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Monday, March 3, 2008

"Reaper's Gale" by Steven Erikson

Official Malazan Empire Website
Order “Reaper’s GaleHERE
Read the Prologue to “Toll the HoundsHERE

In modern fantasy literature, there are certain select works that define the genre such as “The Hobbit” & “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire, the Shannara novels by Terry Brooks, and Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Chronicles among others. Highly deserving of that same esteemed distinction is Steven Erikson’s Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen: Incredibly ambitious, fearlessly imaginative, and immensely satisfying on every level—emotionally, intellectually and from a purely entertainment standpoint—Erikson’s Malazan books not only celebrate the genre, but are redefining fantasy right before our very eyes…

Now before proceeding, I just want to clarify that I’m not reviewing “Reaper’s Gale”…at least not in the manner that I normally review books. After all, the seventh volume in the
Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen was published in the UK last May 2007 (Transworld) and has already been extensively covered by numerous websites and publications including Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review, Leap in the Dark, Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, Sandstorm Reviews, SFF World, The Gravel Pit, + The Neth Space respectively. Instead, I wanted to take this opportunity to 1) promote the March 4, 2008 US release (Tor) of “Reaper’s Gale”; 2) promote the June 30, 2008 UK release of “Toll the Hounds”, the highly anticipated eighth volume in the Malazan sequence; and 3), just rave about the brilliance of Steven Erikson’s massive undertaking. Since there’s not much more that I can say about “Reaper’s Gale” or “Toll the Hounds” that hasn’t already been said before, that leaves me with objective number three :) In other words, what’s so special about Steven Erikson’s Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen?

Personally, I think that answer varies depending on the reader, but for me it all starts with the breathtaking magnitude of what Steven is trying to accomplish with his ten-volume series. For between the scale of the worldbuilding—which extends from many different races, customs, religions, geography, climates and background histories/mythologies to various gods, ascendants, soletaken, warrens, holds and other magical rules & properties—a narrative that weaves together dozens of subplots and timelines into a cohesive whole, and literally hundreds of character viewpoints, Steven Erikson’s
Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is, in my opinion, unrivaled by any other series when it comes to sheer scope and vision. And that’s not even taking into account the five additional Malazan novels being written by co-creator Ian Cameron Esslemont, the three novellas by Erikson, and whatever other plans the duo may have for the world. In short, the Malazan series is just awe-inspiring in its ambitiousness, and to be honest, a bit overwhelming even with all of the accompanying maps, glossaries and Dramatis Personae—thankfully an encyclopedia is in the works—but you want to know what’s even more impressive? The fact that the authors have really only scratched the surface of what this world has to offer…

Of course, what’s ambition without the abilities to realize one’s vision? Fortunately that is an area where Mr. Erikson excels at. For instance, the world of the Malazan novels isn’t just large; it’s detailed, almost to the point of obsession. So even as fantastical as things can get, especially regarding the book’s frequent magical occurrences and some of the more larger-than-life characters, the world itself and its peoples are real & alive in a manner that is all too rare in fantasy literature. As far as the narrative, Steven Erikson is just an absolute artist when it comes to storytelling, gracefully juggling numerous point-of-views, subplots and timelines that ultimately come together into a series of trademark convergences that are some of the best payoffs that I’ve ever read—including Coltaine and the Chain of Dogs, the dramatic events at Pale, the shocking betrayals at Y’Ghatan and Malaz City, et cetera—not to mention the author’s uncanny ability to consistently surprise the reader with the unexpected directions he takes the story.

Character-wise, it just doesn’t get any better than this. Ranging from gods, shape-shifting soletaken, ghosts and other inhuman creatures to wizards, assassins, soldiers, and whatnot, Steven Erikson covers a whole spectrum of personalities that is shocking in its diversity, the extreme number of viewpoints, and the surprising depth that he offers each character, even down to the meaningless nobody who only gets 2-3 pages of face-time. Specifically, Erikson writers characters that are 1) undeniably iconic—Karsa Orlong, Anomander Rake, Tehol Beddict, Bugg, Cotillion, Iskaral Pust, Icarium, Apsalar, Kalam, Quick Ben, and most of the Bridgeburners / Bonehunters are personal favorites—, 2) easy to care for, and 3) wonderfully complex possessing layers underneath layers that superbly shades the area between good & evil. And let’s not forget the audacity in which Steven handles his characters. In other words, minor players become major players, heroes become villains, villains become heroes, new characters are continuously introduced, and no one is safe from death. In short, expect the unexpected…

Of the magic system that is found in the Malazan books, I can’t say that it’s the most original or best developed concept that I’ve ever read—personally I prefer the Allomancy/Feruchemy ideas found in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series—but it is one of the coolest :) A lot of that has to do with how ridiculously powerful the magic can be, resulting in a number of seriously badass characters and destructive confrontations that, along with much of the series’ thrilling action sequences, are written with tremendous flair. Lastly, I just absolutely love the tone of the books, which is a darker, grittier and more realistic approach to fantasy—there’s cursing, obvious sexual innuendo and viscerally descriptive scenes of violence offset by a healthy dose of black & witty humor—that reminded me a lot of Glen Cook’s excellent Black Company novels. Not surprisingly, the author is a huge influence of Mr. Erikson’s and “Reaper’s Gale” was actually dedicated to Glen Cook :)

Individually, “Gardens of the Moon” (Vol I) is usually considered the weakest book in the series, mainly because of structural issues that make it somewhat confusing to read, but for me “Midnight Tides” (Vol V) is actually my least favorite of the ones released so far, although I have a much greater appreciation for the novel after completing “Reaper’s Gale”. I’m not sure if there’s any one book that I enjoyed more than the others, but volumes II through IV—Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice, and House of Chains—were all excellent and I also really enjoyed “The Bonehunters” (Vol VI). As far as “Reaper’s Gale”, the seventh volume in the Malazan sequence is easily the longest book in the series thus far (900+ pages), but I wouldn’t say it was the strongest. Personally, I thought the story moved slower than it normally has, and a number of the subplots like the Letherii/Edur politics weren’t as compelling, but as usual the payoffs at the end were just mind-blowing and absolutely worth the journey. In fact, I’d have to say that some of the revelations & resolutions in the book were the best in the series, particularly those involving Onrack, Beak, Trull Sengar, Hedge, Toc the Younger, Tehol Beddict & Bugg; although there were a couple of storylines—regarding Redmask & Karsa Orlong—that were underwhelming. To be honest, each volume in the
Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen has its share of strengths & weaknesses if you look at them separately, but only by viewing the series as a whole can readers truly grasp the brilliance and significance behind Erikson’s masterful epic.

In closing, I highly recommend Steven Erikson’s
Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen to anyone who hasn’t discovered the series yet—which I feel is still vastly underrated despite all of the acclaim that it’s received so far—especially if you call yourself a fan of fantasy. Granted, I understand that the series won’t appeal to everyone considering the overwhelming number of characters and viewpoints, the non-linear narrative, the darker tone of the books and the series’ immense complexity & ambitiousness, but even if Erikson’s Malazan novels sound like nothing you would normally read, at least give it a try. Otherwise you’d be missing out on one of, if not the most seminal work of fantasy fiction to be published in the 21st century. In the end, I could ramble on and on about how magnificent Steven Erikson’s Malazan series is, and I admit that I probably layed it on pretty thick at times, but what can I say :) Erikson’s Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is easily the best fantasy series that I have ever read…

29 comments:

Reanimated said...

Robert,

Wow! If I wasn't already a huge S.E. fan I would be running out NOW!!! to grab me each book in the series.
A spledid write up for an author very deserving of it.

R

Lawrence said...

" Erikson’s Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is easily the best fantasy series that I have ever read… " Woow big statement that. Go read the Prince of Nothing trilogy by R. Scott Bakker now! ;)

Chris, The Book Swede said...

I have the books -- all of them! -- at home, I just never got past Gardens before I jumped on the (then) new GRRM, and got distracted for a couple of years.

I'm starting the series again tonight! I needed the prompt!

~Chris

ThRiNiDiR said...

I've only read the first five books but agree that MT is the weakest of the bunch.

Anonymous said...

For a mildly dissenting opinion, while I see the scope of the books, they never interested me enough to keep reading.

I liked the first volume, confusing and all, but the second just bored me and while I may revisit the series at some point, I do not see it happening in the immediate future.

Mr. Erikson' style just does not agree with me, I much prefer the US mainstream writer with similar name - though different spelling - who has written some masterpieces of modern fantastic literature in my opinion (Tours of the Black Clock, Zeroville, Days Between Stations, even Arc D'x)

Liviu

Abalieno said...

Good summary.

I'm near the end of book one, so still the beginning, with the hope it will get even better.

One aspect I disagree with is about the characters and POV. I didn't like much the POV from magic animals and gods because it fails in what Glen Cook excels. The perspective from below that makes powerful characters truly special.

By writing from the perspective of just everything Erikson misses a bit of the "magic" and special feel of the powerful creatures and characters. An aspect made even worse by the fact that these greater powers talk in a way that doesn't feel particular and corresponding to who those beings are.

So I kind of agree with those critics about the characters lacking their own unique "voice". In particular the powerful ones, from whose you would expect a very different behavior.

Jebus said...

I adore this series and it knocked ASoIaF off its lofty pedestal of favourite fantasy series. I only discovered it last year at the urging of a friend - reading 7 books in a row was absolute bliss! Memories Of Ice is my favourite followed by Bonehunters, but I love them all.

I can't wait for this series to finish, I have absolutely no idea where he is taking us but I'm pretty damn sure its gonna have an awesome ending!

RobB said...

Great overview Robert. I've got to catch up on Malazan. I have all them staring at my from my "to read" bookshelf, but I don't want to overexhaust myself on the series.

Robert said...

Reanimated, I'm glad you liked the writeup and totally agree that the series deserves all the praise it can get :)

Lawrence, I definitely need to read Bakker's trilogy. I've heard nothing but great compliments about it and I'm sure I would enjoy it very much :)

Chris, there's nothing wrong with being distracted by GRRM :) It'll be interesting to see how the Malazan books compare to A Song of Ice & Fire in your opinion though...

Thrinidir, much of what happens in "Midnight Tides" will make a lot more sense after reading "Reaper's Gale", and if I were to go back and re-read the fifth volume now, I'm sure I would enjoy it much more :)

Liviu, well hopefully you'll revisit the series later on. For me, I thought the books and the writing got progressively stronger with each volume, even in "Reaper's Gale" and that's another thing that I really like about the series and the author. I have read any of the titles by Steve Erickson, but I seem to hear a lot about "Zeroville". Will have to check it out at some point :)

I hear what you're saying Abalieno, but Erikson does a lot better job with the characterizations later on in the series. Just wait :)

Jebus, when I first started the series, I read volumes 1-5 all in a row and I have to say that was an amazing experience. Personally, I'm waiting for all ten volumes to be published and then I'll re-read the whole series from start to finish. And when ICE's books are completed, I'll do the same again :D

Rob, thanks! You're in for a real treat whenever you do start the Malazan books :)

RobB said...

I misspoke. I've read through House of Chains and have the remaining books staring at me (thanks to Pat!).

I loved House of Chains. I orignially read GotM and DH about 5 years ago before they were available in the US so there was a lag. I eventually re-read them before MoI and HoC.

However, I don't want to read them all straight through. Rather every month or so I'll jump into one and take it nice and slow.

daydream said...

I am a bit time pressured right now to leave my extended thoughts, but really and trully this is a great poast and well I think I am just gonna be a fan of this writer. When time comes!

Richard Marcus said...

First off, thanks for the shout out to my review of Reaper's Gale, and also for the heads up about the next release - I'll have to start "hounding" my distributor for a copy now -(we get it in Canada at the same time as they do in the UK - probably the only perk left from having the Queen as our head of state).

Also, compliments on your very well written and comprehensive summation and explanation of the series. I could never have done it in less then three volumes - Also for those who haven't read Night Of The Knives the first in the companion series, it's equally brilliant - it has exactly the right feel and mood without being a copy.

If you don't mind I'm going t add you to my link list at my site, and I'm glad I found you.

cheers

Richard Marcus

Robert said...

Ah, my bad Rob :) Thanks for clearing that up and I'm glad you're enjoying the series so far! Nothing wrong with reading the series at a nice and steady pace. You get to savor each book that way :)

Daydream, I look forward to your more extended thoughts :)

Richard, thanks for the comment and compliments! You're more than welcome for the mention and I appreciate the link on your blog. I'll definitely return the favor :)

I agree, "Night of Knives" is equally brilliant and I can't wait for the "Return of the Crimson Guard" later this year. And you're extremely lucky that "Toll the Hounds" comes out the same time as the UK release!

Thanks again :)

daydream said...

Okay, here I am with my extended thoughts. After I read the post not in a hurry and took in every single detail I have to say that you hooked me totaly. It might not happen now, but one day, this will be an ambition of mine to read this series.

The sheer scope is amazing of what you tell me and just what I love in a book. For me the world and magic and unhuman play a huge role, while readinga book and the weirder, more imaginative, detailed and yet coherent, the better!

I like the attention to detail in world building and pay attention to the same things! The author deserves this praise.

Robert said...

Thanks daydream! I definitely think you'll enjoy the series. In fact, I think you'll be blown away :D

anomander said...

fantastic review of the ultimate fantasy series robert the sheer depth and magnitude of eriksons world the complexity of stories and characters brought together in dramatic convergences of plots and powers married to a depth of characters(ben,kalam,rake,icarium,the rope etc etc)all of whom deserving of their own fantasy trilogy just doesnt exist anywhere else.I,m a massive fan of stephen donaldsons covenant/gap series,martins fire and ice,wolfes book of the long/new sun,tad williams otherland/memory sorrow thorn,kings dark tower on and on but nothing compares to the malazan empire.If you havent tried it yet make it your priority to find it.If L.Ron Hubbard could write like steven erikson i could understand how he managed to create his own religion and sucker all those idiots into parting with their money haha

Robert said...

Thanks for sharing Anomander! I keep forgetting to mention King's Dark Tower series even though it's basically fantasy and is just great :) Also, I still need to read Gene Wolfe and so many others... So far though, nothing else compares like you said :)

anomander said...

just read toll the hounds prologue from link above and im hooked again haha i see its out in uk end of june love to read these on my hols but dont know if i can leave it unread till september,but if i can fortnight in cancun drinkin cocktails on the beach reading a new malazan book sounds like proof there is a god haha

Robert said...

Reading Malazan while in Cancun... Sounds pretty nice :) Although there would be a few other things I'd probably rather be doing ;)

anomander said...

yeah your right thats why i bring the missus!! for that, and to make sure i find it back to the right room when iv done 2 many jd an cokes haha keep up the good work fella spread the word too many people reading rubbish(terry goodkind?what went wrong?)

ron said...

I've read most of the massive epic series out there, and I must say the Malazan series is the best I've found so far. I didn't think so after the first book, but from Deadhouse Gates onwards it has been way better than anything out there (though Midnight Tides is a little weak).

The Prince of Nothing is incredibly good, but the end of the trilogy was a bit of a letdown. Felt like Bakker was preparing for a second series prematurely (though I'd love to read about Anasurimbor Kellhus in the fullness of his powers - wow!). I'd say it was better written than A Song of Ice and Fire in my opinion (or at least more sophisticated), but overall GRRM's masterpiece has the better storyline and is much more fun to read. Strangely, though, all this waiting for the next installment in that series is dissipating my enthusiasm instead of whetting my appetite (or it could be that the Malazan series is simply exciting me more).

Anyway, Erikson's series is to me the best out there, with GRRM and Bakker not too far behind. Tolkien, De Guin, Jordan, Donaldson and Greg Keyes (Thorn and Bone series) are also very good, though I think they would appeal more to people younger than me. Credit goes to them of course for blazing the trail (except Keyes) for these newer writers whose challenge today is to push the boundaries of the genre, as is being masterfully done by Erikson, Martin and Bakker.

Robert said...

Ron, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I have some good stuff coming up for Malazan fans including a giveaway, an interview with Steven, books reviews, and hopefully an interview with Ian Cameron Esslemont. So keep your eyes peeled :)

Play'nWitYoMomma said...

I'm about halfway through "The Bone Hunters" and I am enjoying it. For my money MofI is one of the two or three best books I've ever read. Don't give up on Deadhouse, it is vital to the story and sets up one of the best endings ever in the next book. I too rate this series up at the top with GRRM and it appears that SE is picking up steam where GRRM appears to be losing steam. All of that being said the #1 fantasy writer for my money is TAD WILLIAMS, and "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn" is hands down the best fantasy series. I rate the Aforementioned series as below(so far):

1- Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (Tad Williams)

2,3- A Song of Ice and Fire(GRRM)/Malazan Book of the Fallen(SE)

4- Wheel of Time(R.Jordan)

5- Sword of Truth (T.Goodkind)

Ashaman66 said...

Excellent review. The Mazalan Book of the Fallen is undeniably one of the most entertaining and brilliant series in the Fantasy genre.

To reiterate a few points all ready posted, Erikson gives the reader a well developed storyline spread over a myriad of cultures and worlds. I have found myself laughing uncontrollably at his wry sense of humor and moments later overwhelmed by his realistic projection of human nature and their liabilities.

Even more astonishing is the rate at which he releases his books. While we wait for great authors like GRRM to release a book every other year, Mr. Erikson keeps us enthralled on a continuous basis.

If anyone hasn't had the chance to pick up Mr. Erikson's saga then I couldn't emphasize enough what a favor you would being doing yourself.

Fodder said...

I am a huge fan of the world and characters erikson has created. His writing seems deeply based in his archaeological background for he slowly uncovers the world your dropped into.

For those who like their fantasy straight up, he's not an author you'll like. He's got a world of many mysteries and a magic system that has generations of conflicting layers on it.

For the person placing R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy above this series, I have to disagree strongly. Bakker started with an amazing first book, then got lost rambling on philosophy. By the third book I was so disappointed I finished it purely out of spite. Series went from a 9.5 straight down to a 3.

Erikson on the other hand has stayed steady as a rock.

Robert said...

Play'nWitYoMomma, Ashaman66 and Fodder, I appreciate the comments!

Magi of High House Shadow said...

Excellent review. Amazing. I agree with you on the fact that Erikson is the best. I started with Tolkien, then to Jordan, then to Martin and Goodkind, then Keyes and a few other smaller less known writers with smaller series to pass the time for the next installments on Martin, Erikson and Jordan. I am currently about 2/3 of the way through The Bonehunters with Reaper's practically screaming at me top finish. If the set up of bonehunter's pays off then i can hardly wait to start reaper's.


P.S. I personally really liked Midnight tides and thought that, while it is pivotal to the series that Deadhouse was the weakest, which doesn't say very much because it still kicked ass. I also think that Memories of Ice is probably the best in the series just because the payoff in that book is just so ground shakingly awesome and I will probably never forget it.

Mohit Raju said...

mohit052,

SE is really an amazing writer. no doubt on that.. and GRRM is the most skilled writer there has been.. but at present SE does score a bit over GRRM.. and that would be solely because GRRM have less magic(near to zero , no real magic has come upfront so far) content compared to SE.. SE on the other hand just takes magic to the nxt level.. he is the only author who has near to zero restriction on magic .. the magic in his world is limitless and he has given reign to it.. unlike other books where the authors want to store that immense power of our heroes till the end climax where they come out supreme.. but in these kind of stories its really difficult to justify the scenario.. which SE can just deliver perfectly.. the real test between these 2 authors' suremacy will come when GRRM finally brings magic in its full glory into his books.. then we will know for sure who is the best..(hoping that oji san-oldman does not die off before finishing the series)..

And i am prety sure that SE never thinks the story before putting the pen down.. the only time he did some real thinking would be in the "book that went bad". but that had to come if the series was to have a fresh breath of life..

Shaunessey, The Fantasy Fanatic said...

It's sooo...REFRESHING to see someone of note to fully grasp and appreciate the Master of Fantasy! I gush about him all the time, and also feel that, even with all his fantastic reviews, is unappreciated. Not to diminish the spot light of the Greats (Jordan, Goodkind, Martin, etc.) but I share the same sentiments: He is the best by far in so many ways.

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