Book Review: The Shadow Of What Was Lost by James Islington

shadow what was lostFormat:  Hard cover, 1st Edition, 2016

Pages:  693

Reading Time: about 12 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Young students of magic Davian and Wirr, despite being limited by rules and prejudice, investigate the potential of failing of a magical barrier while traveling with two accused murderers who are more than they seem, while they and their friend Asha try to prevent an invasion that threatens the entire kingdom.

 

I’m not sure what first attracted me to The Shadow of What Was Lost…I may have seen a review on another site, or Amazon might have suggested it based on my reading habits. I do remember being struck by the beautiful simplicity of the cover, and then intrigued by the comparisons to the Wheel of Time series. However, still I hesitated, afraid that The Shadow of What Was Lost was a pale imitation of Robert Jordan’s series (that itself suffered from serious flaws). So was my apprehension warranted? Read on to find out, and I promise to call out spoilers ahead of time. But first, let’s take a look at some other opinions:

 

Mark Yon of SFFWorld states: “I must admit I found this first part wasn’t inspiring to begin with. It’s an attempt to be filmic that doesn’t entirely work for me, has dialogue that screams “cliché!” and a lot of information-dumping to set up the plot. However if you can accept that this is a debut novel and a big novel, it is worth sticking with…There are parts that I liked, especially once past the beginning. Once it settles down and the main plot gets going, there’s lots of running and being hunted, which was quite exciting, and there’s even a couple of nearly-unexpected twists along the way (as well as a couple that were blindingly obvious.)…It is clearly a character driven tale. The dialogue between the characters is generally good, though there’s the occasional clunk of dialogue info-dumping. It is perhaps to be expected with a debut novel of this size, though, and not too jarring for the reader. What keeps you reading are the characters – their wishes, worries, beliefs, loves and back-stories, all of which flesh out the plot and the world as we go…Perhaps my biggest concern is that despite Shadow being such a big book there’s a lot happening without a great deal of explanation. Characters do things without being given a real need or understanding of why they must do these things. Though, as readers, we are told that things are important, there’s little said about why they must do things, and so our engagement with things, our concern for the characters, is less. The mysterious and enigmatic enemy has a presence but it never seems as if our heroes are in genuine peril. The deaths of characters mean surprisingly little as there has been little given to make us care about them. In the end it feels like a book with epic width but little depth.

Robert H. Bedford at Tor.com says: “Islington devotes a great deal of the novel to providing background information about his characters and the depth of history of his world. The connections between the characters and that deep history is revealed over the novel’s nearly 700 pages giving a great deal of detail to them. Each of the primary characters possesses a mystery or secret about them, they aren’t exactly what they seem. Adding to the “secret mystery” is that most of these primary characters have very thin memories of themselves, only going back to just before the novel began…Having read many epic fantasy novels and series, “hints of things to come” in later volumes is to be expected and probably part of why longer series are popular. However, the balance between those hints of something substantive being revealed in later volumes and revealing information in the immediacy of the current volume was uneven. The character’s journeys also suffered from a sense hollowness. They were told to go places, but the destination wasn’t always clear and the reason for their journey wasn’t always clear. It felt like the story knew it needed to arrive at certain points and was determined to get there despite itself, in the same way a parent says “Because I said so,” with no other reason…Unfortunately, too much of the nearly 700 pages of The Shadow of What Was Lost was world-building and showing what the characters were rather than getting to know who the characters were. While the characters had a great deal of historical depth, their emotive depth was not on an equal footing…When a novel is boldly compared by readers to The Wheel of Time, the expectations are clearly high. Those high expectations are also unfair, too. That may be the case for The Shadow of What Was Lost. Although I was able to take that comparison with a large grain of salt, Islington did manage to impress me with the historical scope of his world. He has a knack of sorts for world-building and injecting smaller stretches of narrative with tension and immersion. In the end, The Shadow of What Was Lost offers a great deal of promise, but is ultimately very uneven which is typical of a debut novel. There were sparks of enthralling storytelling sprinkled throughout the novel, but if the whole of the novel could match the immersive, narrative pull of the conclusion, the novel would have been much stronger overall.

Fabiloa of The Nerd Daily opines: “Not only does it have an inspiring plot, but it is also well executed in terms of delivery. Do not be fooled by the beginning of the story, which might seem pretty straight forward; the plot is surprising with fast-paced narration and many twists and turns, credible ones too, which can leave a reader breathless. It is most definitely an action-packed story featuring compelling characters with a whole world to discover; and a world to save…There are several aspects of the book that are outstanding. First and foremost, the magic system. Actually, the magic systems; yes, plural!…Quite frankly, the book does a great job in describing who the Shadows are and how poorly they are treated and what they can really do. Their story, thanks to Asha, becomes almost addictive. For instance, it becomes apparent that the Shadows are not willing to be simply mistreated as they are tired of being the invisible ones and they are ready to do something about that. Scheming, politics, the hidden (or not so hidden) agendas of all the parties involved in this story, from the ruling family of Andarra, to the Gifted, to the Shadows—everyone has a goal and no-one is ready for the war that the Blind bring to the capital…The story also explores in some detail various family relationships and, in particular, a father-son relationship that flourishes throughout the narration of Wirr’s storyline. This is a relationship that helps Wirr transform from a reluctant hero to an involved and inspired member of the royal family, understanding what is at stake and become willing to do his part. It is not revolutionary in the genre, yet the character is passionate and sincere in his motives. Yet, the main driver for his change, his father, might not be as enlightened as Wirr thinks he is. Which leaves space for a great character development (or the opposite?) for Wirr; or will James Islington plot another twist that readers will not see coming?

Finally, Richard Bray at Fantasy Faction concludes: “What makes Islington’s debut so exciting in this, the first book in the Licanius Trilogy, is his storytelling ability. While the general setup is familiar as your own handwriting – a young man discovers he has mysterious powers and must go on the run so he can learn how to master those powers and help his friends defeat the mysterious and terrifying army swarming down upon them – Islington executes the story well with likeable characters, strong pacing and a touch of humor. It’s clearly modeled after Jordan and Rothfuss and Sanderson, but it’s done well enough that it’s more a celebration of those previous authors and stories than a forgery, and Islington’s world-building adds some interesting touches that could allow the sequels to expand into uncharted territory…Davian is a likeable, intelligent protagonist, and his friends Wirr and Asha are equally compelling. Asha is an especial delight, as Islington avoids the struggles with female protagonists that plagued much of The Wheel of Time…They seem like characters who haven’t reached their full potential yet, but over the course of the novel we see them develop toward the cusp of adulthood and responsibility (this too was an issue The Wheel of Time struggled with at times). Islington supplements Davian’s story with Caeden, a young man who woke up in the middle of the woods with no recollection of who he is – or whether he is guilty of the mass murder he’s accused of. Caeden’s struggle to discover who he is makes him one of the most interesting pieces to the story, and differentiates the book from merely being a copy of the most common fantasy tropes available. Caeden’s discovery of who he is and how he came to be in his current predicament is surprisingly powerful…The Shadow of What Was Lost feels like a relatively light read – the paperback is 602 pages, but they fly by quickly. There are some moments of graphic violence, but for the most part, it is again in line with The Wheel of Time and its other inspirations.

 

After reading the first two reviews, you could forgive me for being apprehensive about diving into a trope-ridden story. Coming-of-age and kids in a magic school…who needs more of that?! Fortunately the magic school portion of the story ends fairly quickly, with the kids headed out to face danger and accomplish great things after only a few chapters. I won’t recap the plot here; I recommend going to Islington’s website and reading it there. Also make sure you check out the handy Extras feature he has on the site; even though the book itself contains a map (thank you Mr. Islington!), a hi res full color version appears on his site, as well as a glossary that includes pronunciation.

Islington presents his story from multiple viewpoints. The three main youngsters – Davian, Wirr and Asha – are likable and easy to root for. Davian and Asha go through quite a bit of change as the story progresses. Davian is impulsive and tends to do the opposite of what he is instructed to do, often with serious consequences. It is a great character flaw that makes him more believable. His change by the end of the story comes in the form of a more serious and less easy-going personality. Asha begins the story as an innocent girl but by the end has developed into an intelligent, determined, and loyal young woman and is a delight to read. Wirr, on the other hand, doesn’t really change much by the end of the story, and is the least compelling character so far. A few other important viewpoints are explored, such as Caeden and Taeris Sarr, as well as those of a couple of other minor characters. During parts of the story, several of the characters experience loss. I appreciate that while there is loss and grieving, Islington doesn’t devote pages and pages to emo-like grief, choosing instead to mention it and it’s impact and move on, without burying the reader and keeping the story’s pace from bogging down. It is a decision I wholeheartedly approve of.

In my opinion, the best thing about Islington’s story is not his characters, nor is it the plot or the adventure; rather, it’s his worldbuilding that I find stands out. From the early advanced race (the Builders) through thousands of years of history, full of magic and different cultures, wars and near-immortals, items of power, strange creatures, and fairy tales – Islington’s world is deep and imaginative. However, throughout the book we only get small glimpses into those past times. Some of those ancient people, creatures, and artifacts are “awakening”, for lack of a better term, and a magical barrier is failing, both of which explain why those magical beings and items are found in the time of that the story is set in. I would have liked to have seen more of that worldbuilding…right now it falls a bit short of Jordan or Alec Hutson, simply because Islington is holding back in order to set the stage and develop his characters…but I know it’s there and I’m hoping that he reveals more of it in the next book.

The best way for an author to reveal his world is to have his characters go on a quest. That is essentially the plot of the book – Davian and Wirr go on a quest that allows Islington to present different aspects of his world. There is an interesting portion around the middle of the book where Davian experiences time traveling. Some say the book lags here as Davian learns to explore his hitherto undiscovered abilities. I though it was intriguing, and there are a couple of instances in the book where Davian has traveled back from the future and to make an appearance in the present. This was absolutely fascinating to me, and shows that Islington has enough of the plot mapped out to where future events (that he hasn’t even written yet) are making themselves known now.

I understand the criticisms by other reviewers that said it seemed as the characters were told to go to places and do things, but the reason wasn’t quite clear. Yet it wasn’t as much of a problem for me. Maybe there are subtle hints provided by Islington that I picked up on, or perhaps I was just following along blindly as the characters were claimed to have been doing. Initially Davian, Witt and Asha follow the instructions they are given because they really have no choice. As they learn more, however, and opportunities are presented, they very clearly make their own decisions. Asha’s story in particular involved a lot of courage and determination, and she certainly blazed her own trail regardless of what she was told to do. In fact, her story involving the Shadows – those people who had their magic stripped away – is incredibly compelling and the best part of the book.

Caeden’s character gets a nice, twisty reveal that makes you wonder what is truly good and evil in this story…is it the king and his brother, who have repressed magic out of fear? Is it the magic council, that wants nothing more than to rule again over those that have no magic? Is it the Shadows, who have their own agenda that involves the slaughter of innocents if necessary? Is it Aarkein Davaed, who may or may not be good depending on his ultimate goal? Is it the fallen king in the fairy tale that Davian discovers, who may or may not be Aarkein Davaed? Or is it something we haven’t seen yet? There’s a lot of gray area and not enough information to know which way to turn yet…and that’s a good thing. And speaking of twists and turns, there are a couple of them that I didn’t see coming. One involves Caeden as mentioned above; another involves Wirr and his father; and yet another involves Taeris Sarr. Islington has put a lot of work into keeping secrets until he is ready to reveal them, and still there are more that remain unanswered for now.

In conclusion, it is easy to see where the comparisons to the Wheel of Time come from. The Shadow of What Was Lost is very much a homage to that work, yet manages to establish its own identity. Where my concern lies is in the book’s length…will 3 volumes be enough for Islington to be able to tell his story from start to finish? The Wheel of Time series spans 14 door-stopping books…granted, much of that is due to Jordan’s ridiculous sprawl, but still…the point is, can The Licanius Trilogy contain everything we want to know in only two more volumes? It seems unlikely. Still, I’m hoping that it does, because I loved every minute of The Shadow of What Was Lost. The pages flew by, I didn’t want to set it down and couldn’t wait to get back to it when I did – and ultimately that is the true mark of a great story. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, An Echo of Things to Come, with great anticipation.

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Update 9-13-18

Hello everyone!

I thought I would have my review done for The Shadow of What Was Lost by now, but a mini-cold virus followed by some long hours at work has kept me from finishing it. Hopefully I’ll wrap up writing my review and have it posted in the next day or two.

While I was bedridden by the cold I did start reading Fool’s Assassin, and I’m making good progress despite the slow pace. Port of Shadows is scheduled to be delivered to me today, but it will now have to sit in the queue until I finish the current read…

Added Links And Other News

I hope everyone had an enjoyable Labor Day weekend. I managed to buy some new bookcases and move them into the shop (about the only place I have room for them), and also to get some much needed yard work done, although such endeavors always seem to come with a cost…in my case, aches and pains over most of my body. It feels I’ve been worked over by a pack of orcs with billy clubs, and I’ve got the bruises and blackberry scratches to prove it.

I’ve added a few more links to the Blogroll in left sidebar. These sites that I’ve provided links to are ones that I’ve been visiting for awhile now. They offer a lot of new content on a regular basis, and I find myself going to some of them more and more for “guest” reviews. They are:

Bookworm Blues
Bookwraiths
Elitist Book Reviews
Fantasy Faction
Forbidden Planet
Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviews
The Fantasy Hive
The Royal Library

David Benem’s autographed copy of The Wrath of Heroes arrived last week and has been added to the queue. It sounds like I may have managed to rope Mr. Benem into an interview, so look for that sometime in the near future.

wrath of heroes

I’m halfway through James Islington’s The Shadow of What Was Lost, so it’s probably going to be another week before I finish and can start working on a review.

Finally, I ran into some formatting issues with the new theme, mainly with over half of the thumbnail images in the right sidebar refusing to display as a thumbnail, despite the settings indicating that they were. I had to open up each image and custom format the size of the thumbnails to get them to display properly. What a time-consuming pain! Many years ago I was frustrated by formatting issues in WordPress, and switching to the new theme brought back some of those old headaches. Fortunately I seem to be able to find a workaround for most of the problems, so things are looking (almost) the way I’d like them to.

Changes To Site

I’ve made a few changes to the site’s appearance. If you’re not a fan, please let me know. I changed the theme completely, added some nice colorful headers, took the “About Me” section at the bottom of the page and moved it to the top where most other bloggers have it (and I re-wrote it a bit). I’ll probably throw a photo on the “About Me” page within a few days. Another change is to the “Books Read/Reviewed” page that appears next to “About Me”. This was formerly called “Books I’ve Read”. Now when you open this page, in addition to the list of fantasy fiction books I’ve read, each title is also a hyperlink to a review for that book if one exists.

I hope you like it!

Book Review: What Remains Of Heroes by David Benem

what remains of heroesFormat:  hard cover, self-published, 2015

Pages:  396

Reading Time:  about 7 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  as dark creatures begin to appear and treachery threatens the kingdom of Rune on all sides, a drunken former hero, a bookish acolyte, and a small band of assassins may be all that stands between Rune and ruin.

 

I discovered this book when earlier this year I stumbled across the results of the 2015 Self Published Fantasy Blog Off that were held by Mark Lawrence. What Remains of Heroes advanced into the final 10 before falling short, but it enjoyed a great deal of success and lead to a sequel. Since I liked other entries from that contest (namely The Crimson Queen and The Path of Flames), I thought I would give What Remains of Heroes a shot, especially with a hard cover edition available. My review follows, and I’ll make sure I specifically point out the places where I reveal spoilers on this one. Although I didn’t include it in my guest reviews, head over to The Weatherwax Report for a good plot and character summary that doesn’t contain any major spoilers. On to the guest reviews…

 

Richard Bray of Fantasy Faction writes: “Of all the characters in the book, nobody faces horror equal to what Lannick faces in the book, and his encounters with the Necrists – evil magic users intent on bringing the dark god Yrghul, Lord of Nightmares, back to the living world – are truly harrowing. Those scenes are well-crafted, and you can genuinely feel Lannick’s rising horror as he battles creatures who have stolen the faces of his dead wife and children…Once Lannick sobers up, he handily kills a loan shark and his two henchmen, but we never really meet this great leader of men that we’re told Lannick used to be…(Bale’s) scenes lend us a better understanding of the world’s religious history, but can also be a touch slow in a novel that doesn’t seem to have quite enough action to fit in the mold of Abercrombie or Lawrence. Much of the plot revolves around the religious mythology Benem has crafted. That aspect of the world-building is well done, but a plot centered around the good guys fighting to keep a dark god from returning to wreak death and destruction felt a touch too familiar for my tastes…At times the characters also seemed strangely self-aware…It was almost as though they realized exactly which character archetypes they were meant to fulfill and wanted to make certain the reader didn’t miss them either…There are some good aspects to the book – Benem’s development of the world’s religious history stands out, and the Necrists are as creepy as anything I’ve read outside the horror genre – so if the characters click for you, you’ll really enjoy the book.

Fred Phillips at The Royal Library states: “In all honesty, I thought that some portions of the book could have used a little more polish, but by and large it’s quite well written, and I soon found myself immersed in Benem’s world. It reminded me somewhat of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, both in tone and structure, but it grabbed me and pulled me in much quicker than Abercrombie’s story did. I often groan when I’m approached with self-published books. Like most reviewers, I’ve been bombarded for years with poorly written and edited pieces, but every now and then there’s a gem. I’ll go one step further and say that “What Remains of Heroes” is a true diamond. It’s a book that I think could stand toe-to-toe with pretty much any major publisher fantasy out there.

Finally, Aderyn Wood offers this take: “While in the Sanctum, we’re also introduced to my favourite character, Acolyte Zandrachus Bale, who we first meet sneezing in the dusty ancient library. Bale is a favourite, not only because he goes about mumbling about how much he “hates people,” but also because he is a most unlikely hero forced to undertake a quest to find a certain Sanctum elder’s magical remains. Bale’s trepidation is very human and his plans are frequently thwarted, and I liked him a lot…I enjoyed this book mostly because of the close proximity to the characters the narrative invokes. The story is an intriguing one, but it’s the characters who made it so enjoyable for me. I also enjoyed the magic system, which provides an intriguing and compelling ‘reveal’, and will continue to build and fascinate, I suspect, with the next book in the series. The antagonists are certainly there, though there’s room for development and I look forward to learning more about the necrists as well as General Fane’s motivations…What Remains of Heroes is a compelling read that incorporates familiar elements of the genre, without feeling tired or stale. Pick it up when you want a read in which you can trust the author to do his job and take you on an epic tale of grim adventure and magic, with characters you’ll like and a world you can lose yourself in.”

 

I love the points the other reviewers have made – they are spot on. Like Richard, as soon as I read about a dark lord I thought, “oh great, here we go…”, but rather than to play into the “farm boy with a sword trope”, Benem does something very clever. Not only does he take other tropes (bookish priest, assassin, hero-turned-drunk) and put just enough spin on them to make them compelling, it is his ancillary characters such as Fencress, Lorra and Gamghast that steal the spotlight. And like Richard, I thought the first book was definitely lacking in action sequences. The world building was excellent – I love the fading religious beliefs, immortal exiles, and relics of the past – I just think that 400 pages wasn’t enough to introduce the characters and explore the world without sacrificing something, which turned out to be action. From what I read, however, with the characters and world established, the sequel is where the action really picks up, which makes perfect sense.

Despite the infrequent action sequences, I was thoroughly wrapped up in What Remains of Heroes and didn’t want to put it down. I think it is the world-building that hooked me. I really enjoyed reading about the sentinels and the old religion. I would put the world building slightly behind The Crimson Queen and on par with The Path of Flames. And as I mentioned above, I think I liked the supporting characters a lot more than the main characters. Another aspect that Benem does well is create tension, which is far more noticeable with less action present. (SPOILER ALERT – SKIP THE NEXT THREE PARAGRAPH IF YOU MUST!) Scenes such as the assassination of the Lector hold up well early on. Later scenes, such as when Karnag’s band is searching for him in the mist and stumble upon a hut made of body parts, or Bale’s journey to find one of the Sentinels, and the ensuing confrontation with her – these are very compelling sequences and I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Another aspect that Benem explores is that despite the clear distinction of good and evil where it relates to the heroes and the Necrists, Rune is not a great place to live. In the past the High King banished the Sentinels, the protectors of the kingdom, in what the Sentinels call an act of jealousy and power-grabbing; yet, these Sentinels, when they appear in the story, don’t seem entirely empathetic; in fact, they seem to be a little scary and unhinged. This could just be bitterness at having been exiled, or it could be their true character. The High Kings of the past have not always been decent people either, and though one of the plot lines has the reader caring about the Queen and her unborn child, we are often shown the opulence within the castle, while the people outside the castle seem to suffer from the heavy-handedness of their rulers, as well as criminal elements, while living in dirty conditions, with some starving and desperate. Just when you think it wouldn’t be so bad to let the High King’s line die out, the other characters waiting to seize power are worse, and if the High King dies without an heir the dark lord can be freed. That kind of complexity found within the story is really quite excellent. I don’t think we see enough common people to totally empathize with their plight, but we know they are there.

There were a couple of problems I had with the book. Benem’s writing is good, and the book is extremely polished for a self-published novel, but occasionally I felt detached from the characters, and Benem’s descriptions occasionally left me wanting more as I tried to picture the scene in my mind. In a few places I found some words used multiple times in the same sentence that lent a bit of repetitiveness, although it’s not really a problem, just something I noticed, as I do it myself on occasion and an editor tends to catch it. The opening sex scene and the choice of Lannick to participate in it seems a bit gratuitous, out of place, and frankly a little unbelievable. And this leads into the main problem of the book – Lannick is just not a great, compelling character. He has too much baggage, his role in the book is, so far, underwhelming, and his journey to redemption is incomplete. His sequences drag on what is otherwise an excellent read, and I found myself not really caring about what was happening with him. These are all minor criticisms, however, that did not impact my enjoyment of the book.

And enjoy it I did. As mentioned previously, I couldn’t wait to pick it up again once I had put it down, and I blazed through it fairly quickly, which are both good indicators of an enjoyable story. I’m looking forward to the sequel, The Wrath of Heroes, which Benem was kind enough to send to me, with an autograph no less! I typically don’t accept freebies – I want to remain as objective as possible – but in this case Benem says a hard cover may appear down the road, at which point I will buy it. That means I will spend my hard-earned money on it at some point in the future, and I feel that will allow me to maintain my objectivity.

If you do pick up What Remains of Heroes at some point, head over to Benem’s blog to check out this helpful map, which adds a lot of clarity to the story.

Reading Goal Update 8-22-2018

The massive 853 pages of Steven Erikson’s House of Chains gave a huge bump to my reading goal of 12,000 pages this year. However, although it only took a total of 21 hours to read it, that 21 hours was actually spread out over a month and a half of calendar days, so it consumed a significant chunk of the available reading time remaining for the year.

I wanted to reach my “pages read” goal within the 2018 calendar year. To date I have read 9,071 pages, with another 381 of re-reads, for a total of 9,452 pages read. This leaves 2,548 remaining with a little over 4 months left in the year. Below is the list of books that in my previous post were most likely to be read. The books that I did read have now been crossed off of the list.

The Rose and the Thorn = 347
Senlin Ascends = 389
Witch Wraith = 415
The Black Shriving = 499
House of Chains = 853
What Remains of Heroes = 396 (in progress)
House of Blades = 288
The Shadow of What Was Lost = 693
Fool’s Assassin = 667
The Traitor God = 426
The Way of Kings = 1008

After I complete What Remains of Heroes, I’ll tackle The Shadow of What Was Lost. By that time I finish that, I will have received Glen Cook’s Port of Shadows, so it will be read next, followed by Fool’s Assassin. At that point I’ll have another 1,489 pages read (assuming Port of Shadows is 400 pages), with 1,059 pages left and about 2.5 months to finish. The Way of Kings won’t quite get me there, but I’ll mix in a couple of re-reads during that time, which should do it. Still, the margins are shrinking, so hopefully I can pull this off. If I have time left after The Way of Kings, I’ll try to finish The Grey Bastards.

And for next year? Why, the goal will be to top this year of course…

Book Review: House of Chains by Steven Erikson

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

Pages: 853

Reading Time: about 21 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.