Thursday, March 31, 2011

Book Review: House of Chains by Steven Erikson

House of Chains is the fourth novel in Steven Erikson’s monumental epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen. The tenth and final novel of the series has just been published and I’m in the process of re-reading the eight that I had already read so that I can finish the last two novels with what has come before firmly in my gray matter. I realized after reading House of Chains that I never reviewed it—indeed, I never reviewed any of the subsequent novels. This was not because I didn’t read them or didn’t like them—in fact, I have a hard time not gushing about the series, at least what I’ve read of it, and what I’ve read of it gives me full confidence that Erikson will have pulled off the ending that his masterpiece deserves. If anything, I suspect my lack of reviews had to do with feeling a bit unequal to the task. 

The novel starts, chronologically, earlier than the previous novels, and with characters wholly unfamiliar, focused on three members of a savage tribe of a giant people. These are a people to whom killing, plunder, and rape are the meat of existence. They are horrendous in their savagery. Yet Erikson is fascinatingly subtle not only in the nuances of this culture but especially in the subtlety and nuance of the characterization, particularly between our central character, Karsa Orlong (who, I’ll tell you now, figures large not only in this novel but in future installments) and Bairoth Gild. I remember being struck by the absolute mastery Erikson exhibits in the drawing of these two characters, each of whom both underestimates and otherwise subtly misunderstands the other, while also absolutely understanding the other in a way that even the other himself does not. There’s something so absolutely authentic about this and at the same time so amazing to see portrayed so well. It’s brilliant.

The action of the story moves gradually from there to show us events from some of the other earlier novels from a different perspective, even while House of Chains is following its own plot. In the process, certain earlier events are clarified and the overall action is taken forward beyond what had been reached in any of the previous novels. Specifically, we see Felisin as Shai’ik reborn, preparing the Army of the Apocalypse for battle with the Malazans as her sister, Tavore, leads that army across through the continent of Seven Cities to put down the rebellion.

I don’t want to offer spoilers, so I’ll keep my comments brief and just say that it’s quite a ride. We see a number of characters we’ve known from previous books: Fiddler, Kalam, Crockus/Cutter, Apsalar, Gessler, Stormy and the rest of the Coast Guard, Felisin and Heboric, the villainous Korbolo Dom and Kamist Reloe, Pearl and Lostara Yil, Iskaral Pust and Morgara, plus cameos by some others (and I’m probably missing some!). Many of these characters see more development here, as we get further inside their heads. 

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating (probably in every review of every book of this series): I think Erikson understands epic fantasy in the way that is perhaps most true to life: big events require large casts. A big decision that any writer has to make involves the point-of-view character. It's important to have someone in this role who is actually going to be present at all important events, a convention which in the past has led to fictional heroes who are virtually the center of the universe--other characters may exist and earn our interest, but everything really hangs on what so-and-so does. One way to get around this limitation, common in epic fantasy today, is shifting perspectives. This is great, allowing for a larger scope without unrealistic expectations on one character being present for everything and rather more multi-polar storytelling. Erikson (and I don't mean to imply that he's the only one doing this) goes one better--not only do we have a large cast of point-of-view characters, none of them really manages to assume paramount imortance. A question like "who's the main character" loses meaning in The Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

As a result, character development may well be spread out over the course of several novels. That’s going to be hard for some readers to either follow or approve, but I think it’s brilliant for the realism it brings (into a world where many characters have reality-bending magic and power). All of these characters are woven together in such a way that they’re all (well, pretty much all) necessary for the resolution of the plot. And the payoff with these characters is, to me, greater for the fact that we’ve lived with some of these characters so long.

Also, I’m finding that there was an awful lot that I picked up on a second read-through. This is dense writing. I’m a pretty good reader, if I do say so myself, but there was a lot that only really made sense on a second read, because now I had the perspective of having read the first 8 books in the series, so I could see some of the things that were setting up things to come, could sort out some of the larger story that can seem tangential to the main storyline because it’s more relevant to the over-arching story than to the particular novel. Which is to say, I suppose, that you should plan on reading this whole series twice if you really want to appreciate it—and it probably wouldn’t hurt to give it more re-reads than that.

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