A New Order, Hardcover Prices, and the Analog Experience in a Digital Age

I was originally just going to do a quick post on a book acquisition, but as I was thinking about the experience, the post began to evolve into something more, and then it morphed again. There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’ll take this one subject at a time and hopefully it will be fairly coherent.

Recently I decided to pick up the last book I needed in the Malazan the Fallen series by Steven Erikson, The Crippled God. I now have the complete series in hardcover, including the Ian C. Esslemont companion books, though I do not have the prequels or other ancillary novels. I thought The Crippled God would be the easiest book for me to find from the main series, since it was the most recently published, in 2011. I remember the buzz back in 2011 among those who were waiting for this book release to wrap up the series. But in my search for this book, what I had expected to find, and what I actually found, were two completely different things.

Throughout my experiences in acquiring the Malazan books, both from Erikson and Esslemont, I found it incredibly difficult to obtain a hardcover book for a reasonable price that was not a library copy, marked up, or missing the dust jacket, while buying from a trusted seller. I used to be able to go to Powell’s Books in Portland to find used hardcovers, but they now mostly stock new releases in hardcover, and seem to rarely have the older hardcovers I’m looking for. Most of the other used bookstores in my area are gone, and those that remain primarily stock paperbacks. So I had turned to Amazon and eBay to try to acquire the books. I discovered that in most cases, books could be found, but it was likely to cost me dearly.

For example, look at this list of hardcovers available for The Crippled God on Amazon:

the crippled god

As you can see, a new hardcover of this book starts at $123, so it was imperative that I find an affordable, used copy. When following the link to the used copies, of which there are 10, the following information is presented:

crippled god list

There’s a few things to note here. Ideally I look for “Used – Very Good” condition. Why is that? Check out Amazon’s definition of “Used – Good”:

All pages and cover are intact (including the dust cover, if applicable). Spine may show signs of wear. Pages may include limited notes and highlighting. May include “From the library of” labels. Shrink wrap, dust covers, or boxed set case may be missing. Item may be missing bundled media.

I put emphasis on parts of this description because they are pretty important to me. Has the book been written on or had text highlighted? Does it have labels, a library stamp, or even a library checkout sleeve inside the front cover? Does it have the dust cover? In their descriptions, some sellers describe wear, markings and highlighting; others say that wear and markings/highlighting “may” exist (that’s not very helpful), and some sellers do not provide a good description at all. None state that the dust jacket is included, so it is impossible to know if you will receive one or not. Price is also a factor, with the two cheapest copies selling for around $30. A “used – very  good” condition starts at $50 (when including shipping and tax) to over $120 (the two most expensive copies wouldn’t fit in the screen capture). That’s a tough cost to swallow considering that the original list price was $29, and as established above for “used – good”, the quality of what you get is going to be a crapshoot. The final important factor is the rating of each seller. The first seller has the best rating at 93%, but that’s not great. Most sellers here fall between 91% and 88%. I generally don’t trust any sellers with a rating below 97%.

In the end I took a chance on a copy from eBay for a total of $17 and received a beautiful book, with very little wear, no markings, and the dust cover intact. eBay can be just as nebulous as Amazon, with lackluster descriptions, and in some cases the seller doesn’t even list whether the book is a paperback or hardcover! In this case I got lucky, as the next cheapest hardcover copy on eBay is $26 from a high volume seller with lots of negative feedback. After that the prices go much higher.

Here’s a couple other examples of costly Malazan hardcover acquisitions featuring Esslemont titles. Return of the Crimson Guard had a list price of $28 on release. Now if you want a new hardcover, prepare to pay over $162 plus tax. Last year there was one listed for almost $4000 (it has since been removed).

rotcg

For a “Used – Very Good” copy, the price begins at $60 and goes up from there.

rotcg list

One final example comes from Esslemont’s Blood and Bone. Again, the list price was $29, but in an unusual twist, there are no hardcover editions to be found on Amazon except for a signed slipcase version with some bland cover art for $78+. eBay often parallels Amazon, and I only found one hardcover, in “Used – Good” condition for $66 there. It’s nice to know that my hardcovers have some value to them, while my paperbacks are virtually worthless monetarily (but still have entertainment value to me). I was fortunate to win my hardcover copy of Blood and Bone in a contest at Fantasy Literature.

blood and bone
no hardcover available…

I’ve talked before a little bit about why I like hardcover books…how the larger print makes them easier to read, and there’s something about the tangible feel of holding a real book in my hands that just feels good. I call this an “Analog Experience in a Digital Age”. The more our experiences are converted to digital, the more nostalgia there is for physical , or analog, experiences, even among those experiencing it for the first time. One example of this is in my other hobby, pinball. Pinball nearly died in 2000 when competition from digital video games forced the biggest pinball company, Bally/Williams, to turn to slot machines, which were far more profitable. However, pinball has made a big resurgence thanks to its analog experience, with much of it coming from younger players who are largely unaware of its near death 20 years ago. A physical ball careens chaotically around a playfield and provides a feeling that just can’t be captured by digital games. And speaking of slot machines, that’s another example of nostalgia for analog…many people who play slots confess that they miss the spinning reels and the sound of coins paying out into the coin holder, because now slot machines are essentially a video game that doesn’t use coins, plays a jingle upon winning, and prints winnings on a piece of paper.

As far back as 2014 (and even early by some accounts), articles were being written about the demise of the paper book, with e-readers being touted as the future of publishing. In this article by the Economist (registration required), it explains that hardcover editions have traditionally been published first due to their ability to generate more profits than paperbacks. The author contends that the premium quality of a hardback is not challenged by e-readers; if anything, it is the paperback format that is threatened by its digital counterpart.

In this article from 2016 by the BBC titled “Are paper books really disappearing?”, it talked about the emergence of the e-reader, the bankruptcy of Borders, and predicts that reading books will be an unusual activity by 2026, although it hopes that we will be a “bi-literate” society – one that values both the digital and printed word. However, in direct contrast to the BBC articles stands this one from Inc. that was published over a year later, titled “7 Reasons Why Ebook Sales Are Falling–and Print Book Sales Are Rising Again”. It cites declining e-book sales and rising print sales as the basis for the article, although it cautions whether these numbers are a one-time phenomenon or actually will be the start of a trend. The author talks about what he likes about hardcover books, including how a physical book makes a more meaningful gift and how they are not “device-dependent”.

One of my favorite articles on this topic is by David Farrer of The Quad, who (satirically, mostly) lists the top 50 reasons why printed books are vastly superior to Ebooks. Here are some of my favorite reasons:

1. Zombie Apocalypse Test
When the zombie apocalypse knocks out the electricity in town and the internet is down, your books will still work just fine. You might even be able to fight off a zombie or two by swinging a sizable Oxford Dictionary.

4. Feel Your Progress
You can physically feel your progress through a book as the upcoming pages get fewer and fewer. Not so with ebooks.

11. Decoration
Books aren’t just for reading, they also decorate your walls and nightstands (and stairs, and floors, and counters, and rafters, and chimneys, etc.). Even as decoration, books breathe an air of intelligence into the room — unless it’s the Twilight series.

14. Haptic/Tactile Pleasure
Books have a feel to them, with texture, thickness, and weight. There’s more interactivity with the physicality of the book than there is with an E-Reader. Many people find the “feel” of books more satisfying and nostalgic than with ebooks (see, Baron, Words On Screen, pg. 142–7). Compared to the substantial tactile experience of books, a thin little E-Reader feels like a toy.

47. Artifacts
Books are artifacts, tangible human creations. Books are the stuff of archeology, history, and anthropology. They are part of our physical culture. Ebooks carry information, and they are fine for what they are, but they aren’t suited for museum displays. They aren’t precious expensive artifacts of bygone civilizations. They aren’t mementos of important times in our life, or childhood memories. Compared to books, ebooks are ephemeral wind.

I hope I’ve captured here why I prefer hardcover books and also why I have avoided e-readers to date. Most of all, I’m glad my Malazan collection is complete…

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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

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.

New Orders 8-13-2018

I’m less than 100 pages away from finishing Steven Erikson’s House of Chains. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m going to skip Midnight Tides and move ahead to The Bonehunters, which I bought last night off of eBay. Finding a hard cover in good condition was a challenge. The U.S. cover art is not great (as detailed in a post on Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist) – it looks like a long-lost Darrell K. Sweet Wheel of Time cover – and although I would have preferred the UK cover, the prices of those are nearly $100, with some asking $300+. Ultimately the cover art is not something I greatly care about when price plays a significant factor.

bonehunters

 

I also wanted to pre-order Glen Cook’s Port of Shadows, so to get free shipping I tied that in with a purchase of Erikson’s Reaper’s Gale. That leaves only Toll the Hounds, Dust of Dreams, and The Crippled God remaining to be purchased in order to complete the road that my Malazan reading path will travel…

Port_of_Shadows_Cover

reapers gale

Status Update 8-2-2018

I’m halfway through Steven Erikson’s House of Chains now. I have managed to clip along at about 5% a day, which represents about 40 pages per day. Carving out even that much time has been a challenge, but I seem to be hitting my stride. The first 200 pages were a struggle, but now the story has picked up the pace with characters I’m more familiar with, and I’m fully engaged, despite there being 7 years since I read Memories of Ice. Although there is still much jumping between viewpoints, I seem to be handling it better than past books…perhaps I’ve grown more accustomed to Erikson’s style? Also some plot points are being explained that are making sense of things I was confused about, which helps immensely.

My path forward in this series will be determined by the following map, which you can find at the Malazan Wiki page

 

malazan 2

malazan 3

The map is challenge to follow, but the 6th paragraph down describes what my approach will be.

malazan 1

It details a good path to follow when reading both Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen and Esslemont’s Novels of the Malazan Empire. The order is as follows:

Gardens of the Moon
Night of Knives
Deadhouse Gates
Memories of Ice
House of Chains
Midnight Tides
The Bonehunters
Reaper’s Gale
Return of the Crimson Guard
Toll the Hounds
Stonewielder
Dust of Dreams
Orb Sceptre Throne
The Crippled God
Blood and Bone
Assail

Now, I slightly deviated from this order when I read Night of Knives after Deadhouse Gates, but that had little impact as far as I could tell. Also, I’m considering skipping Midnight Tides, as it is a prequel of sorts. The events within may be needed backstory for the books that follow, and certainly there are a few familiar characters, some much-needed humor is interjected, and it abounds with social commentary and is described as a fast read. Yet, I can’t bring myself to deviate too far from current events so I will probably jump ahead to The Bonehunters for continuity’s sake.

 

Book Review: Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson

Format: Hardcover, Book Club Edition, 2001

Pages:  1000

Reading Time:  A long time…

One month and 1000 pages after starting this book, I’m exhausted. And depressed. We’ll get to that in a minute.

I’m not sure what I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said. By all accounts, this is Erikson’s finest work, and I’m inclined to agree so far. The first 800 pages are fascinating, following the journeys of several different characters as they gravitate towards the cities of Capustan and Coral. Although Erikson jumps between different viewpoints as he did in previous books, which I found maddening, here he is much more restrained. With longer sections devoted to each viewpoint, it is easier to follow the storyline. There are some memorable scenes, too, as main characters meet up with one another for the first time.

I still can’t help but feel, though, that I’m missing something. I’m often lost trying to follow Warrens and worlds, gods and spirits and first swords, that all suddenly come into being or are created out of nothing – I just feel like the imagery and explanation required to illuminate these concepts are inadequate. Erikson probably has such things very clear in his head, and some folks seem to pick up such subtleties, but I’m not one of them. Sometimes there are limits on power, and other times power seems limitless.

The last 200 pages revert back to the rapidly-switching viewpoints, and there’s so much action crammed into those pages, that the end gets wrapped up a little too quickly. Characters who once traveled together for weeks, pass each other at the end unknowingly, and some of it comes off as a cheap stunt merely for effect. I can’t explain it more without giving away spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Finally, don’t these people get tired of fighting? That’s all that happens in these books. There’s no exploration, no adventure, no romance (bedhopping doesn’t count), and friendships are short-lived. We see a lot of characters just so that we can see a lot of characters killed off. There’s so much fighting and dying. Even heroic acts cost multiple lives. It’s rather depressing.

I’m really conflicted on my feelings towards this book. It’s Erikson’s best yet, not having read anything after this one. I liked parts of the story, particularly the early journeys of Toc the Younger. I just don’t know if I will continue to follow the death and destruction that seem to be the only thing these books have to offer.

Book Review: Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont

Format:  Hardback, First Edition (U.S.), 2009

Pages:  282

Reading Time: about 5 hours

 

Night of Knives takes place over the course of a single night, under a Shadow Moon, when a conjunction opens a portal to the realm of Shadow and allows mortals to ascend. At the same time, the Empire’s 3rd in command, Surly, is attempting to consolidate her hold on rulership. These events all occur on the island of Malaz. The story is told from two viewpoints: Kiska, a young girl who wants to leave the island, and Temper, a veteran soldier hiding from his past. Esslemont and Steven Erikson are writing about events in the same world, in the same time period. Chronologically it occurs before Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon.

Some other reviews of Night of Knives:

Fantasy Book Critic

Fantasy Literature

Roland’s Codex

Yet There Are Statues

Temper is a decent character: he has a strong sense of duty and honor, determination, stubbornness, and is a skilled combatant. Through his backstory we are given insight into the Sword of the Empire and the Seven Cities campaign that later sets the stage for Erikson’s second novel, Deadhouse Gates. The same cannot be said for Kiska, who I found incredibly annoying, especially in the way she would insert herself into events, her insistence that she has “skills” despite being constantly caught off guard, and her pouty yet cocky attitude that has her blurting out questions and being unwilling to do what anyone instructs her to.

The novel has some other issues. The first is that the writing is very choppy. Esslemont will write an entire paragraph of simple sentences that inhibit any kind of attempt at a free-flowing narrative. He does a better job in the second half of the book, but occasionally it resurfaces with a jarring effect.

Another issue is that so much action is crammed into the last 40 pages that it is sometimes difficult to tell where characters are in relation to their surroundings. The Deadhouse needs far more description than is devoted to it, for instance, and as Temper battles the guardians of the Deadhouse I was frequently asking myself “where the heck is this taking place?” Supporting character motivations aren’t really explained…things just happen, with the reasons left unclear.

I also had a problem with the many deus ex machina devices in this book. Just as characters are about to die, someone comes along and saves them, sometimes for no reason, while other characters are left for dead…this happens multiple times. Rarely am I given the impression that the main characters survived due to their wits or skills – it’s usually due to luck or stubbornness. They are able to withstand forces others can’t stand against, often surviving magic battles, encounters with Hounds, powerful guardians, grenades, etc. Lots of people in the story take horrible wounds and gush blood, but they stay on their feet, continue fighting, and perform heroic acts. It’s all a bit much and totally unbelievable.

Finally, most authors will present backstory in italics, to clearly separate past events from the present. Esslemont slips into the backstory of a character without italics. This has the effect of making past events suddenly become current. It can be disorientating and awkward, and for me it does not work well.

Some people recommend reading this book after several of Erikson’s books. I actually recommend reading it first. Despite its shortcomings, Night of Knives does help explain things like Gates, Ascendancy, Shadowthrone, Cotillion, the Empire, the Seven Cities, Claws, Bridgeburners, etc. There aren’t really any major spoilers that would ruin Erikson’s stories; in fact, I might argue that Esslemont hasn’t gone far enough in this area.

Night of Knives was a quick read while I was waiting for The Wise Man’s Fear to arrive, and while I have some serious issues with content, I wouldn’t say that the book is awful – rather, it’s an “okay” read. Since most reviews claim that Esslemont’s sequel, Return of the Crimson Guard, is an improvement over Night of Knives, and it’s in the Malazan world, I’ll give Esslemont another chance, just like I gave Erikson another chance after Gardens of the Moon. I’d recommend this book only to those who want to dive into the Malazan universe and experience all it has to offer. But if you decide to skip Night of Knives, you’ll still be okay…