Book Review: The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

bonehunters

Format:  hard cover, first American edition, 2006

Pages:  984 (not counting a glossary)

Reading Time: about 25 hours

I’ll admit that I was a little worried about skipping Steven Erikson’s Midnight Tides in order to tackle The Bonehunters. My reasoning was that Midnight Tides was essentially a prequel, and I didn’t really want to move backward just to move forward. Would it create confusion and impact my enjoyment of The Bonehunters? Only one way to find out! But first, some guest reviews from some other sites:

 

Strakul’s Thoughts thinks: “This is yet another fine addition to the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. By now, the story is well in place and the characters are all familiar. As in every other book, the plot is epic and overwhelming. It is satisfying to see many threads connecting, but the sheer scope of it is vast. The author, unfortunately, tries to grasp everything at once and it requires a very dedicated reader to follow along…The story feels like it’s all over the place and far less focused than some of the prior novels. This is very strongly a middle book in that the characters are all known and are just positioning themselves (and making discoveries along the way) for the final confrontation. While there are clear climaxes or turning points in the novel, most of it feels like it’s jumping around trying to follow the diverse set of characters…As I have previously mentioned in prior reviews of the Malazan series, words of wisdom can be found among many of the characters, even ones of “lower” status. This is very much evident here and, in my opinion, have made the story a bit heavy. It is not surprising to start a chapter with a character undergoing deep reflections on the nature of life, gods, duty, love, etc. Sometimes interesting aspects of the world are revealed in such reflections, but more often than not these only add to our knowledge of the character. What is surprising is the frequency with which it happens and how it comes from characters we don’t expect. Soldiers or officers in an active army, I would expect, would be more focused on their tasks rather than, for example, wondering the nature of the gods. Some of these discussions feel a little out of place and can make the story drag a little.

Matt Hilliard of Yet There Are Statues says: “More so than previous books in the series, Bonehunters gets off to a distinctly slow start. The first third of the novel reintroduces dozens of characters from previous books and sets them in motion. Characters are traveling every which way on the Seven Cities continent, and since mapmaking is apparently a popular pastime for the series’ hardcore fans, it would be interesting to see an animation of the various characters and groups of characters criss-crossing the continent with their journeys. Much of the content of these traveling scenes takes the form of introspection, as characters think about where they’ve been (probably to help readers who didn’t recently read the previous books), where they are now, and what they hope to be doing in the future. It would be easy to overstate the problem here. It’s not boring, exactly. Erikson’s characters are thoughtful and have interesting observations. But in a series this long, for someone like myself who has been reading these books in a relatively short time period, it’s inevitable there’s some repetition…Perhaps my biggest problem with the introspect moments is they tend to emphasize one of my least favorite elements of the series, namely the way the characters so often seem weakly motivated. Why do Apsalar and Cutter work for Cotillion? Why is Fiddler still in the army? What is Kalam doing with his life now that he’s out of it? Where is Karsa Orlong going? The characters themselves wonder about these questions to varying extents, which is never a good sign…People like Quick Ben and Ganoes Paran are living in a high fantasy story as they struggle against the Crippled God and his allies. The soldiers of the Fourteenth Army, many of whom are colorfully fleshed out in the early parts of the novel, are in a low fantasy story about a military campaign. This allows us to view some of the same events from two very different angles, but it does make it that much more difficult for the myriad viewpoints to coalesce in the reader’s mind. The high fantasy characters tend to have strong motivations and clear goals, but they do their best to hide them from others, including the reader. The low fantasy characters are caught up in their machinations and wondering if they should be trying to free themselves, but they know even less than the reader about what’s going on.

 

The Bonehunters can, in my opinion, be divided into three acts. Act 1 follows a few characters around and culminates with the siege of Y’Ghatan. Act 2 follows the army as it leaves Y’Ghatan and attempts to rendezvous with the Malazan fleet, while at the same time following the actions of Ganoes Paran, the Master of the Deck of Dragons. Act 3 wraps up the story with a portrayal of civil unrest on Malaz Island, as well as a battle for the First Throne. So I’ll talk about each of these 3 acts, and then conclude with my overall impressions.

In his review above, Matt states that story gets off to a slow start, and I would wholeheartedly agree with that…for me, The Bonehunters starts out glacially slow in Act 1. This inhibits pace and any kind of momentum building. In this early part of the story a creature called a T’rolbharahl is released by the mysterious Nameless Ones. At first we only know that the Nameless Ones unleash this terrible entity in order to target a victim, but who that victim is remains a mystery; later, however, it becomes clear that the Nameless Ones intend this evil to kill Mappo and remove his influence over Icarium. Meanwhile the Malazan army is pursuing the remnants of Leoman’s forces across the desert until they reach Y’Ghatan.

One of Erikson’s writing traits that has been difficult to embrace is jumping around from viewpoint to viewpoint, with multiple viewpoint jumps within a chapter. It adds confusion, affects continuity and investiture, and definitely has an impact on pacing. I understand why this is done, and that’s due to the sheer number of characters that share their perspective. My question, then: is this really necessary? Think about what Matt has said above regarding character motivations, and then ask yourself if shedding a few viewpoints, especially when the character motivations are questionable, would make a more coherent, flowing story. My answer is undoubtedly yes. The siege of Y’Ghatan is a perfect example of this. Although there is viewpoint jumping during the siege, the viewpoints are among characters involved in the siege, and because the story focuses exclusively on this event, the payoff in continuity and coherence is evident.

Another Erikson writing trait that has been problematic is prose…specifically (and I’ll use the siege of Y’Ghatan as an example here), Erikson is not great at “painting a picture” with his words. He has great mastery of language and executes his action sequences effectively; however there are many times during his narration that I have to “fill in the blanks”, because the setting is lacking in detail. It’s stunning, actually, to say that about a nearly 1000 page book, but it’s true. Most of the prose is spent on character interaction, retrospection, and movement from one place to another, while very little time is spent on physical descriptions of the characters, or on places like Y’Ghatan, where I’m forced to draw on other stories I’ve read to picture what the city might actually look like. All that aside, the siege of Y’Ghatan is a great example of how much easier Erikson’s writing is to follow when focused on a specific event rather than jumping all over the world (and into warrens as well). The lasting effect of the siege of Y’Ghatan is that it ends the military campaigning on Raraku, and provides a replacement for the legendary Bridgeburner regiment – and that replacement is The Bonehunters.

Act 2 seems like it should slow down in pace, but I did not find this to the case. In fact, Erikson does a great job in building tension over this section of the book. What will be the fate of The Bonehunters? What is Ganoes Paran doing with Bridgeburner ghosts? Where are Icarium and Karsa Orlong traveling to? What havoc will the T’rolbharahl unleash? How do Cotillion and Shadowthrone show up everywhere? Why are they the only gods that seem to be personally influencing events? Who are the mysterious Perish? Although we don’t get answers to all these questions, it feels like the story is building up to something big.

If you’re looking to avoid spoilers, this next section involving Act 3 is that “something big”, and it is going to contain some major spoilers. It is the culmination of events that build throughout the story, and also some of the previous novels. In essence, it shows the folly of an empire that overstepped in pursuit of conquest. There is a price to be paid for war. Most often that price is blood, but there is also an economic cost, a social cost and a political cost. What I mean by that is that war is never popular within a civilized population. A society may believe they have good reasons for entering into war, such as possession of resources, to defend itself, or simply to subjugate other cultures. However, there will always be those within society that are opposed to war on moral or economic reasons; there will be soldiers within the ranks that do not believe in the orders they have been given or the competence of their leaders; and there will be allies that may decide the cost is too high and decide to sit the war out. During a war, the poor are the ones most likely to pay with their lives. Those remaining behind may feel the need to assign blame as the war strains resources and becomes increasingly unpopular.

So why the exposé? The Malazan Empire has been at war for many years, with campaigns recently being fought on two fronts. All the costs I mentioned above are becoming quite high. The Bridgeburners are lost, and the war on Raraku has stretched on for what feels like ages. The citizens of the Empire have had enough, and are looking for someone to blame. Empress Lassen could restore order by force, but that move would be unpopular and could lead to being overthrown. Instead, she decides it will be better to blame and sacrifice a group of people in order to satiate the bloodlust of the people and calm the unrest. I found this part of the book absolutely riveting…in fact, I will boldly state that these tension-filled scenes are the finest writing Erikson has executed to date. There are some eye-rolling moments, such as how a couple of villains from Raraku are now the top advisers of the Empress (without any explanation as to how that occurred), or the superhuman fighting by Kalam that is pretty much unbelievable. Still, these quibbles don’t detract from a fascinating depiction of the Empire fracturing in the course of one night.

The final occurrence in Act 3 is the unleashing of Icarium. We’ve been told what a danger it is to keep him from fighting, but here we finally see what the fuss was all about as he becomes a force that destroys everyone around him in the battle for the First Throne. This part of the book is where I regret having not read Midnight Tides, as there are multiple references to events and characters in that novel that affect The Bonehunters.

In conclusion, despite some pacing issues, viewpoint hopping, and a detachment due to a lack of detail, The Bonehunters is Erikson’s finest Malazan novel I have read to date. It is the brilliant conclusion on Malaz Island that really pulls everything from the previous books together and leaves me dying to know what happens next. I have high expectations for Reaper’s Gale

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Status Update: 4-13-19

I just returned from a business trip to Denver, during which I was able to complete The Arm of the Sphinx. However, due to a lack of time and a slow internet connection in my hotel, I have not yet had a chance to finish writing my review of The Bonehunters. Hopefully I’ll finish that later today or tomorrow.

The Pages Read Count for the year is now 3415. Next up is Phil Tucker’s The Siege of Abythos, which is by far the thickest book in the Chronicles of the Black Gate series…

Status Update: 4-1-19

Finally!

It took me the entire month of March to read Steven Erikson’s The Bonehunters, but it is finally in the rearview mirror. Hopefully I’ll have the review done by the end of the week. All those epic pages brings the Pages Read count for the year to 3017. I’m a bit behind schedule, and although I should be able to get through Arm of the Sphinx fairly quickly, there are some serious doorstoppers looming ahead:

The Siege of Abythos (719 pages)
The Wrath of Heroes (520 pages)
An Echo of Things to Come (716 pages)
Fool’s Quest (754 pages)
Words of Radiance (1080 pages)

I have a sinking feeling that those 5 books will take me until the end of August to complete. At that point I’d be at 7204 pages read, sitting at less than half of my goal with only 4 months remaining. The challenge is heating up!