Erikson’s book compares well against them all. He strikes a good balance between dark mature fantasy and accessible narrative. He’s easy to read in terms of structure and dialogue, yet doesn’t shy from a remarkable intricate and complex world. The world in question has a history of hundreds of millennia, with ancient races and immortal protagonists (called Ascendants) and superb magic systems. No surprise that it evolved as a setting for his (and Esselmont’s) role playing game—many aspects (the magic, the elite groups of characters, the demons and monsters) are very DnD-style. So naturally, he’s on a winner with me.
The book establishes a parallel storyline to that created in Gardens of the Moon. There are some characters who journey from GotM into this book, acting as a continuity of the narrative, and then a host of new characters sufficient to make you spend many hours flipping back and forth to the dramatis personae.
Essentially the book is set on the continent of the Seven Cities as the natives begin an uprising against the Malazan Empire referred to as the Whirlwind. There are at least five definite plotlines interweaving through the book. Firstly, we have Kalam, Fiddler, Crokus and Apsalar from GotM, initially travelling to return Apsalar home, but then getting caught up in the initiation of the Whirlwind. Naturally, Kalam, as a super-assassin, has another mission in mind, part of which involves locating a house of Azath (which we saw at the finale of GotM in Darujhistan).
Secondly we have two new characters, Mappo and Icarium, whom I must say I really loved. They are wanderers, Icarium being a half-Jhagut and thus near immortal, and Mappo being a Trell assigned to accompany him. They find that a convergence is due on Seven Cities of races of shape changers, and they are investigating the source of this (which ties in with the first plotline quite neatly). This ‘Path of Hands’ is a way in which the shape changers may seek immortality (i.e. Ascendancy).
Thirdly we have a disparate group of prisoners sent to work in the otataral mines north-east of Seven Cities. The key characters are Felisin, who is the younger sister of Ganoes Paran (from GotM) and the new Adjunct to the Empress, Tavore, and Heboric, a former priest of the war god, Fener. This plotline is quite a disturbing one as Felisin compromises more and more to survive, and becomes a difficult character to warm to and empathise with.
Fourthly, we have a veteran soldier turned Imperial Historian, called Duiker who is attached to the new Fist, Coltaine, in the northern city of Hissar. Coltaine is a horse-barbarian who previously fought the Empire but is now subsumed into it. He takes command of the Malazan 7th Army and leads a convoy of refugees across the entire desert continent towards safety in the city of Aren. It is this plotline that is the backbone of the novel, with the other plotlines dipping in and out the events along the way.
Against all of these plotlines are the rich complex history and the concepts of interfering gods, intricate magic, and ancient races. What I like about Erikson is that he doesn’t pander to the audience or indeed patronise them. He cracks on with the story as if you are totally familiar with his milieu, and indeed the fact this was my second reading of the book was a great help!! He manages to tie seemingly disparate plotlines together without resorting to naff coincidences or deus ex machina. The reference to past events allows a construction of a sense of history and past in the narrative, adding to the realism of the setting.
Any criticisms? The abundance of characters makes characterisation tricky, and even the more frequent POV characters (Kalam, Fiddler, Duiker, Felisin) struggle to develop. In truth, only the latter two make any ‘journey’ of sorts as characters, and neither particularly cheerful ones. The dialogue can feel stilted at times, but that’s not peculiar for fantasy novels, and the occasional episodes of humour revolve mainly around banter. In fact, the tone in this book felt far grimmer than the first book, possibly because we were lacking any lighter characters (such as Kruppe and the guys from the Phoenix Inn, and the Eighties-action-movie banter of the Bridgeburners). It never gets to the exhaust-in-car levels of George RR Martin, but it teeters on the edge of unrelenting for most of the book. As is increasingly common in modern fantasy we have increasingly morally ambiguous characters, treading a fine line between hero and anti-hero, but Erikson writes them well and offers out characters with moral integrity to anchor the plot (for me: Fiddler, Duiker, and Mappo).
The series continues in Memories of Ice, which advances the GotM plotline and the characters from that (the Bridgeburners, the Phoenix Inn regulars, and the Tiste Andii), as well as more with regards the Ascendants, the gods and the main story arc of the series (the Crippled God). I’m starting on that after two beta-read/reviews of fellow Myrddin authors: going to be a fantasy summer!!