January 30, 2011

Reviews: "Midnight Tides" and "House of Chains" By Steven Erikson

You're getting a 'two-fer' with this review.  I am on a roll right now reading Steven Erikson's "The Malazan Book of the Fallen" series of epic high fantasy, and I am presenting my review of the fourth and fifth novels in his ten-volume series.  What I am really trying to say is that you can't stop reading these books, and I am ever-so-thrilled that I still have five to go!

House of Chains is the fourth volume in Steven Erikson's monumental ten-volume series entitled, "The Malazan Book of the Fallen."  This book follows the first three in continuing to flesh out the world and characters that Erikson has so brilliantly created.

The first quarter, or so, of the novel tells the back-story of a character that we briefly met in the second book in the series (Deadhouse Gates)--that of the 'Toblakai' or as we come to find out, the great Teblor warrior, Karsa Orlong.  Again, it bears repeating that Erikson's professional training as an archaeologist and anthropologist has infused his characters and the fictional landscapes with a scent of authenticity that one rarely, if ever, encounters in fiction.

Following the fascinating recounting Karsa's story in the northern wilds of the continent of Genibackis, Erikson then focuses much of the remaining book on the Malazan 14th Army's efforts to defeat 'Sha'ik's Whirlwind' in the 'Holy Raraku Desert' on the continent of 'Seven Cities.  This is some epic military fiction, told from the perspectives of the Army Commander herself down to the squad-level grunts themselves.

The last two-hundred pages, as is typical for Erikson, proceed at break-neck speed, the action and pacing just relentless.  I am learning that Erikson is a big believer in 'convergence.'  When s**t starts happening, more and bigger s**t starts happening; and the next thing you know there are just major events leaping off of every page.  I truly defy any reader to set one these books down with anything under two-hundred pages remaining, it simply ain't possible.

Finally, one must always keep the 'First Eriksonian Law' firmly at the forefront as one reads--"Pay very close attention to every word read and event described."  The 'Second Eriksonian Law' is equally applicable--"Every word read and event described has meaning that may not be initially understood."  Those conversations, or actions of characters, or puzzling events that seem a little odd or inexplicable always seem to reappear as a 'light-bulb' moment later on when all then becomes clear (at least for that moment).  The bottom-line is that Steven Erikson really is an enormously clever writer, and his authorial use of the craft of foreshadowing is some of the best I've run across.  There just ain't anybody writing fiction like this guy!  House of Chains is a very worthy addition to this magnificent series.


Okay, now having read the fifth volume in Steven Erikson's "The Malazan Book of the Fallen" series, Midnight Tides, I think Erikson has the set pieces all in place on the board now.  In finishing this novel I have to say that it truly feels like we have now been exposed to the landscapes, and most of the characters; and it now seems that the plot lines are all starting to slowly begin spiraling toward some form of a mega-convergence in the remaining four novels.  I, for one, can hardly contain myself and my excitement at what is to come!

Midnight Tides is set on the continent of Lether and tells the story of a major war that breaks out between the Tiste Edur (The Children of Shadows) and the Letherii peoples.  This is the first novel to address these peoples and this continent, and none of the characters from the previous novels, with the exception of just a few of the Elder Gods, are even present.  It doesn't matter a bit though.  Within 50 pages, the reader is completely enthralled with the new lands and the characters.  I would be completely remiss in not mentioning just a few of my new favorite characters; including Seren Pedac, Trull Senger, Brys Beddict, Shurq Elalle, Kettle, Iron Bars, and my absolutely most favorite characters in the series to date, Tehol Beddict and his 'man-servant' Bugg.  Oh Lordy, you will just salivate with joy at each and every appearance (and there are plenty, trust me) of Tehol and Bugg.  Seriously, some of the funniest stuff written!

The story of the 'world war' between the Tiste Edur peoples and the Letherii Empire is loaded with pathos and drama.  Tears will be shed.  Also, there are some very powerful explicit and implicit moral messages within this story that have application for all of us in our lives today, regardless of what country we live in.  This story does tend make the reader stop and reconsider what patriotism means, and how it should be applied.

While at first blush it might be easy to question Mr. Erikson about the relevancy of this tale within the larger arc of "The Malazan Book of the Fallen", as we are on a completely new landmass with completely new characters--none of which has the slightest thing to do with the Malazan Empire.  Having said this though, the careful reader will continually ferret out clues and new information associated with issues and events that have been encountered in previous novels in the series.  In other words, I am suggesting that this is not only an incredibly well-written novel and engaging story in its own right, but is a very important portion of the larger 'Malazan' canvas that Erikson is carefully painting.

And did I tell you how much I love the characters of 'Tehol Beddict' and 'Bugg'?  Just thinking about these two will bring a smile to my face for the rest of my life!


January 28, 2011

Review: "Memories of Ice" By Steven Erikson

Memories of Ice is the third installment in Steven Erikson's brilliant fantasy series, "The Malazan Book of the Fallen."  This may well be my favorite of the series so far (I know, I keep saying this as I read each successive book).  This is a big, big story, and the cliche 'epic' really doesn't do the series, or each book individually, justice; but by the third volume, the reader is beginning to become much more comfortable in this amazing world that Erikson has created.  Things are now really starting to make sense!

This novel brings the reader back to the continent of 'Genabackis' with the Malazan Army, specifically the 'Bridgeburners' and their charismatic commanders, 'Dujek One-Arm' and 'Whiskeyjack.'  These great characters were first introduced in the series' first novel, Gardens of the Moon.  There's some really dramatic and action-packed sequences associated with the siege and battle for the large city of Capustan.  The Malazan Army and its allies are tasked with trying to retake the city from its conqueror, the horridly evil Pannion Seer and his minions.  By the end of the book, I had shed some tears several times.  Erikson really knows how to spin a tale, and at times his characters and plotting can really tug at the heart-strings.  Also, in reading Memories of Ice, the reader gains an incredible amount of insight and information associated with several other significant plot-lines, characters, and history of some of the other species and races that populate the previous novels.  In fact, sections of this novel reminded me of some of the fascinating accounts of hominid evolution and the ecological and archaeological evidence of Neandertal and early modern human life and interactions during the ice ages of 50,000 to 30,000 years ago.  This really reflects Erikson's professional background as an archaeologist and his obvious love of anthropology and archaeology, and contributes mightily, and quite authentically, to the 'world-building' in this series.

While some things do become more clear for the reader with Memories of Ice, at the same time Mr. Erikson, in a very workman-like fashion, creates a whole host of new plot-lines, raises new questions, creates new mysteries, and develops fiendishly clever new issues that torture and torment the reader.  Also, I have to say that each of these books just gets better and better; and is more complex and complicated, leaving the reader gasping and grasping for more.  This is so uncharacteristic of most fantasy series where the strongest representative in the sequence is typically the first or second books, and the rest in a series tend to decline appreciably both in content and quality.  Erikson's "The Malazan Book of the Fallen" series just seems to grow exponentially in quality.  A very rare thing indeed!

Finally, if you've read the first two books in the series I probably don't have to tell you this, but read these books carefully.  Pay attention to the information that Erikson gives you, think carefully about things said and done by the characters--everything means something!  Erikson is famous for foreshadowing events and actions to come, but you have to figure it out.  While some things may seem completely inexplicable to the reader now, rest easy and try not to panic for all will be eventually made clear with time.  To reiterate, in my opinion Mr. Erikson may well be the most clever and creative author that I have ever encountered.  Pay attention!

January 15, 2011

Review: "Deadhouse Gates" By Steven Erikson

I nearly couldn't put this novel down once started!  From page one on, the pace is utterly relentless.  This is the second volume in Steven Erikson's brilliant and uber-epic fantasy series, "The Malazan Book of the Fallen."  This installment, Deadhouse Gates, is nothing short of a nail-biter from the get-go.  There are plots and sub-plots galore swirling around throughout this 800+ page novel, and each of them is an attention-grabber.

The main plot of the novel is the one just takes your breath away--rebellion has broken out on one of the continents that the Malazan Empire controls--and this is the story of Coltaine's 'Chain of Dogs' march of one of the Malazan armies over several hundred leagues (over several months) from one city to another.  What makes it incredibly remarkable is that it is not just 'a march' of the Malazan 7th Army.  It is both a strategic and tactical retreat of the army while several huge enemy armies continually attack and harass the Malazan forces the entire distance.  Not only does Coltaine (The 7th's commander, or 'Fist') need to try and preserve his army and tactically respond to the enemy, he also must simultaneously protect nearly 50,000 displaced civilians that he acquires along the way (i.e., evacuees and refugees).

Erikson's description of this epic and heartbreaking journey, and the battles fought along the way, rivals any that have been written about in numerous superb military histories.  Examples that come to my mind include Field Marshal Erich von Manstein's strategic retreat of several German armies across the frozen steppes of southern Russia in early 1942 (after the fall of Stalingrad); or Sherman's "March to the Sea" bisecting the Confederacy.  This is stuff for the ages, and what Erikson writes about in Deadhouse Gates, with Coltaine's march as the focus, is that intense and dramatic, and really is some of the very best in military fiction.  Somehow, I can honestly see students at military academies around the world reading Erikson too.  There are huge lessons here.

By way of disclosure, while I have only read two books in this series so far (with eight more to go!), I am absolutely blown away with the sheer quality of the writing, the plotting, the character development (bordering on Dickensian or Tolstoyan), the pacing, the pathos and drama, and just the sheer inventiveness and originality of the world that Erikson has created. Mr. Erikson doesn't pull his punches, this is truly some hard, bleak, and dark fiction; and at times viscerally tragic and profoundly sad.  At the same time though, Erikson soars to heights almost unknown in fantasy fiction with his moments of triumph, success, and the joy of experiencing those fleeting instants of pure and unbridled goodness and humanity.

I highly and unhesitatingly recommend this series; and, in my opinion, Deadhouse Gates is much more than a quantum step forward from the first novel in the series, Gardens of the Moon.  Read it--you'll become a believer too!

January 13, 2011

Review: "Gardens of the Moon" By Steven Erikson

By way of introduction to this book review, I have to tell you that I first tried to read this novel approximately ten years ago, shortly after it was first published in the U.S.  Gardens of the Moon is Canadian author, Steven Erikson's, first installment in his ten-volume series entitled, "The Malazan Book of the Fallen."  On my first go, I honestly tried to like the book and was stymied.  For whatever reason, I just never took to it and it languished on my shelf for a couple of years.  Eventually I picked it up again, and gave it another go.  Alas, this second attempt was futile as well, and I then packed it off with a box a books to to my favorite used bookstore.  At the time I was in the midst of Robert Jordan's massive "Wheel of Time" epic fantasy series, and I wasn't terribly distraught at letting another multi-volume high fantasy series slip through my fingers.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  Over the past few months I have encountered so much positive feedback about Erikson and his "The Malazan Book of the Fallen" series that I just knew that I'd have to try again.  Over the holidays I bought the first four 'fat-books' in the series, and made the mental commitment to finally read them and see, for myself, what all of the 'buzz' was about.  So, without any further ado, here is my review of the first volume in the series.

It has taken me a couple of days to formulate my thoughts and impressions about Gardens of the Moon and shape them into this review.  First, I must say to Mr. Erikson, "Bravo! and Brilliant!"  Secondly, I am still rendered nearly speechless after reading this first installment in his hugely fascinating and sophisticated epic fantasy series, "The Malazan Book of the Fallen."  This book hurls the reader into a red-hot frying pan face down!  As it is so darned intellectually creative, the novel requires a significant amount of work on the part of the reader, but it is ever so worthwhile.  While clearly dark, and at times bleak, the plot is stunningly complex but absolutely riveting; and the characters are just about the most original I've encountered in fiction, and feel so damned realistic.  From my perspective, there are also a host of connections to the great literature of the ages in this first book--from the classics of the ancient Greeks and Romans, Arthurian legend, the Norse mythology in the Poetic Edda and the Ragnarok, to the naturalism of Edith Wharton and Thomas Hardy--it is all here.

The plot of the novel, and the series for that matter, in a nutshell is this--the Malazan Empire, ruled by the megalomaniacal Empress Laseen, is a militaristic human society that has ambitions for conquering most, if not all, of its known world.  Erikson's background as an archaeologist and anthropologist shines through in his description of the various cultures and peoples that occupy the various continents and countries of this fascinating world that the Malazan Empire is trying to control, and one can't help but hearken back to the days of the Roman empire at its heyday.  Now throw in mages and their use of some complex and intriguing forms of sorcery, near-constant interactions with gods (good and evil) that take great delight in meddling and influencing the events and actions of the mortal protagonists on the planet, and finally Erikson's creation of several unique non-human races of sentient beings that have been on this world for hundreds of thousands of years!  Altogether this makes for a very potent and heady brew that needs to be imbibed slowly.  Read carefully and just take it all in word-by-word.  There is some seriously scary shit going on here that simply makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up!  I can only bow down and marvel at the imagination of Mr. Erikson. 

My final word--strap yourself in and brace yourself for the ride!  Erikson's "The Malazan Book of the Fallen" is an epic fantasy series that grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go, not for one second.  Honestly, if you like creative and detailed high fantasy that is also amazingly fresh and original, you won't want to miss one word of this series.  For me, now it is on to the second volume, "Deadhouse Gates."

For your information, here is the complete list of the titles in Steven Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen series, and date of first publication:

Gardens of the Moon (1999)
Deadhouse Gates (2000)
Memories of Ice (2001)
House of Chains (2002)
Midnight Tides (2004)
The Bonehunters (2006)
Reaper's Gale (2007)
Toll the Hounds (2008)
Dust of Dreams (2009)
The Crippled God (forthcoming final volume in the series, January/February 2011)

January 10, 2011

Review: "The Castings Trilogy" By Pamela Freeman

Happy 2011 to all of you!  I've missed you all terribly and want to apologize for my forced absence.  I have been named acting director of my state agency upon the retirement of my boss, and I have just been way too busy of late.  I have decided though that I must get back in the saddle and keep doing what makes me happy, and posting here on ProSe and interacting with all of you is what makes me very, very happy.

I just finished a novel over the holidays that I am really quite excited to tell you about.  Some of you may know of the Australian author, Pamela Freeman, as it is my understanding that she is a fairly well known author of young-adult literature.  Well, I just finished her first set of novels (I think) written for adult audiences.  Frankly, I have to tell you that it is also completely age and subject appropriate for youth and teen readers as well.  Okay, on with my review.

Ms. Freeman recently wrote a sequence of three books entitled, "The Castings Trilogy," and it is nothing short of brilliant!  The three novels in the trilogy are titled, "Blood Ties," "Deep Water," and the third is "Full Circle."  The titles are quite apt considering the subject and pace of each novel.  I read a larger-sized omnibus edition published by Orbit (2010) at just under 1,400 pages in length.  I have to tell you that I couldn't put it down; it was just riveting!

Firstly, these novels flow quite effortlessly and seamlessly from the first volume to the third.  Ms. Freeman is an excellent writer with a very clean and crisp writing style that immediately pulls the reader deep into her tale.  Somehow, to me, this book seemed particularly poignant and meaningful during our current times, with all of the hatred, prejudice, and violence that we currently endure around the world.  While a superbly crafted work of fantasy fiction, with extraordinarily interesting characters, this is really a book about morality--what is right and what is wrong--and about what it means to be human, and what it means to be different, and how important it is to seek the means to bridge those differences.  There are so many wonderful lessons about how to live a good and decent life in the characters Freemen has created.

As the father of adult daughters, I can't begin to tell you how very much I admired her development and utilization of several very strong female characters through the story-line.  For example, her creation of the young Traveler woman 'Bramble' was sheer genius.  I fell in love with this young, very tough-minded woman.  Then she 'kicks it up a notch' with the characters of 'Martine' and 'Sorn.'  These are women who interact through the course of the plot with other characters in such a fashion that they truly do become wonderful role models for all of us--male or female--in our day-to-day lives.  They are full of strength, intelligence, courage, honor, integrity, and commitment.  In fairness, many of her male characters exhibit many of these exemplary traits too; particularly 'Ash,' 'Leof,' 'Baluch,' and 'Acton.'

Another aspect of the novels that impressed me was Freeman's real talent in her creative utilization of a literary device that has the tale told through the use of multiple points-of-view, some as a voice from the past, and some from the perspective of the present.  It is really a wonderful technique for providing back-story and key information in a very efficient fashion.

While I do not want to give away even a hint of the plot, suffice it to say that this is really the story of a struggle between two disparate groups of people in a world that is essentially dominated by one of the groups of peoples, at the expense of the other.  It proceeds at a relentless pace that almost leaves the reader breathless for want of figuring out what is to become of the world of the Domains and these fascinating characters we've come to know and empathize with.  I would very much recommend this book for a discussion in a book club as it brings up topics and issues that we all need to think about as citizens of our communities, countries, and the world as a whole.  I wholeheartedly thank Ms. Freeman for giving us this thought-provoking series of novels.  While highly entertaining, there's an important take-home message for each of us to ponder, discuss, and bring to bear in our own lives.  I look forward to reading anything else this talented woman writes.

Finally, I will definitely read this novel again; it is a keeper!  I happily assign 4.5/5.0 stars for this superbly crafted fantasy series, and very highly recommend it.