Search This Blog

Monday, 13 June 2016

Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

Let me start by reiterating that this is probably hands down the most intricate ambitious and engaging fantasy series I've ever read. Erikson has pushed the boundaries of the genre with this work in terms of world building, characters and intelligence of writing without sacrificing pace and engagement. It's so refreshing not to be patronised by a book, and for this the reader forgives the sometimes confusing mountain of sub-plots and characters, moreso than when George RR Martin throws in random POV characters in his series (especially in that fourth book!).

After the prequel theme of Midnight Tides, Bonehunters drags us back to the current day. Picking up the story threads from House of Chains (an astonishing book, and perhaps one of the strongest) we rejoin the Fourteenth Army suppressing the 7 cities rebellion. The 14th, with Kalam and Quick Ben, pursue Leoman of the Flails north to a city famed for its grim history to the Malazans. Elsewhere we catch up with Icarium and Mappo; with Cutter and Heboric; and with Trull Sengar, and Onos. Throw in Ganoes Paran taking a more active role, and Apsalar totally kicking arse, and the sub-plots begin to swell. Everyone's favourite barbarian Karsa (witness!) gets plenty of attention, and it's fun working out how all their paths will cross and un-cross, and how we pick up threads from Midnight Tides to form one ongoing narrative (rather than the three plot arcs of the first half of the series).
So what's good about this book, in the context of the series. We get some significant plot advancement with regards the Empire, the various imperial armies, some of the key characters (such as Icarium, Karsa, Ganoes). The Edur really emerge as utter bastards, their ethics tainted by Rhulad and his master, the Crippled God. It's quite a stark jump from how we left them in Midnight Tides, and I hope it'll be expanded further in Reaper's Gale.

The big feature of this book is the gods becoming far more involved in the scrap. Erikson has had gods butting in all the way along: thus far Shadowthrone, Cotillion, K'rul, Crippled God, Oponn, and the ascendants. This book, however, we get a much more definite feel of their personal involvement. Poliel, and Soliel, are newcomers and key to the book, we get loads of Shadowthrone and a much more sympathetic version of Cotillion. A bunch of others pop in, and the primordial spirit, Eres' Al, whose relationship to Bottle (a superb character) is fundamental to the book.

I'd previously rallied against the Grecian-style hidden gods in Erikson's work, especially in Midnight Tides where it felt that Erikson pulled a god out of the bag to resolve several plot crises. I've no huge problem with it, as long as it's not used too casually to diminish the very real drama and tension the mortals undergo. Erikson needs to tread carefully with it.

There are some genuine stand out scenes in here: Y'Gbatan, and the escape; Ganoes 's trip across the Jhagut underworld; Icarium unleashed; and the astonishing scene with Kalam, Tavore and T'Amber in Malaz City. Superb pace and writing, and absolute page turners, which in a series as complicated and convoluted as this is admirable. I think what I'm trying to say is that despite the mounds of info here that Erikson can still crank up the pace and action pretty much unlike any other current fantasy writer.

Any down sides? Although there was a central story (the resolution of Seven Cities, the return to Malaz City, and the binding of the 14th), the numerous other side-plots (Edur, first throne, gods warring, Icarium's past, etc etc) made the book feel, perhaps for the first time, like a filler. I suppose that was inevitable, when you are into the second half of the series. And unlike book four in GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire series it's 'filler' that never drags: I continually wanted to know what was going on with the huge cast of characters.
So, top marks again, with the aforementioned caveats.