Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson

I finished reading this a good two months ago and didn't even leave myself any notes here to remind me of what I was going to say about it -- once again, Past Me has screwed over Future Me horribly. Let's see what I can dredge up from memory. (The first person to suggest that I re-read an eight-hundred-plus page book that took me six weeks the first time is going to get such a pinch.)

So: this is the seventh doorstopper book in Erikson's "Malazan Book of the Fallen" series, which is planned to be ten volumes. (And there's no reason to doubt it will come out that way, unless Erikson steps in front of a bus tomorrow; the ninth book, Dust of Dreams, is scheduled to be published in about seven months, which means it's complete or nearly so.)

Here's what I've written about previous books in the series, in reverse order: The Bonehunters, Midnight Tides, House of Chains, Memories of Ice, Deadhouse Gates, and Gardens of the Moon. (Not all of those are reviews, and not all of them are internal links.)

Epic fantasy has typically been shortchanged by reviewers, because it's a huge challenge to them: the first book in any series is new and relatively easy to cover, and the last book can also be wrestled into shape for review, but those books in the middle start nowhere and end nowhere, with a huge parade of names and concepts that are foreign to people who haven't read the earlier books and tediously familiar to people who have. Writing coherently about later books in ongoing epic fantasy series was one of the great challenges of my former job at the Science Fiction Book Club -- and Erikson's Malazan books were the hardest to boil down. (So hard, in fact, that I had to regularly extensively rewrite the work of a great copywriter to get something that worked, if not write it from scratch myself.)

Reaper's Gale is, as I said, the seventh book in the series overall, but the Malazan books have been severely non-linear. (Each book is essentially a trilogy by itself, at least 250,000 words long.) This one is a direct sequel to Midnight Tides, and is set on the opposite side of the world from most of the series. It's still not a good place to start -- would any seventh book in a fantasy series be a good place to start? -- but it's closer to something like a beginning than the casual reader would expect.

As always with Erikson, there are several major plotlines, set in far-flung corners of the same continent -- though he's been known to write books with pieces on opposite sides of the world, too -- that are loosely related to each other and to the overall plotline of the series. This book's center is the rapidly-expanding Empire of Lether (Erikson's ear for names has gotten better, but it's still somewhat erratic), with various attempts to kill its mad emperor (who keeps being resurrected automatically), skirmishes with its remaining neighbors, and intrigue among the mostly-corrupt and decadent ruling classes.

I won't give any more details than that, since they'd be either confusing or superfluous -- I will say, though, that Midnight Tides is one of the three good places to start reading this series, and you could come to this book immediately afterwards, if you wanted. (The other two best entry points to the Malazan world are Deadhouse Gates and Gardens of the Moon; I'd recommend Deadhouse, myself.)

Erikson's worldview, at least as it comes out in the Malazan books, derives more from Robert E. Howard than from J.R.R. Tolkien: civilization does have its good points, but it inevitably falls into a nasty decadence that feeds on the weak. The Malazan books do have a nearly endless parade of very high-powered folks, from a variety of races and human groups, but Erikson does also remember the powerless, now and then -- though usually just for pathos, as he shows them getting stomped flat.

Erikson isn't a writer for everyone, but he is consistently the most inventive, exciting writer working in epic fantasy today. Erikson distills the thousand disparate strands of today's fantasy, drawing from earlier sword & sorcery and epic fantasy writers as much as from gaming, to brew a dark, thick, rich liquor uniquely his own. The Malazan books are not just epic fantasy; they're to epic fantasy what whiskey is to beer, and they'll knock you backward if you're not prepared for them. There's no other ongoing epic series that I still read, but I couldn't conceive of quitting the Malazan books before the end -- long and complicated and dense as they are, these are the books, more than any others, that show what epic fantasy can really do when pushed to the limits.

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