Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Review of Memories of Ice

I just finished Memories of Ice, book three of Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen. The book returns us to the characters we know from the first book, Gardens of the Moon, but we see little of the characters we met in book two, Deadhouse Gates beyond a few cameos.

It’s good stuff. The books are thick, as is the fashion in fantasy novels following the mad success of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Still, don’t expect anything like Jordan’s stories here. Nor is it much like Martin’s Game of Thrones books, though Erikson’s work is closer in tone to those.

The first thing I’ll say about Erikson’s books is, even though we’ve got a large ensemble cast, you never find yourself straining to get through chapters or skipping ahead past characters you’re less interested in to get to those you really care about. Erikson does a great job of lavishing all his characters with mystery, interest, and detail. More than that, though, is the sprawling, jumbled, unorchestrated feel of the narrative. Now, that might seem like a detraction, and for some readers it might be. The stories feel almost random, events following one after another as dictated by the collisions of chance and consequence, and without any regard at all for the usual demands of structure and pacing. Some might find this annoying, as the story leaves you adrift, without the usual signposts we usually get from stories. Me, I find it refreshing. The books read more like a narrative of actual, historic events rather than crafted stories. Combined with Erikson’s willingness to kill characters you care about, a willingness that rivals Glen Cook’s and surpasses George R.R. Martin’s, and you feel completely adrift in the stories, not really able to tell what’s coming next.

Granted, some of that comes from the confusion of characters, races, groups, and creatures which populate these books. Even with the dramatis personae and a glossary bookending the story, I still got confused a few times. The book begins with the forging of an alliance between Dujek Onearm’s outlawed Malazan army and the rag-tag army of mercenaries and immortals that were, up till now, their foes. They’ve united to fight against the rising power of an army of religious fanatics. No, not the army of the Raraku Apocalypse that was the focus of Deadhouse Gates; this is another, different army of religious fanatics. Yeah, you can see why it can get confusing at times.

Even more confusing are some of the motives for perplexing actions taken by the characters. I won’t be running a damned thing when I tell you that one of the immortals, an ancient, cursed tyrant named Kallor, betrays the alliance. Which begs the question, why is he part of the alliance at all? He doesn’t bring with him an army, his perfidy is so well known that his military advice is rarely heeded, and the only time we see him draw his weapon is to attack his supposed allies. So why do they put up with him? It’s a mystery that’s never explained. Likewise, there are secrets kept for no apparent reason. In both cases, the bones of narrative structure peek out past the wild froth of events, and we see choices made that seem primarily motivated by the need to set up later events in the story. And at the end of the book, we see the Malazan soldiers honoring a man who undertook an epic sacrifice for a very noble cause, though his timing was abysmal and almost certainly cost the lives of many Malazan soldiers. And, while the scene is wonderfully written, the sort of thing to bring tears to the eyes, it’s almost undercut by wondering why the heck this guy didn’t wait an hour or two, and why the Malazans are so willing to overlook the horrible cost to their own.

In the end, though, this is good stuff. I’ve heard that Erikson is an archeologist by training, and that comes through in his writing, especially his love of epoch-spanning storylines and his adoration of memory and geography, which he romantically links near the end of the book. Lots of loose ends from Gardens of the Moon are nicely tied up here, and questions raised in that volume are so neatly answered that if the series stopped here, I’d almost be satisfied. I will say that if the Bridgeburners never make another appearance, I won’t be upset, and that has nothing to do with disliking them and everything to do with the nature of how their tale is told in this volume. This is everything you liked about Glen Cook’s Black Company books, without that unpleasant sense that the author has no idea where the story is going and is just writing to fill out books, with no end in sight.

Yeah, I know, I’m contradicting myself. I said above that the story feels unplanned, a wild retelling of actual events. Yeah, it feels that way, but everyone in the story has plans they are pursuing. So while almost nobody’s plans work out the way they hope, those goals give the story a sense of trajectory that is clearly illusory, but also comforting for the reader. In short, the tale is shot through with the chaos that is the literary equivalent of the shaky, hand-held camera used often in movies and TV to convey a sense of realism to a scene, but still embraces the reader’s need to feel like the author does have some sort of story in mind during all this madness. The only times the book stumbles is when the author’s hand is a bit too evident, as I mentioned above. But those stumbles are few and far between, and easily forgiven, considering the empathetic characters, wonderful scenes, and interesting locales he gives us.

Currently, I prefer Glen Cook’s new series, The Instrumentalities of the Night, to Erikson’s books. But Erikson’s writing is a more than suitable substitute while we await the third book in Cook’s series.

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