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.

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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

Reading_order_diagram

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

Book Review: Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

Deadhouse Gates is the second book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Although it comes in at 692 pages, these are not just any 692 pages. There is a massive amount of information here, making it a challenging (and lengthy) read. Some of the criticisms I had of Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon have been resolved, while others persist from the previous book to this one. Erikson’s overall writing skill is definitely better in his second book, which I had suspected would be the case after his debut offering, and I’m glad I decided to move on to Deadhouse Gates in order to experience it. So on to the review (minor spoilers ahead)…

The pacing of Deadhouse Gates has much improved over Gardens of the Moon. In fact, the latter parts of the story move along swiftly. The first third of the book, however, feels similar to Gardens of the Moon, as the reader is dropped slightly passed what should be the beginning of the story, and multiple viewpoints continue to drive the story. Once again I found the switching between viewpoints within a chapter absolutely maddening. The main viewpoint threads encompass the following characters:

  • Felisin, sister to Adjunct Tavore
  • Mappo the Trell
  • Duiker the historian
  • Kalam the Claw assassin
  • Fiddler the sapper
  • Kulp the mage

All these viewpoints are used to deliver the plot. In fact, Erikson never divulges details of the plot and story as an impartial observer – all such details are delivered by the characters in the course of their observations or discourse. At times this method can make it very hard to figure out what is going on. For the best synopsis of Deadhouse Gates that I’ve found yet, head over to SF Reviews:  http://www.sfreviews.net/deadhouse_gates.html

Deadhouse Gates is a dark and depressing story. You won’t find elves, dwarves, and epic quests or coming-of-age stories here. What you do find is traveling through dangerous lands, conflict, brutality, and desperation. Not only does Erikson have a firm grasp on combat tactics, his descriptions of battle are second to none – blood, gore, horror, confusion – he has captured the atrocity of war perfectly. Other authors sugar-coat battles, making them sound clean and noble. Erikson pulls no punches in battle scenes, and is to be commended for it. War isn’t something noble and sanitary – it’s people in power sending others off to be butchered, maimed, or tortured, often for no better reason than ego, to save face, revenge, or misguided religious or political beliefs. Erikson pulls back the veil of being among the troops to see what they see, to feel what they feel, exposing the underbelly of armed combat better than anyone in the business today.

I have heard Erikson’s writing being compared and inspired by Glen Cook’s Black Company. Having read all the Black Company books, I can say that there is more inspiration than comparison, although some of the banter among soldiers comes close. I actually had a laugh-out-loud moment in Deadhouse Gates that reminded me very much of Cook, in an enchange between Kulp and some of the soldiers, and the character of Duiker at times does remind me of Cook’s Croaker, the annalist of the Black Company. However, where Cook shows the ability to balance humor, death, straightforward plots, and a fast-paced single viewpoint, Erikson instead chooses the opposite. Characters are sympathetic figures, but I never truly identify with them. Some of them are unlikeable (like Felisin). Motivations in many cases are still unclear, but the main characters do seem to have much more depth here than those in Gardens of the Moon did.

Erikson can often reveal huge motivations or plot threads in a single line of text. If it doesn’t register with you as you read it, you can become confused. An immediate re-read of the story makes things much clearer. I skimmed rather than doing a full re-read, but here are two plot points that were explained in a single sentence or paragraph of character dialog that didn’t resonate with me the first time through; understanding them fully cleared up some of my confusion of events in the story:

  • First, Soletaken and D’ivers are shapechangers, and they are everywhere in Deadhouse Gates. Why? They are trying to discover a gate, and if they enter the gate, they achieve god-like status over other Soletaken and D’ivers. This is why they are everywhere, fighting everything and each other to discover the gate and become a god. The road to this gate is called the Path of Hands. Some of the characters support the effort to obscure the location of the gate, because there is a massive danger in one of these creatures becoming a god.
  • Second, Coltraine was chosen as High Fist to put down the rebellion. This angered Korbolo Dom, another Fist, who joined the rebellion, slaughtering his soldiers that wouldn’t convert and enlisting the rest as mercenaries to his cause. This perceived slight by the Empress is what makes Dom so brutal and bloodthirsty, and intent in destroying Coltraine utterly. This seems a little unbelievable…without Dom’s backstory it appears to be a bit over the top.

The ending is not what one would call happy. 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.

Despite its faults, Deadhouse Gates is better than Gardens of the Moon in almost every way. It’s not for everyone, but if you can stomach the darkness and brutality, there’s a heck of a story here, and I admire and respect Erikson’s viewpoint on war and battle. I spent the first one-third of the book in frustration, slogging through tons of information, confused by the multiple viewpoints and obscured plot. However, the middle third of the book starts to pick up, and the final third was difficult to put down. I plan on reading the next book, Memories of Ice, but I’ll need to do some lighter reading first just to balance the darkness.

Book Review: Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

I’ve finally finished Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, the first book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Here is an example of how I approach my reviews based on the list methodology that I explained in a previous post. In the future, reviews will be more flowing and less structured.

Pacing & Structure

I found the pace of this book to be odd…I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a result of so many different characters and plotlines all vying for attention. Usually a book slows in pace due to too much detail. In this case, there’s not a lot of intricate and unnecessary detail (like you might find in a Wheel of Time book), but rather a lot of people, places, and plot to introduce. Therefore we jump around from person to person, place to place, and though we are moving through the story, at the same time it takes awhile to get from one place to another, which makes the pace seem slow despite the fact that it isn’t. One thing that is helpful are the breaks within chapters – there are lots of good places to stop and process all the information that has been presented. You’d better believe there is a lot of that information that requires processing. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, without a single protagonist, though Paran is probably the most prominent. Within chapters we switch between multiple viewpoints; I  found this occasionally irritating from a coherence standpoint. I would have liked to see more chapters devoted to one point of view.

Characterization

My main criticism of this book is a lack of characterization. With so many multiple viewpoints, it’s hard to get a handle on some of these people. I felt strangely detached from the characters, and found myself not really caring what happened to them. Erikson does a good job of detailing how his characters change throughout the story, but many of them have the same “voice”. Since you are dropped in the middle of the story, you get very little backstory on the characters, so while we know what they want to do, we don’t necessarily know why. The scope of the book doesn’t allow for detailed characterization – I imagine that had this book been split into two, with more detail on Whiskeyjack, Paran, Tattersail, and Anomander Rake, I think both books would have been outstanding. Kruppe is the lone exception to this lack of characterization. It is clear that Erikson put a lot of thought into this character, which had the result of making him the most intriguing, according to most other reviews I’ve read.

Environment

There are a lot of names of places thrown around, but again a lack of detail hampers the setting. Some of the early descriptions of the battlefields are spot on, although it can be difficult sometimes to see where characters are in relation to the environment or even to each other. There is a ton of history, which is presented in an informative manner, but again detail is often lacking. At times I felt like I was once again wading through The Simarillion, which is not a good thing. Descriptions of the terrain vary between adequate and inadequate. Weather and sound play a very small role in the environment. Magic comes from Warrens, but it’s not really clear how much power people can draw and what makes them able to do so. Travel is a mystery, as it’s not clear how far distances are between places for people on foot.

Opposition

There is no unifying opposition until the end of the book. Up to that point we have characters pitted against each other. Here Erikson does a great job of making the conflict realistic. The main opposition at the end, however, is not so clear. Why should I be really worried about this big baddie that’s being awakened? What exactly is it capable of? Why is it so powerful? After walking away from the book, I thought that the answers were there, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember these details. As far as why the big baddie was suddenly present, Erikson handled this very well. Someone woke him from his slumber on purpose. Well, that makes sense as to why it’s now in the story, but the reason seems strange. Aren’t there better ways of taking out your opposition than to get a third party involved that you have no control over? It seems more like a plot device rather than something that would naturally happen.

Plot and Overall Impressions

This is not your typically fantasy, and it is appreciated. The sheer scope of what Erikson is trying to accomplish is to be commended. There are some Deus Ex Machina moments in overcoming the opposition, mostly related to the use of ultra-powerful magic. There were some twists I didn’t see coming, but I wouldn’t describe anything as shocking or jaw-dropping.

In conclusion I have to say I struggled with this book. Proponents of Gardens of the Moon like to rip critical readers by saying that you have to use your head to enjoy this book. Let’s be perfectly clear: using your head to figure out the plot has nothing to do with pacing or characterization. If you really enjoy this book and rate it highly, you must prefer shallow characterization and tons of detail. Personally I like strong characterization – I want to feel for the characters, identify with them, enjoy their successes and sympathize with their problems. There’s very little of that here. The best judge of a book, at least for me, is how fast I turn the pages and how the book captures my attention. I will blaze through an outstanding book, startled as I look at the clock to see hours have flown by, but unable to put the book down. It took me three weeks to slog through this book. I picked it up because I was becoming bored with the ending of Confessor, but often I would leave Gardens of the Moon and return to Confessor because of disinterest or because I needed a break from the sheer amount of information thrown at me.

I’m hesitant to dive into the next book, because I don’t want more of the same. However, I feel I must try, because this is Erikson’s first book and he’s bound to get better. I understand that his plot will expand over the course of several books, and in retrospect maybe I won’t be quite as critical. Plus, he’s set the stage now, so he should be able to focus more on the characters. Given the amount of books in my queue, however, it will be some time before I take that leap.

And what exactly does the title have to do with any of the major plotlines in the book? I’m still scratching my head on that one…