologies and beliefs as well as military force. The Letherii have been seen - perhaps too simplistically - as a stand-in for the United States or capitalism in general, a self-described "civilised" nation which destroys the environment, eradicates indigenous cultures and makes everyone subservient to the rule of money, where wealth is the only symbol of worth. The Tiste Edur are not shown as being inherently better (Erikson, an anthropologist and archaeologist, thankfully avoids the "noble savage" trope with some skill), particularly their tendency to take slaves and engage in ritual combat at merest hint of disrespect, but there is something to be said for their much more straightforward honesty compared to the two-faced cynicism of the Letherii. Standing outside this is the Crippled God (another link to the rest of the series), who decides to barge in and get involved to manipulate events for his own benefit.
The result is a busy and (relatively) fast-paced book. Some of Erikson's more characteristic tics, such as characters stopping in the middle of a major battle to exchange philosophical one-liners, are present and correct, but there isn't really enough time for these to bog down the narrative, as is occasionally threatened in other volumes. Instead the book keeps building the tension and narrative layer by layer, chapter by chapter, as we rotate between the Tiste Edur frontier, events in Letheras and elsewhere.
Midnight Tides is also a bizarrely funny book. Of Erikson's numerous fantasy cities, Letheras is probably the closest to Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork, with its subsidence problems and slightly preposterous murder rate. The comic elements come to the fore in the story of Tehol and Bugg, as Tehol realises the only way to really destroy Lether is from inside its banking system, and the (apparently) hapless Bugg helps him to this end. Cue lots of financial skulduggery, plans-within-plans, political intrigue and the increasingly unpleasant details of Tehol's diet and wardrobe emerge. Given the story can get quite grim elsewhere, the laughs in this storyline come as a welcome relief. That's not to say that Tehol's story is disposable - very far from it - but it allows for some well-handled tonal variance.
The book does falter with a slightly redundant storyline in which one of the female characters suffers a sexual assault during a battle. Erikson already covered this story in Deadhouse Gates and did a sterling job of it, presenting the ramifications of physical and sexual abuse on a character in a realistic manner that was well-explored and informed the story without it feeling exploitative. Here the story point is handled very briefly, written off quite quickly (with magic used to take away the psychological damage) and feels almost entirely redundant to both the story and character. Erikson is one of the egalitarian of fantasy authors with well-realised male and female characters, so this feels like a (fortunately) rare misstep on this score (the last in the series until Dust of Dreams) rather than a major problem, but it's still a regrettable move.
Beyond that, the book's biggest weakness might be its awkward placement in the series: Midnight Tides sets up the events of The Bonehunters (where the events of this novel come into conflict with the wider Malazan world) and, most especially, Reaper's Gale, and several of its story threads continue into those books. For that reason, I'd hesitate to recommend reading Midnight Tides by itself (as the sequels won't make any sense unless you've read the first four books as well, and if you read this book you'd then have to double-back and read the other books before being able to press on with the sequels) despite it's stand-alone feel.
Midnight Tides (****½) isn't quite up to the standards of the best volumes in the series, Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice, but it isn't far off. It's an epic fantasy novel with heart and brains, an intelligent deconstruction of capitalist ideology but also an action-packed war story with philosophical musings. It is available now in the UK and USA.
The Malazan Empire is expanding in all directions, consolidating its control of the Seven Cities subcontinent whilst its armies fight a grinding war of attrition on Genabackis against the Crimson Guard and their allies and an ugly stalemate develops on the continent of Korelri. The Empire's expansion has carried the glory and centre of attention away from the place where it was founded, the island of Malaz located off the coast of the Quon Tali continent. The empire was born on Malaz Island, but the empire has grown up and moved out of home. Yet, on the night of a mysterious convergence known as the Shadow Moon, this backwater city once again becomes the centre of attention...
Night of Knives was the first novel written by Ian Cameron Esslemont, set in the world he had co-created with his friend Steven Erikson for roleplaying. The original draft of the novel was written in 1987 but it wouldn't be published (somewhat revised) until 2004, when Erikson was already five books deep into his Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Night of Knives is therefore an odd book, with a different author's viewpoint on a complex fantasy setting. It also kicks off Esslemont's own six-volume Malazan Empire series and acts as a prequel to the entire saga, telling the story of the ill-fated night of the Shadow Moon and what happened to Kellanved and Dancer.
Although, to be honest, it doesn't really, as that momentous event takes place mostly off-stage (and I suspect we won't find out what really happened until Esslemont wraps up his Path to Ascendancy prequel series). Instead, the novel focus on a number of different characters in Malaz City on the night of an ill-omened convergence of magical forces. Our main characters are Kiska, a young thief so desperate to escape the boring island that she even courts joining the Claw, and Temper, a formidable warrior having to hide his true history from his comrades.
Night of Knives is a strange and expectation-defying book. It's strangely minimalist, with sparse descriptions and laidback prose (and a modest page count) that feels very different to Erikson's dense, multi-layered and yak-stunning doorstoppers. It's also not the best book to read without context. Back when I first read the novel, midway through the Malazan Book of the Fallen's release cycle, Night of Knives felt like a viable alternate place to start the series, being much easier to read than Gardens of the Moon. However, on this reread the book felt a lot more random and lacking in background detail. Without having read Erikson's novels first, I'm not sure it's really clear what the hell is going on at any given moment in the book. Temper's backstory also feels really meaningless without the reader knowing who his former commanding officer is.
It's also an odd book in that it sets up multiple awesome confrontations which then happen off-page: Kellanved and Dancer meeting their fate and an awe-inspiring magical battle between Tayschrenn and the Stormriders are both mighty events, but our viewpoint characters manage to miss them both.
On a character level, the book is better in that it establishes Temper and Kiska (who go on to play a role in both Erikson and Esslemont's subsequent novels, particularly The Bonehunters and Return of the Crimson Guard) well, the story is moody and atmospheric, and there's a sense of wandering into a friend's D&D campaign when it's half over and only just about following what's going on but enjoying the action and exploding magical hijinks anyway. Looking at the book from the perspective of having read all twenty published novels in the combined Erikson/Esslemont series (to date), I'm not sure it's a particularly essential read, although certainly not an offensive one.
Night of Knives (***) is a solid but somewhat random first novel which does nicely expand on many plot elements hinted at in Erikson's novels, but does work better when the reader has a more solid grounding in the world from Erikson's books.
The rebellion known as the Whirlwind has been defeated and now its last army is fleeing to the storied city of Y'Ghatan. The Malazan 14th Army, the Bonehunters, is in hot pursuit, keen to eradicate the last vestiges of rebellion on Seven Cities. But fate, the gods and the crafty general known as Leoman of the Flails have other ideas. Elsewhere, black ships from beyond the western oceans have set events are in motion that will engulf the greatest warriors in the world, Karsa Orlong of the Teblor and Icarium Lifestealer among them, and will see the Master of the Deck, Ganoes Paran, reluctantly take a direct hand in events.
Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series is initially made up of three interlocking story arcs: events on Genabackis, events on Seven Cities and events on the continent of Lether. For the first five books these story arcs have been broadly kept separate, but the sixth volume is when they decisively collide with one another. To put it another way, if Malazan was the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is the first Avengers movie where you get to see characters from all the previous sub-series meet up and rub shoulders with one another.
There is undeniably a visceral thrill to this, as it represents the shape of the over-arcing Malazan storyline starting to come into focus. We start getting a better idea of what the series overall is going to be about and where the final battles will take place, although much remains murky. The feeling that the series is - at last! - starting to coalesce into one coherent, cohesive narrative is satisfying.
That said, it is also not handled entirely well. Previous Malazan books have been relatively smooth and consistent in their tone. This book feels a lot more inconsistent, a side-effect of mashing together characters from rather different previous books and storylines. There's also a slight air of contrivance to the book. Characters meet up in unlikely coincidences and mysterious new allies show up having spent two years pre-preparing a ritual which will come in handy at a key moment. Characters portentously declare things to one another that will leave the reader baffled. At one point, apropos of Douglas Adams, the moon actually explodes for no immediately discernible reason (which gets an explanation later on that still feels rather random).
The book is also a bit on the over-full side. Some Malazan novels are overlong and have a lot of filler in them; others (particularly the first three) are super-lean and bursting out of the page limit with incident, character developments and intriguing themes. The Bonehunters instead feels like the plots of three separate novels have been pushed into it and the focus careens between them with the grace of a pinball machine. So much is going on that major events and characters are given very short shrift indeed (the incidental death of one major, long-standing character is disappointing). In particular, the rise of two previous confirmed villains into positions of supreme power and influence comes out of left field and is fundamentally unconvincing, even moreso on a reread.
But this is still a Malazan novel written by Steven Erikson, so that means we still get excellent and brutally tragic set-piece events, wonderful moments of prose and dialogue and some effectively powerful reflections of the human condition. At one point the book threatens to turn into a disaster novel, which would have been interesting (fantasy disaster novels are pretty thin on the ground), although the book then shoots off in a different direction. There's also a series of phenomenal action sequences paced through the book, with the Malazans and Whirlwind soldiers clashing in a burning city, a naval face-off between two mighty powers and, most impressively, a long-running battle through the streets of a major city as Kalam and the Claw finally settle their debts. There's a lot of good stuff in this book, it just doesn't necessarily hang together as well as it should.
The Bonehunters (***½) is one of the more divisive books in the series - I've seen people lament it as the worst book in the series (which I don't agree with) and praise it as the best (which I also don't agree with) - but it's also one of the most action-packed and is the one that brings the focus and ultimate point of the series into sharper relief, which is a good thing. In order to get there, an (even for this series) unlikely number of plot twists and coincidences have to take place, which makes the book feel more artificial than almost any other Malazan novel released to date. That said, it's written so well that you may not even care. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
"There is undeniably a visceral thrill to this, as it represents the shape of the over-arcing Malazan storyline starting to come into focus"
Which is why I liked it so much. The previous books, while brilliant, didn't tie well together. I loved Gardens of the Moon and expected the next book to follow on. but that didn't happen and I remember thinking, when the hell do I get to see Genoes Paran again? Bonehunters gave me a better sense of world connectedness.