Third book in the series. I started reading it with very high expectations. I knew from forums’ discussions and reviews that this third book was considered the highest peak in the whole series. I came from the previous two that I loved and, especially, after being AWED by the three novellas of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. Those that won me over and got my unconditional love for Erikson. The difference is that before I came to the books with expectations to match, after having read the novellas I’m now ready to put aside what “I’d like and expect to read” and just let Erikson bring me where he wants. I’ve learned to respect and admire his work and forget the pettish critical eye of the always skeptic.
When I turned the last page I had three thoughts going around in my mind. The first is a sense of emptiness that isn’t new to me when I finish a book that I’ve been reading for a long time. This book has accompanied me for the better part of four months, reading slowly but regularly as is my habit. When I close the book I have this feeling of emptiness, of characters that I’ve learned to know that remain in my head like echoes, lingering feelings. Like trails whose source I’m starting to forget. I know well this feeling and I know its name: it’s nostalgia. For me it starts as soon as I turn the last page. This time there is so much to remember that the feeling was amplified and leading into another: there is nothing left to read. I mean, there’s so much in this book that it leaves you feeling like you’ve read everything. There’s nothing else that could be written. Like a big “the end”. It’s over. The book embraced everything. Like Iktovian, Erikson seems to say, “I am done”.
This is epic fantasy. The embodiment of the abstraction. This book is like a shell, through which you can hear the sea. That’s the magic. It leads to something unexpected and shows you things vividly. Those last 150 pages are so filled with emotions, so inspired that they feel intimidating now. It’s only after those 150 pages that you understand where Erikson was going, you see the ultimate end. Three books to get there.
But I also have to say that I made this happen. While I read daily 15-20 pages for those four months, for the last 170 pages I sat comfortably on my couch and read without interruption from 1AM to past 5. In complete silence. This is something I consider like an obligation. Reading a book is a one-time event. Unrepeatable. It’s a gift that I don’t want wasted and so tried to get in the best way possible.
That feeling of emptiness, absolute fulfillment and nostalgia was the dominant one. Then I thought that it was unbelievable. Imagining in retrospective, the author that is about to write the first page, and is thinking about the last. You look back now that it’s over, and it’s simply impossible. This is not a human endeavor, it’s just crazy. Insane. It’s unbelievable the goals he set, it’s unbelievable how he wrote page after page, it’s unbelievable where he arrived. A mix of genius, insanity and carelessness. And, obviously, awe on my side.
Third on the stream of thoughts, was my surprise about a particular aspect. Throughout the book I saw one of his goals and believed it impossible. On the forums I even explained and discussed this point. Often Erikson deals with feelings and concepts that transcend the human level. In order to make a reader “feel” you have to use something that “resonates”. Something that we have in common. Something archetypal that we all know and share, and that we could impersonate again. That’s the only way you reach an emotional level in every form of art. If you read the forums the common complaint about Erikson is that his characters fail to really reach the heart, so it’s easier to appreciate the books through the mind than through the heart. Even his writing style is more rationally involving than is emotionally. In this particular case I’m talking about within the book, Erikson tries to convey a feeling of endless despair that belongs to the T’lan Imass (an undead race in the book). So I was explaining on the forums that I can appreciate Erikson’s goals, I can enjoy what he wants to do and be awed, but this will only work on the rational level since I’m just unable to “connect” with an alien race like the T’lan Imass. At various points in the book Erikson tries to “force” the feeling, and instead I felt like it wasn’t quite working. It was a best effort, but it just wasn’t possible and so felt somewhat “blunt” and failing in the end. Well, the end of the book was able to achieve fully what I felt as impossible. Throughout the whole book it seemed that Erikson was rinsing and repeating, forcing something that wasn’t working well. With the end of the book he succeeds. Those feelings passed through without losing completely those alien traits. The book made me live something that was utmost unique. That single aspect.
That’s why I think the book is the embodiment of epic. It’s insanely ambitious, sets goals impossible to reach, staggering. And gets there. “I am done”. And it’s because he is done that I wonder where he found the energies to write further. There isn’t anything else to write. It’s over. This book reads as the final chapter. The hanging threads are superfluous sophistications that may as well stay there floating in potential. I read book 1, intrigued, though the ending was rushed and too forced in its spectacularity. I had my mind filled with questions that I wanted answered (as after watching an episode of Lost). I started reading book 2 to get my answers. Loved Heboric because as an historian he was the symbol of all my longings. By half of this second book I got most of my answers. By the end of the book all those answers were turned on their head and all my theories fell apart. In fact I was upset because I didn’t think the plot was going to make sense. Too many contradictions. Besides, the last 250 pages weren’t written as well as the rest of the book. The usual convergence felt again a bit too rushed and two of the three plot lines were dull in the way they were presented (as usual I explained this better in the comments to the book). Great book nonetheless, but I was still there longing for answers and to start making sense of the whole thing. Then I read the novellas that suprised me for all different reasons. No more caring much for the intricacies of the plot, but being awed by the *writing* itself, the sheer creativity and surprises at every page. A careful masterpiece, word by word, in a completely different way from the other broader books. I started this third book to get back to the hanging plots left by book 1, once again to get my answers. By half of it I got most of my answers, by the end of it, I didn’t care anymore.
While reading through book 1, 2 and most of the third I was wondering why there weren’t more discussions on the forums about the mysteries and hidden plots. The great majority of readers are much further with the books so I believed that they OUGHT to know more about what I wanted to know. Instead not only they didn’t, but in many cases they didn’t have any clue about *what I was asking*. Like if I was reading an entirely different thing. Well, it was true. There are two aspects to consider. One is that this series is like a parallel to Lost, the TV series. Both use some of the same tricks and Erikson uses some of them even better. One of the tricks is to force the attention of the reader onto something else. You fill a first part with mysteries, then continue to shift the focus till the reader/spectator is enthralled by brand new mysteries and forgets about the firsts. Erikson does some of this through some kind of chinese boxes, and it works great. What you think was a mystery onto itself, reveals to be part of a MUCH bigger tapestry. The box contained in a much bigger box, and the bigger box into another. Those questions and mysteries kind of fall to irrelevance when you realize that all you got was nothing in the bigger picture and you were trying to put together a puzzle of 5000 pieces by matching together just an handful. If you look for Agatha Christie kind of flawless weaving you are going to be disappointed as it is very likely that some of the pieces are mistakes and not just masterful misdirection (and multiple level of meaning, something Erikson does well), but the way he manages these unexpected transitions from a lower level to an emergent one is eminently enjoyable. It’s also with this third book that something changes. In book 1 and 2 you were just trusting the writer and just add more pieces to a borderless puzzle. It was pure chaos as there was nothing conventional or expected. A blank board with a stream of pieces coming in, the reason why most readers are welcomed with absolute confusion and bafflement. The third book instead starts to fill the gaps. After having drawn the horizon, you start to grasp the big picture and “belong” more to the world Erikson created. So starting to understand the pieces, recognize them and play with them. I was saying how the mysteries “escalate” to upper levels so broad that the details fade out, and how Erikson diverts the attention to new “live” threads, making others less important. Secondly, and here we come to the point, it succeeds where he was failing. Characters, emotions. After working so much on the rational level he finally succeeds to bring the characters to the front, and with the ending of this third book all of the sophistications of the plots that crowded my thoughts during the previous books became suddenly less relevant. I wasn’t thinking anymore about why Dujek was contradicting Laseen, or who killed who during the sieges of Pale. I was thinking instead of the characters and the sense of emptiness (nostalgia) they left in me. I was there sharing something with them.
After this endless stream of unbelievable praises do I think the book is flawless? Well, if I have to rate it, it would score a perfect. Simply because it is a success on what it wants to be, and what it wants to be is something I’ll remember for a long time. It doesn’t mean that the book is perfect, but that the problems fade out and I don’t consider them as relevant as in the previous books. For most of this third book I thought that the writing quality and style was overall a little below of book 2 (or at least book 2 minus two plots at the end of the book as I explained in that commentary), I also thought that if I had to rank them I’d put the second on top. That before reaching the end of the third book. Now I really couldn’t put this third book below and I understand all those readers who think that it’s the highest peak of the series. Deadhouse Gates has an overall better execution, beautifully written, but the ambition (and payoff) behind it just can’t compare with what Erikson does here.
There are other aspects I can criticize. The book is, shortly put, wasteful. To those who think that books this long (1100 pages) are unnecessary, I’ll say that these are not 1100 pages written by a writer who’s trying to fill 1100 pages. These are 1100 pages written by someone who’s trying to *squeeze* into them all he has in his mind. The pacing of the book is relentless and those pages without action are the pages that in the end are more important and filled with revelations (so moving the plot). I say this is wasteful because there’s just too much. While the end works on its own and justifies the journey, for the first half of the book Erikson wastes a number of valid ideas without playing them to their full potential. He fires them into the air clumsily and brings them down shortly after. He wastes opportunities. He builds up mysteries only to spoil them two pages later (if not on the same page). The pacing is so sustained that you have no time to let characters and feeling linger enough. A case of excessive creativity and drive. In retrospective I now understand better where this “urge” came from. There was to much to do for the destination that he already had an insane number of balls to juggle in the air. As I said, this book is insane.
At some point halfway through the book there’s an idea extremely interesting. One of the main characters has a crisis of faith and starts to question what he believes in. His words are pure beauty and deep. This is also an extremely important transition in the plot. I’ll quote it again:
And perhaps that is the final, most devastating truth. The gods care nothing for ascetic impositions on moral behaviour. Care nothing for rules of conduct, for the twisted morals of temple priests and monks. Perhaps indeed they laugh at the chains we wrap around ourselves – our endless, insatiable need to find flaws within the demands of life. Or perhaps they do not laugh, but rage at us. Perhaps our denial of life’s celebration is our greatest insult to those whom we worship and serve.
The character here has made a vow to his god and is now wondering if the gods are really caring about these demonstration of faith. Maybe that vow is instead an insult to the gods, what he calls a “denial of life’s celebration”. Why life shouldn’t be experienced fully? Why “our endless, insatiable need to find flaws within the demands of life”? It’s beautiful not just because of how it was written, but because those words have depth, truth (and not, like Gene Wolfe, just a way to “adorn” in fancy, sophisticate words a simple concept).
‘You question your vows.’
‘I do, sir. I admit to doubting their veracity.’
‘Has it been your belief, Shield Anvil, that your rules of conduct has existed to appease Fener?’
Iktovian frowned as he leaned on the merlon and stared out at the smoke-wreathed enemy camps. ‘Well, yes-‘
‘Then you have lived under a misapprehension, sir.’
I won’t spoil the solution of this passage, but I’ll use it as a concrete example of how Erikson doesn’t play many of his ideas to their full potential. This whole transition and character development (and resolution) I’ve hinted here is contained in TWO PAGES. It is beautiful, deep, not at all simple. Filled with potential and interest to my eyes. Kept me glued to the book. But completely contained in 2 pages among 1100. This is the pacing of this book. All the book is like that, filled with different threads and crazy ideas that come and go page after page. Every page is a pivotal point and this rhythm so sustained becomes somewhat detrimental as there’s no way to make all these things “settle” in the mind of the reader. Once again, familiarize.
This is what lead me to write that other commentary about character development. Without “slices of life” or time to familiarize, the readers will feel disconnected from the characters in the book. If deep transitions and shift of motivations happen in the space of two pages, like the Iktovian example here, then it will be hard for the reader to relate to them and share/understand their feelings. At the same time this is a strength for Erikson. His unique style. The journey isn’t a typical, already seen one, the characters aren’t conventional, and they develop in unpredictable ways that demand a big effort to the reader in order to keep the pace and understand this type of complexity. Lacking the redundancy that is typical of the genre (these days I’m reading Goodkind and the parts of it that work well work exactly because of the redundancy). The more I think about the book now that I read it from beginning to end, the more I realize that there wasn’t any other way to write it.
Typical deus ex machina associated with Erikson are part of this case. There are many in this book. They make sense, are part of the world. But the tapestry is so broad and the threads so disparate that when it all comes together in the end you can’t avoid the feeling that all of that was “guided”. This will annoy purists, but in this case the “intent” is itself the reward. There wasn’t any other way. This story told itself. The hand “driving” plot threads and characters along isn’t an intrusion, but just the way the story told itself in the way it should. Iktovian is an example because Erikson builds the character through the book to “get there”. There wasn’t any other way to do it. “Destiny” as a destination that ultimately follows a sequence of steps. Similar to the Greek myths and legends that Erikson uses as inspiration, and whose metaphoric value he tries to give life to. Salvation, tragedy and a whole lot of other undertones. Themes high and low mixed together. Sleight of hand and awe.
Either you follow (and be willingly to follow) Erikson or this whole thing just won’t work. On the forums I read all sort of criticism and a good amount of it is poorly motivated. This leads, even from myself, to claim that those readers “do not get it”. Too often what happens toward the whole genre, and is promptly defended by everyone, happens again within. People attack the book because it has an excessive use of magic, powerful characters, huge battles. Well, my opinion is that these books are great IN SPITE of those. It is when Erikson is most realist and delves deep in his themes that he is most successful. But why using the spectacularity as an argument to diminish the books? It’s “serious literature” vs fantasy all over again. The same mistakes repeated by those who are this side of the fence (appreciating the genre) and that should know better than criticize something through stupid, superficial arguments. It’s diminishing without understanding. So I say that when those arguments are used, readers “do not get it”. Erikson is a lot more than what drifts on the surface. If all you notice is the powerful magic and characters then it means you are gliding on. Losing the great majority of the meaning of those words.
The payoff is then only proportional to the dedication. Erikson will never work too well for the large public. It will never be an easy and almost safe recommendation (like Abercrombie or Scott Lynch). It will never be for a “majority”. It will never work for a variegated public on different levels (and ages). But if you are on the same line and are interested in its themes and intent, then it will be nothing short of grandiose. More than a book, a journey.