Short review: I really liked this book. Even if you don’t know or like the other ‘Malazan’ books, buy and read this. It stands alone and is a great fantasy novel.
Ok, background first:
Steven Erikson (Steve Lundin) created his ‘Malazan’* series with Esslemont way back when. Due to publishing and life shenanigans, Erikson’s books came out well before Esslemont started writing and publishing his. They’re both writing in the same world and often characters from Erikson’s books will play a part in Esslemont’s books.
I love epic fantasy, the bigger the doorstopper, the happier I was. (Now time is a limiting factor, damn it. But back in the day...) I came across the first Malazan books back in 2001, just before 9-11 when I was on vacation in Victoria. I literally spent my vacation outside in a park, reading. The books owe a huge debt to Glen Cook’s ‘Black Company’ series but the first couple of books grabbed me**
But I soured on the ‘Malazan book of the Fallen’ series and quit reading with “Toll the Hounds”. Erickson’s characters didn’t feel real, in the same way that David Edding’s characters stopped feeling real. What they were, was whiny and when they weren’t emo bitches, they were over-powered killing machines. The series turned from fantasy into a comic book. What saved the setting, which had and has promise, was Ian Esslemont’s books. One of the most recent of his work that I’ve read is “Stoneweilder”.
Esslemont writes two sorts of Malazan books. The first are ‘stand alone’ stories, the second are ‘fix it’. The ‘fix it’ stories are books where he is resolving plot threads set up by Erickson’s books. More enjoyable are his ‘stand alone’ stories, like “Stoneweilder”.
Now let me tell you why I really liked this book:
That’s what it boils down to. Yes, Esslemont is better with plotting his novels and on executing on his plots, and that counts. But characters are where he really impressed me. They were well-rounded, conflicted, heroic. Even the bad guys, and some of them are very bad, had clear motivations.*** They had things they cared about. Characters that care, even in bad causes, make us as readers care. You don’t WANT the necromancer to succeed in his goals but his fears, his challenges (dealing with incompetent commanders) and his own inner conflicts made me want to read more.
That is really impressive. If you can make me care about the bad guys, you’ve just hit it out of the park.
But the plot is also pleasing. One thing we see in Esslemont’s books is the daily life of the Malazan empire. Erickson’s books tend to go off on tangents with deserters, wanderers and other emo poster children. Esslemont focuses on the soldiers of the empire and their antagonists. Clear goals on both sides. This time, the Malazan empire is taking care of some old business. The new emperor, who seems less of fuckwad than the old empress, Laseen, has commanded that one of the big thorns in their side be removed. An invasion partially succeeded on this continent**** but the occupation troops went rogue and stopped sending tax money back to the empire. In addition to this little (or not so little) rebellion, the Malazan empire relies on the rule of the sea and this region has been almost impregnable by sea, so there are other political concerns to motivate the conquest. So we have revenge, realpolik and suppression of the rebel Malazan troops.
Meanwhile the ‘locals’ have a two front war. One is an eternal enemy, constant as the tide, which they are literally fighting back every winter. A massive sea wall with fortifications, guarded by elite fanatical soldiers and conscripted slave-soldiers, is under constant assault each year by warriors that live within the waves themselves. Great concept, made even more urgent as we learn that the fortifications are crumbling from centuries of battering from the sea and ice. The other front is a religious revolution from inside...somewhere. (again, the geography is a little vague)
I can’t spend time recounting the whole plot, so I’ll skip over a full summary. What happens is somewhat less important than why it happens and why it worked for me.
Clear goals, good characters with needs, wants and humanizing details. There are very few superheroes here. (Yes, there are a few but only a few, thankfully. And they have problems, too, mostly the other superheroes...which worked, I guess?) The people felt real. The culture felt real. The tone was active. Too much of Erickson’s work is grim and dark and fatalistic. No idea why he writes like that but he does. Here, a culture is literally facing extinction but everyone’s attitude is defiant, brave even. These ARE the bad guys, in many ways, but you can’t help rooting for them because they haven’t given up, not even to the very end. I admire that kind of heroism.
Another kudo is religion. Erickson’s problem with religion in general is an essay and a half all by itself. But here, the religion works. In a world where the gods are real (though what constitutes a god is a big confusing) but very hands off, seemingly, here we have an interventionist god. A god that, in this region at least, is omnipresent and has limited omniscient, who can empower her worshippers and answer prayers. That makes a powerful augment for a working theocracy, even if there are, of course, evil undercurrents in the religion. But on the whole, for the first half of the book, the theocracy and the religion...worked. And that’s all a culture needs, it needs to work. And as the evil details of the religion are revealed to the reader and to the characters in the book, we get to root for those trying to defy the evil goddess and feel sorry for the true believers who put their faith in someone bad.
Anyway, good book. Great conflict, exciting battles...which a few too many ‘modern’ touches, as per my last rant/post. But still, good stuff. If you like fantasy, I highly recommend Ian Esslemont.
*I always picture a Mexican restaurant when I see that word. Maybe it’s just me.
**Actually, the first one was a hot mess. Unnecessarily confusing but it had some big magic, some cool characters that had not yet worn out their welcome. The second book, Deadhouse Gates, was and is a very, very good fantasy novel.
***With the exception of Greymane. His motivations were too murky, for too long. Which is a problem since he’s the titular character. It didn’t ruin the books, though, since he got surprisingly little screen time. And he is not, surprisingly, a POV character.
****One flaw with the world is that it is too big. Too many contients and they are not clearly mapped in relation to each other. So I honestly don’t know where in the world this is happening and where this is in relation to, say, Genabackis or the Imperial capital.