Gardens of the Moon
Memories of Ice
House of Chains
I’ve been listening to Richard Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen and I’ve been reading Midnight Tides, book five of Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Although it may seem a little odd, the two fit together quite nicely: both are vast in scale, both have a strong basis in myth — not necessarily the stories of myth themselves (although that’s obviously true of the Wagner), but the resonances of myth — and both push against our perceived boundaries of what is possible.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen is actually planned as ten books, so we are halfway through, which seems a good point to sit back and take stock. Given that a “review” of something this massive is somewhat beside the point, don’t look for plot summaries or discussions of individual characters: the story is too big, the characters are too many and too diverse and there is no one central protagonist — this is a true ensemble piece. Granted, it all starts off as though it were just another heroic fantasy with Gardens of the Moon, the story the Malazan Empire and specifically of the Bridgeburners, a “dirty tricks” troop led by Whiskeyjack, and Ganoes Paran, who becomes their captain. They are ultimately betrayed by their Empress and declared outlaws. But there are deep games here, deeper than all but a few realize, and of course, nothing is what anyone says it is.
In fact, one of the salient characteristics of the series as a whole, perhaps a defining one, can be described simply as “layers.” There are layers of motivation, layers of meaning to events, layers of history, and ultimately, layers of story. Erikson’s universe is a huge one, spanning an unimaginable length of time and a indeterminate number of universes. And, as the story progresses, he introduces peoples who have become legendary in the time of the Bridgeburners and relates their histories as stories within the overall story. Thus, in the course of Gardens we meet the Tiste Andii, led by Anomander Rake, Lord of Moon’s Spawn, part of whose history is elucidated in Midnight Tides, which begins with the betrayal of the Tiste Andii by the Tiste Edur, their kin. We also meet the T’Lan Imass; the story of their long war of annihilation against the Jaghut is fleshed out in Memories of Ice. There are also Elder Gods; the Thrones of the warrens, gods themselves, albeit newer; the Ascendants, who are on their way to being gods, perhaps; mages, bonecasters, shapeshifters (called “Soletaken” and “D’ivers”), and some whose magic can’t really be labeled; and a congeries of mortals.
Erikson has created his own mythology/cosmogony here, strange but tantalizingly familiar. There are archetypes — the gods of death, of life, lords of chaos and order — but they are not like the gods we know from our own universe. Nor do the archetypes necessarily appear as gods: the Jaghut, the T’Lan Imass, the Tiste Andii in their airborne fortress, are all creatures of dream (or nightmare) come to life.
The time involved, as Erikson reaches back into the histories before current history, is hundreds of thousands of years, and some of these characters have been alive — or at least, undead — for most of it. (A note to the unwary: Erikson has a casual disregard for the continued life and good health of his characters somewhat akin to that of George R. R. Martin, but with Erikson, you can’t really count on anyone staying dead, no matter how seemingly final their demise.)
And so it goes, the story growing larger, deeper and richer as we read.
I’ve often mentioned what I’ve taken to calling the noir school of contemporary fantasy, typified by such writers as Michael Moorcock, Glen Cook, George R. R. Martin, and now Steven Erikson. Erikson, in fact, strikes me as one of the darker voices writing today, with a merciless determination that the story play out as it must, although he maintains a feel for the heroic as fundamental, and as left-handedly romantic, as Moorcock’s.
There are, in fact, volumes in this series of seemingly unrelieved gloom. Brace yourself for the hopeless death march of the Chain of Dogs in Deadhouse Gates, or the annihilation of the Bridgeburners in Memories of Ice. There is mordant irony, as that underlying the main story arc of Deadhouse Gates: Felisin Paran, consigned to slavery in a purge of the noble houses by the Imperial Adjunct — her sister Tavore. Felisin escapes to become the Sha’ik Reborn, leader of a rebellion that takes the continent of the Seven Cities out of the Empire, and the two sisters meet when Tavore comes to reconquer the lost territories. (That particular irony is driven even deeper when the story returns, in Memories of Ice, to Ganoes Paran, their brother, who knows nothing of the confrontation or its consequences.)
It’s not all darkness, however. Erikson provides some lighter touches, ranging from the irreverent and often scandalous commentary by the troops to an appearance by the Mott Irregulars in Memories of Ice, not to mention Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, who appear in Memories of Ice and a similar pair, Tehol Beddict and his manservant, Bugg, who occupy much of Midnight Tides. (The latter pair, while not so surreally amoral as the former, are equally surprising and entertaining.)
I’ve probably annoyed a number of people with my frequent references to “fat book syndrome,” which is my way of describing those books that I think have been loaded down with unnecessary verbiage that interferes with the story (to the extent that I wonder if some publishers have a minimum weight limit for submissions). There are authors who escape that designation, and Erikson is certainly one of them. The first five volumes of Malazan total almost 4500 pages of text, and yet the books are hard to put down. Fortunately, Erikson is merciful and does offer breathing spaces, but aside from that, his prose is strong enough and appealing enough that one seldom, if ever, feels restless.
When all is said and done, I think this is becoming one of the best contemporary works of heroic fantasy, even if the “heroic” part plays against type. As with any work that can be considered major (and this one certainly can be), there is much more to say than can be accommodated in a few hundred words. Erikson has given us psychological depth, a full measure of irony, a vast sweep of time and space, a unique and fascinating universe, biting social commentary, page-turning adventure, and strong, fluent prose. I’ll just let it go at that.