Book Review: House of Chains by Steven Erikson

house of chainsFormat: hard cover, first U.S. edition, 2002

Pages: 853

Reading Time: about 22 hours

One sentence synopsis: A showdown in the Raraku desert between Felisin/Sha’ik and her sister Tavore seems inevitable, while a new character’s actions will have far-reaching consequences.

 

It’s been 7 years since I last read and reviewed a Malazan novel: Memories of Ice. I went back through and re-read that post, as well as my review of Deadhouse Gates, to gain a little perspective into my thought process and compare it to how I feel about House of Chains. I thought I might have some trouble connecting events after such a long hiatus, so I went to the Tor re-read of Deadhouse Gates to refresh my memory (more on that later) since House of Chains is essentially a sequel to that book. My review will contain a few key spoilers, but I’m going to leave out the major ones. First, a few other reviews to give you a some other perspectives:

 

SF Reviews says “But Erikson’s novels are constructed quite often in a sprawling, haphazard way that lends itself to a great deal of confusion when subplot after subplot is introduced and expected to be followed. I mean, it’s great that a writer can build a fan base so dedicated that they’ll launch a wiki in the interests of “putting together the great puzzles, bringing light into the delicious mysteries and helping fellow fans to understand the intricacies of this great work.” But then, if your fans are having to go to that kind of trouble, doesn’t that imply some shortcomings on the writer’s part in the first place? One element that could still stand to be improved in this series, and one whose improvement would elevate the whole, is character. I’m not suggesting for a minute that Erikson is bad at character — okay, he used to be, but he’s improved immeasurably over four gargantuan novels. But it often seems either as if character takes a backseat to world-building, or that Erikson simply has too many players on the board at any one time…Karsa Orlong is as unabashedly archetypal as fantasy characters come. Yet he’s the first upon whom Erikson focuses and allows to grow as a person…House of Chains could have snagged another entire star from me with ease had Erikson let the book focus with ruthless precision on this conflict, and reduced or cut from the book entirely all the subplots that bog down the middle. Arcane doings galore among the Elder races Erikson has created, their magical warrens (which I had to keep looking up), a battle between the Ascendent gods over the Throne of one of these warrens (Shadow)…Played out on the sidelines the way they are, with Erikson’s often infuriating fondness for caginess and keeping too much information close to the vest, the scenes feel like a weak story interfering with a strong story…Maybe a later volume will let House of Chains’ subplots take center stage and coalesce into a tight narrative all their own, as opposed to what they are now: padding that turns what could have been a long but rock-solid military fantasy adventure into an overlong and overwritten case of literary gigantism that’s too easily distracted by its own detours and tributaries.

David Rodriguez of Strakul’s Thoughts opines: “Alas, the sections dealing with the Rebellion are, at first, relatively weak compared to the rest of the book. When we focus on Ghost Hands or L’oric things are cool and feel like they are moving forward, but the rest of the characters seem to drag the story. There is a lot of unrest within the rebellion and when the viewpoint shifts to many of the characters there it feels as if they spend too much time discussing what will be, rather than acting it out. We still learn useful facts, and the story does require such moments, but they feel slower than other parts of the book, that’s all. Near the end, things finally pick up on this arc before everything converges…The one flaw here, though, is that there are far too many viewpoint characters in this book. You have what feels like 20 different viewpoint characters, all of them important, including those who aren’t viewpoint characters. Hence, you get a very broad view of the world, at the expense of the personal development of some of these individuals. Characters like Karsa, which get tons of screen time early in the book, or Kalam, who we know from prior books, come out as strong and engaging, but others like Febryl or Gamet are less so…One of the things that has impressed me in the Malazan series thus far has been the attention to details concerning the military and its soldiers. I don’t consider myself a fan of military sci-fi, but this is actually rather cool, though it can be sometimes overwhelming with all the corporals, sergeants, captains, commanders, fists, etc.

Finally, Tobias Mastgrave of Broken Mirrors offers the following take: “House of Chains is probably the hardest book in the series to get into. Once you make it past the first three to four hundred pages then the reading gets much easier. However, the first two hundred plus pages of the book are a painful introduction to Karsa Orlong, one of the best characters in the series – and one of the best examples of character growth that I have ever seen. That being said, if you don’t hate Karsa in the beginning of this book, then there is something seriously wrong with you. When you have what amounts to a regular size novel all about a character you hate doing horrible things – well, it makes the book hard to get into. Honestly, I almost gave up on the series while reading House of Chains because I hated Karsa so much. Now, in Reaper’s Gale, Karsa has become one of my favorite characters. Like I said, he is an amazing example of character growth…House of Chains also ties up many of the plot threads opened in Deadhouse Gates and/or opens new ones to replace them. All in all, if you are going to read the Malazan Book of the Fallen you have to read House of Chains, and there is a lot to value in this book. However, it is not the most enjoyable book in the series…Alright, let me warn you now. You will HATE Karsa Orlong in this book. If you don’t hate him, then you are a very twisted person – and it’s me telling you this, so that should add a little emphasis to it, because I’m pretty twisted already. However, by the end of this book if you don’t like Karsa, you will at least respect him. Karsa Orlong is one of the best examples of growth in a character to be found in the fiction market. The changes that his character goes through are not only completely real/believable, but also extreme. Add to this the fact that some of the best characters (i.e. Fiddler, Iskaral Pust, and Heboric among others) return in this novel, and you have a win in the character department. While I love Erikson’s characters in general, this novel definitely stands out.

 

After finishing House of Chains I immediately wrote this review, then I returned to the Tor Malazan re-read site to see if I had overlooked something, as I wanted to be accurate in my assessment. After all, I had missed a couple of important facts during my first reading of Deadhouse Gates. I find the Tor re-reads fascinating and an excellent tool to help me refine my thoughts after I initially record them. So what you are reading now is essentially an edit of my original thoughts after exploring the Tor re-reads.

House of Chains begins with a single viewpoint, that of a new character named Karsa Orlong, a “barbarian” race called the Teblor. Something I touched on in an update back in mid-July was how I really struggled with the opening 200 pages that detail Karsa’s exploits, and I’m not alone in that sentiment, as I have seen it expressed in many other reviews. This is largely due to murder, rape, and the arrogance of Karsa. I will admit that when I don’t like a viewpoint character, it is hard for me to remain engaged; my reading pace slows and it is more difficult for me to devote time to reading the story when I don’t really want to go back to it. As Bill Capossere of the Tor re-reads states, Erikson has taken a big risk here. In my opinion, however, it is a risk he can pull off, because readers who have made it this far through the Malazan series aren’t likely to abandon it, and Erikson always has a pay-off ready for those who are willing to trust his process. Later in the book we find out that Karsa Orlong isn’t a new character at all; we have simply read the backstory of an established character who has changed his name…I think in a previous review I complained about characters having more than one name unnecessarily adds to the overall confusion, but here Erikson uses the reveal of Karsa’s identity for maximum effect, although the clues were there all along.

While Karsa shows tremendous growth through the story, it is important to note that he still has much in his past to answer for. While he does feel deceived and shackled by his gods, and it would be easy to blame them for everything bad that has happened to him, Karsa willingly bears the chains of the ghosts of his past that now haunt him, and vows to be worthy of them. And while I haven’t totally warmed up to his character like many others have (yet), that last statement, along with his recognition that (and I’m paraphrasing here) “glory means nothing, while mercy means something”, means I’ll give him a pass for now, to see where his story goes. What I mean is this: he’s not my favorite character in the book, but he has a depth and complexity that’s worth investing in. And speaking of complexity, I believe the best (and my favorite) character in the book is the god Cotillion, who shows an amazing amount of depth as he tries to hang on to at least a little of his humanity, unlike other near-immortal ascendants who grow distant as time passes (Shadowthrone may already be there).

By the next section of the book my interest began to pick up with the addition of two more new characters: Trull, a Tiste Edur (the focus of Midnight Tides) and Onrack, a T’lan Imass. Other reviewers have complained about Trull and Onrack’s adventures as unnecessary or diversionary, dragging the pace and plot down; my own take is that Trull and Onrack’s viewpoints are some of my favorite parts of the story. The two initially have a distance between them, or should I say indifference – many thanks to Bill at the Tor re-reads for conceptualizing indifference (rather than evil) as the true opposite of “good” in the Malazan series. As the two characters spend more time together, they develop a depth and understanding of each others’ character, which turns into banter, respect and then what could be called friendship and empathy. In my opinion, this was fantastic storytelling. Also, in my mind, their journey is what elevates this book to a high level, due to the fact that I began to learn so much of what I was once in the dark about. Warrens, elder races, gods, motivations, interconnections…House of Chains is full of reveals, explained through the viewpoint of these two characters, that give me a better understanding of Erikson’s creation. Granted, I still feel this information should have been explained back in Gardens of the Moon. Still, I feel this book was pivotal in the series and hooked me in a way the previous books did not. And I’m really proud of myself that I was able to figure out who the Whirlwind Goddess was and who the Master of the Talons was halfway through the book, far before the clues began to drop.

Some other minor viewpoints explored – Kalam; Cutter and Apsalar; and a few others old and new – but the meat of the story focuses on the conflict in Raraku between Tavore’s Malazan army,  and her sister Felisin/Sha’ik and her Whirlwind rebel forces.  Like his previous books exhibit, Erikson’s military scenes in House of Chains continue to exemplify his best work. Unlike authors like Terry Brooks, where heroes are the sole focus of the story and we don’t hear or see anyone else (and we wonder why they are worth saving), in Erikson’s books it is often the grunts in the armies that provide not only the most entertainment, but also make us care what happens to them. They also provide some comic relief and once again produced a couple of laugh-out-loud moments for me. With the Bridgeburners having checked out, I liked the new characters in Tavore’s army that were introduced in this book and look forward to seeing more of them.

Additionally, I thought the contrast between the two armies was fascinating. On Sha’ik’s side is a loosely knit coalition, with each faction developing their own agendas, involving distrust and betrayal, which the Whirlwind Goddess ignores (and that of course has consequences); while on Tavore’s side, the forces are more loyal, but are untested, and also are uncertain about their leader’s capabilities. Tavore’s forces re-trace the steps of the Chain of Dogs from Deadhouse Gates, providing an excellent reference back to that book and also a concern (of the reader as well as the army) that history will repeat itself.

Throughout the book there is a big build-up towards these two forces clashing, and yet the end is rather anti-climactic, which many readers were put off by. However, I thought it was admirable that Erikson pulled back the reins. The effect is that it gives the overall story a lighter touch than the darkness we’ve seen in the endings of the previous two books, which I was grateful for. I loved some of the minor yet important tidbits Erikson consistently maintains or newly introduces: a convergence of powerful entities when a new power manifests; spirits who have eluded Hood and fight in battles; the ascendancy of a group of people (as opposed to a single person); the constant reference to chains. Finally, there’s this statement which I made at the end of Deadhouse Gates:

Some characters that you root for are dispatched; others that are pure evil walk away unscathed. Not very satisfying, but it does create a lot of tension as you wonder if the characters you root for are going to survive. Perhaps those evil characters will get what’s coming to them in the books that follow.

To which I say, bravo, Mr. Erikson! Bravo!

I have a few critiques of the story. Besides Karsa and Teblor, I was not pleased to see yet another race introduced: the Eres’al. As if there isn’t enough to keep track of already! I also don’t like the way some characters are overpowered…Karsa, who I think is far too powerful at the end of the book compared to how weak he was earlier when he was chained by Malazans, and Kalam’s unbeatable abilities come to mind. Meanwhile, some Ascendants are surprisingly easy to take down. I found Corabb to be far too lucky – so lucky that Oponn had to have an influence in some way. And finally, though I felt the overall story was lighter, there’s still some gross stuff here: decapitations, spilled guts, rotting flesh, sexual mutilation, rape, and murder. These critiques are minor, however, and except for Karsa’s initial viewpoint, didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story.

In conclusion I must disagree with some of the other reviews I’ve read, and proclaim that despite my struggle with the first 200 pages, I believe that House of Chains is Steven Erikson’s finest work out of the four books that were released in the series up to this point. He just keeps getting better. However, as I’ve expressed in other posts, I’m going to skip the prequel-like Midnight Tides and head straight to The Bonehunters. Although it is likely that I will not read Midnight Tides until some point in the future (possibly my own re-read!), I will most likely check out the excellent summaries of it over at the Tor re-reads site before fully diving in to The Bonehunters, in order to help with any important developments or plot threads that would be tragic to miss.

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