Night of Knives – Ian C. Esslemont

“Night of Knives” is the first novel(-la) written by Ian Cameron Esslemont set in the Malazan world co-created with Steven Erikson. It’s a much leaner book, 300 pages in the american Tor edition, compared to Malazan standard, and chronologically set between the prologue and first chapter of “Gardens of the Moon”, the first book in the series. Yet, the fans recommend to read the book only before the sixth because of some connections, while I decided to anticipate it right after the fourth, since “House of Chains” deals more directly with the matters of the Malazan empire and I wanted to approach “Night of Knives” when that strand of story was still fresh in my memory.

The content and purpose of the book fit as a retrospective: from one side we get to see what happened in the particular night Surly/Laseen claimed the throne of the Malazan empire while declaring the death of the previous ruler, Kellanved, who had been missing for quite some time giving Surly the opportunity to solidify her position. From the other, through flashbacks, we get a close-up of “The Sword”, the six bodyguards/champions around Dassem Ultor, champion of the Malazan empire, and particularly Dassem’s betrayal that was vaguely commented between Paran and Wiskeyjack in that GotM prologue.

Here comparisons between writers are impossible to avoid since we have two of them writing the same material and aiming for complementarity. So the big question is if Esslemont can match Erikson or at least stay relevant and add something worthwhile, with expectations being very high and not playing in Esslemont’s favor since it’s complicate to debut when the main series is already established and halfway through. That was also my main concern: trying to weigh Esslemont potential not just for this book, but also for the upcoming contributions. The first 50 pages were quite revelatory for me. Esslemont is a rather competent writer, the beginning of the book is well handled, solid prose, written and paced perfectly. There wasn’t anything suggesting it was a debut instead of the work of an established writer. I also thought the style was distinctive and not clashing or conforming to Erikson. Especially, I think Esslemont did a wonderful work on Malaz itself, the city. The place comes to life, the shadowy atmosphere rendered perfectly with its narrow, twisted alleys, the very quiet and suspicious people on the brink of insanity. From Mock’s Hold perched on the cliff (and the inevitable wink to Mock’s Vane), down to the sprawling ramshackle houses. It gives a sense of real place and I still now consider this the biggest quality of the novel. The town being the true real protagonist, interpreting perfectly the understatement of the conflict it gets tangled in. The true heart of the empire, yet far from the celebration of triumph or glory of a capital. It’s a haunted town everyone would get away from, sullying and miserable. So weak and vulnerable, yet caught in the eye of the storm and holding desperately. Reminds me of a place that would fit perfectly in a Lovecraft story, madness stalking behind every corner.

Speaking of tones and atmosphere, I think that, more than Erikson, Esslemont draws plenty and openly from Glen Cook. The whole novel echoes with the first chapter of The Black Company and even more with the whole second book, “Shadows Linger”. Lots of elements in common, the first chapter of The Black Company was similar to an horror story, with the company caught in an unusual situation and slowly drifting toward dread, discovering corpses everywhere while the town they were stuck in descended into chaos, the Hounds of Shadow in “Night of Knives” filling perfectly the role of the “forvalaka”. Same for “Shadows Linger”, also set in a gloomy small town, inside filthy inns and nearby mysterious places. Townsfolk involved in ominous practices that slowly escalate to a disaster. Inspiration here is not a flaw, since Esslemont uses all this competently and functional to the story he writes, without giving the impression of a diminished copy.

There are problems, though. Everything is set perfectly in those initial pages, but as the story progresses it also loses its strength. Instead of escalating it kind of folds without delivering its potential. From my point of view the problem is that Esslemont fails to switch gear when needed. There’s a moment in the story when the spooky “fairy tales” and legends descend, truly, on the real world. Kiska fits well as a POV there, because we have a naive perspective on a situation that is quickly transforming. But when hell breaks loose the story is stuck in the preceding naive tone and the dramatic intensity is underachieved or lost. Esslemont stays too much on one fantastic, dreamy level that is excused when the story is still in the build-up phase and what is to come has to feel distant, the menace being remote. But when it closes it lacks realism and the characters are still lulled by the writer, never at risk, never exposed outside their own cliche. They stay put, characters as devices, their perimeter containing them, and them carefully stepping to never dare becoming real characters. This is the kind of babysitting that never lets the story run wild and deliver. Somewhat like a cheat.

Kiska fails to become a real character, ideally she should be hammered out of her fancy fantasies (echoing Paran’s own “I want to be a soldier. A hero.”) and crushing on reality. She starts wishing to be the heroine, admirably skilled in her dreamy land, but she stays there even after. She glides over everything, undamaged, in truth, beside a few minor bruises. The kid outskills everyone else, she lives her dream in reality WITHOUT EVEN PERCEIVING THE TRANSITION. She enters and exits the novel with the exact same mindset, nothing learned. She’s lulled in her dream as the world comes to coincide with it, instead of her coming to grips with reality. She starts naive, and ends up with all her dreams fulfilled without even once confronting reality. Her role, as cliche, fits perfectly, if only at some point the cliche would be used to spring her (and the escalation of the plot toward dramatic intensity) to a whole new level. Instead the whole structure folds. We have these two levels. The low-ground perception of townsfolk, with all their superstitions, and then the crushing of the convergence, the Shadow Realm that descends on the city itself, becoming very real and tangible. The townsfolk barred in their own houses, praying the dream to end soon, the storm outside. Yet, on the level of the novel, it’s the “reality” that is lifted up to “fairy” level, with magic becoming magic, old wizened and long-bearded guys becoming wise wizards, the heroine being tested through riddles. Lots of blood, corpses everywhere, but it’s just tomato juice on redshirts, come the morning the bad guys are dead, the roads relatively filthy as usual, some fallen bricks and crumpled walls, heroes survived heroically, the heroine got her alluring, mysterious boyfriend. When do I wake up?

Erikson’s work on the series can be summarized as: “Nothing is as it seems”. Here it’s the opposite: everything is as it seems. No subtlety, no tricks on perceptions, no layers. Leading to another consideration. Esslemont’s characterization is actually well done, at least in presenting the characters if not in their development. His overall style of prose, narration and characterization is traditional compared to Erikson, but “traditional” doesn’t mean “bad”. The introspection here is “full-on” and helps leading the narrative. You get into the characters’ thoughts in a way that you never find in Erikson. This meaning that this book can be more readable and accessible, even enjoyable. Erikson’s style, being infinitely layered, prompts you to put down the book and think about implications, Esslemont is more like the page-turner, pushing the story onward, curiosity taking the lead and the reader more involved in the destiny of characters. A more emotive/empathic approach of a character-driven story. The book can be read quickly and is quite fun but it stays on that level.

Thinking of “purpose”, the story is aimed to shed some light on a crucial point of the history of the empire. The book is filled with juicy details that can please the fans of the series. Lots of “fanservice”, which is a good thing. Yet, this is not a necessary read, nor a recommended one. Concretely, it adds nothing worthwhile. It uses and consumes without creating. We see lots of details about what went on, but they all seem disposable and none really clarifying. The real deep motives stay deep and unrevealed, deliberately untouched in this book. The betrayal of Dassem Ultor is a pivot of the novel, yet absolutely nothing is added to what we knew. We see it happen, but what we see explains nothing about what happened. Another instance of “everything is as it seems”, or there’s nothing more than what meets the eyes. Another big flaw being that the more is revealed, the weaker the story. Instead of enhancing and realizing complexity, it kills it. No surprises, no revelations that open new interpretations and scenarios. The few answers that come only close some dead-ends of the overall plot without producing anything. Lots of potential when it comes to Laseen, but the character is flat and hiding absolutely nothing. She’s merely there and passive, with the lack of active presence hiding absolutely nothing: she’s really doing nothing if not what is plain. Mystery that hides nothing. Same for the confrontation between Claws and Talons, reduced to a confused ninja battle between caped figures. Shadowy capes hiding nothing. Conspirators whose conspiracy is held on plain sight.

From this perspective the book is immature. Not again in the competency of Esslemont as a writer, but in failing to cross that line between adolescence and maturity and everything it represents. The falling of myths and naive dreams, the facing of failure or helplessness. The same done by some “fantasy” (as genre) trying to come out of its stereotype as “young-adult” escapist entertainment, whether it is George Martin or Erikson or whoever else, trying to open up the genre to a more mature type of narration, more complex, layered and unbound from strict conventions and types. “Maturity” or even modernity: no more absolutes, but points of view, layers, perspectives. This book fails to cross that border. The characters are caged into themselves, being plainly what they seem to be and within their narrow stereotype or functional role in the plot. In various occasions the story directly reminds of “young-adult” tropes (here straight from “Neverending Story”):

If she did succeed in returning, Kiska vowed she would head straight to Agayla’s. If anyone knew what was going on – and what to do – it would be her. Never mind all this insane mumbling of the Return, the Deadhouse, and Shadow. What a tale she had for her aunt!

And ending with:

‘Yes, I will. Thank you, Auntie. Thank you for everything.’
Agayla took her in her arms and hugged her, kissed her brow. ‘Send word soon or I swear I will send you a curse.’
‘I will.’
‘Good. Now run. Don’t keep Artan waiting.’

“Don’t keep your boyfriend waiting”. It’s then hard to lift the plot to dramatic intensity when this distance of perception never closes. Brutal fights are witnessed, but so alien and detached (or described through morbid badassness) that they never come real. Threat never getting close if not in a fake way. Kiska never falters, no matter how unbelievable is that behavior even for a prodigious child. Every impossible action or behavior excused by mere exceptionality. Temper, the other POV, is not different. Even here the character is initially very solid and well presented. A paranoid veteran hiding from his past. But all plot points are fortuitous and convenient, and even the flashbacks recount battles between invulnerable champions with a lot of useless redshirts around them. Halfway through the character moves from a well realized one, to click into his functional stereotype. When he exits the story he’s the hero who saved the day whose deeds remain unknown. Close your eyes and shadows become monsters crawling out from under the bed. You wake up, it was a dream. Esslemont fails to play properly with this and switch tone. Everything stays up there, suspended into adolescent mythology. The mythical story described exactly as the cleaned-up myth wants. Nothing being ever threatened or compromised.

The series is not powerful for its mythology and form, but because Erikson, as a writer, instilled meaningfulness into it. Made it relevant for what it has to say and the way it challenges perceptions. But Esslemont doesn’t seem to add something of his own. He delivers the story without delivering a purpose. If Erikson writes to reach far outside mere “escapism”, Esslemont stays strongly rooted into it. The story sits on the surface level, which I guess explains why the fans of Esslemont himself are often those who judge Erikson’s book as overlong and slow. Erikson digs deep on the level of meaning, is concerned about the reason to say something, is tormented for reaching out to the reader and shake him. Esslemont fails to have a drive in this novel. There’s no “necessity” of the narrative intent. Outside the entertainment value, being said or unsaid is the same. Why reading this book? Because it’s still a good read and if you are a Malazan fan you’d want to know more and enjoy the story, but I thought that the mysteries revealed would stay better mysterious and ambiguous. Instead of being revealed so plain. It’s a fun and well executed roller coaster if you enjoy Malazan mythology, but it’s still a roller coaster.

House of Chains – Steven Erikson

House of Chains is the fourth in the 10-books Malazan series. These days, these hours, Erikson is intensely busy writing the last chapters of the last book and bring to a close a journey of staggering ambition. Reading this fourth felt like standing on the shoulder of a very tall (jade-colored) giant. As with similar(?) long series it’s interesting to see the power-game, the ebb and flow of the single book compared to the others. When I was at page 700 or so (on a total of 1000) it dawned on me that this would become, with certainty, my favorite. 100 pages from the end the story proceeded resolute with a sense of finality and inevitability. Like the dramatic ending a movie whose sound is deafened, muted, so that the intensity of what you see comes out unadulterated and with all its power. But it is immediately past this apex, in the very slight and calmer descent that follows, the remaining 30-40 pages, that the more meaningful and stronger revelations are delivered, and the characters reached down for my soul. The book had already gauged his way as my true favorite and was set for a foreshadowed ending. I only expected closure and rest, yet the book still had PLENTY to deliver, and surprise me, and offer emotions to share.

These weeks I spent reading House of Chains were also the weeks of Lost ending season (the TV series), which lead me to draw certain parallels, both thematic and about the plot. Similarities are evident even on the superficial level, and on the forums I was explaining that I was watching Lost for some of the reasons I was reading this series of books. The staggering ambition, the exponential layering, the subversion and reversals in the plot, the continuous challenge to perceptions. The difference, as I already discussed, is that Lost always left me (and many others) unsatisfied. Even the very end left the plot unresolved. With the Malazan series instead it’s a whole different deal. Reading this book, at various points, I thought that if it was to end right there, in the middle of the narrative, it would still feel completely satisfying and accomplished. Erikson as an author is far more generous and I feel that what he does is always honest. I never once felt cheated. Which also leads to the broad theme of “truthfulness”, that Erikson fulfills for me. Reading this series is not an easy task for anyone, but I know that it largely rewarded my effort. It delivers all it promises, then more, far beyond expectations that continue to rise as the story goes and branches out to embrace what you don’t think can be embraced. I am humbled because I know that this is one rare effort that won’t likely be matched anytime soon, if ever. I’m glad that I find it so close to things that matter for me, at the core, and that I seek in a book. It completes what I think and I follow devotedly because it already proved aplenty that this journey is worth all the dedication I can give to it. This to say: Erikson, especially in this book, doesn’t lull and drag you along with vane promises. He delivers, page after page. The physical shape of the book, right there, weighting far more than you think. Worlds that the written word can open, and worlds that, deep down, feed on something true.

This, for me, has nothing to do with the notion of escapism. At least if you don’t consider escapism the illusion of the discovery of something meaningful, that matters. And so the thematic aspects. I guess that this couldn’t be more misleading. “Themes” make me think of very boring books that have nowhere to go and preach on banalities or feast on rhetoric. Or the celebration of some sort of morale. I have a natural tendency to oppose and refuse these things because I always find them trite or partial. Erikson instead makes these aspects very real and makes surface their contradictions. The narrative is driven by purpose, a lucid intent, that doesn’t lead recursively to itself, going nowhere. Turning a wheel that turns and turns but goes nowhere. Those themes, taken as abstraction, are always brought back to the ground. They don’t wander on a detached level, different from the plot. They are intricately woven and matter on a concrete one. The biggest revelations can please a reader just for what they are, the fun of following an engaging story filled with unexpected twists. The last 70 pages of this book are a frenzy of plot threads that get tied and resolved one after the other. And each, if not to be carried away by this surging tide, turning the pages, would make you look back with unprecedented clarity. The thematic aspects here bind the narrative.

‘The stigma of meaning ever comes later, like a brushing away of dust to reveal shapes in stone.’

The structure of this book is slightly different from the preceding ones. It starts with about 250 pages from a single point of view instead of jumping all over the place. I think this choice is perfectly placed. It’s not easy to have the story move again after the ending of ‘Memories of Ice’. Starting from a blank point, apparently unrelated, offers the narrative the possibility to gain momentum. Especially because all we learned through three books here becomes the cipher of what is going on behind the curtain of deception. An higher level of awareness that you have, as a reader, above the level of the narrow point of view. An second-level of observation that reveals a bigger truth, as you are yourself, as reader, deceived in turn, when you thought your position let you see clearly where the deception actually was. A clever trick indeed. But again, done to understand the story on a deeper level, and bring the reader right into it, with an active role. Not so many books do this. You may think this is some ‘mental’ stuff I imagined, but no. This is why I said the book is generous. It has not the esotericism and bloated pretentiousness of Pynchon, this book BEGS you to understand it. It doesn’t hide for the simple pleasure of obfuscation, nor it lulls lathering in redundancy.

‘In any case, to speak plainly is a true talent; to bury beneath obfuscation is a poet’s calling these days.’

Now this review is coming out rather abstract and vague, yet I’ve pages of notes about specific aspects but I don’t think I can go anywhere with them. This book offers a myriad of suggestions that you can taste and elaborate any way you want. Take for example the book of Dryjhna. It’s a story that starts in book 2. This is Erikson doing his typical play on some established fantasy conventions (and in book 2 he resolves it delivering a spectacular surprise). In this case the ‘book of prophecies’. We’ve had these plot devices dealt in every possible way in the fantasy genre. Here the running joke is that prophecies are left vague because through this very quality they can be pragmatically adapted to the changes of time. A way to keep them relevant and useful for those who actually wield that power for their own secular purposes. In the end prophecies are nothing more than excuses to exploit a population. But it’s the real revelation of the truth (or better, the deceit) behind the book that makes it ultimately worth saving. The book is revealed as a fraud, but this revelation makes the book valuable for what it actually is, which consequently infuses it of the power it lost. A full circle, but, as it closes, the power of the book goes from misplaced and false, to something true and valid. It got somewhat cleansed in the process. This I’ve just explained is a very minor plot thread, almost invisible. Maybe two pages in total name it, yet, by ways of Erikson, what this book (of prophecies) represents echoes with everything else that goes on the major level. Everything intricately woven together at different levels.

There are certain plot threads, on a second inspection, after the tide of the last 100 pages passed, that seem somewhat spurious. Though this is typical of Erikson as the plot branches out to previous and following books. They are the most obvious links. But the reason why they are there is because they are part of larger loops. They are meaningful in the single book, have an impact and purpose, but the story arc isn’t brought to conclusion right there. When I finished book 3, I thought that Erikson was at his maximum possible reach. Controlling so many characters and plot threads while delivering a so huge conclusion was absolutely spectacular. House of Chains is on a somewhat smaller scale and more personal. It continues directly from book 2 and draws from the qualities found there. Yet, this smaller scale was only apparent and Erikson shows here a stronger control of plot. He still improves. Book 3 had from my point of view a more uneven quality compared to the 2nd, even if as a whole it came out far above just because of its impact and staggering ambition. House of Chains shows a tight control and a clear intent. It is lucid in a way no previous book was. More effective and straight to the point. Every aspect I can consider is overall improved. The prose itself stays terse as is typical of Erikson, and gains efficacy. No wasted words, no lingering, yet also not as wasteful as it happened in Memories of Ice. On some of my notes I wrote how in books 1-3 we saw an expansion of the plot. An exponential multiplications of different factions and factions within factions. House of Chains instead represents a kind of contraption that doesn’t reduce the reach of ambition of the plot, but that actually leads to an absorption of the various branches into an unitarian mythology. The nature and truth of many things is revealed, and this revelation draws everything together. It all makes sense and even sheds more light on previous books in a way that makes them shine even more. Following books improve the previous in retrospective, add significance. Especially in this case for book 2, that was already excellent. House of Chains is an open celebration of Deadhouse Gates, yet this doesn’t put it in its shadow in any way. They just contribute to each other.

Want one flaw? Named characters lead the story. Yes, there are A LOT of them in that “named” list, but the terse style of Erikson lacks some naturalness if you care for it in a book. I’ve pointed this out in the past. There are no slices of life scenes here. No getting used to the characters or lingering with them for the mundane. This story has momentum and moves on. We don’t get to see what isn’t strictly relevant. Yet, this also means that these plots are sometimes too neatly wrapped up. Too coincidental and convenient. Everything pivots exactly where it should, and no matter how HUGE is the landmass itself, characters that travel seem to ineluctably constantly bump into each other. Sometimes it feels as if the “real world” is missing. As if the plot was eradicated from its natural place and made an example of. I doubt you could tell such story in a different way, though.

I loved this book. Not just because it has an excellent execution, but because I loved it also on a more personal level. The biggest mystery is how Erikson is able to gather the strength and will to start again from a blank page after such a huge showdown. I’m merely a reader, yet this was exhausting in a positive way. So much was brought to a satisfying closure. No idea where this will bring me next, but I have trust in the writer that it will be more than worth it.

The last few lines of the epilogue, in italics, are probably the biggest and more powerful revelation ever. Sustaining the whole series. (hopefully enough to keep Erikson himself afloat)

The Dragon Reborn – Robert Jordan

I started this book while I was well into Infinite Jest and I needed something else that I could read with the brain turned off so that I could sleep afterward. Infinite Jest was getting me obsessed and The Dragon Reborn was perfect and made me sleep rather peacefully. With such premise one would think I’m already putting the book under a negative light, but that’s not completely true. I’m not masochist, I read slowly and have no time to read (and comment) books that I think are terrible, so if I finished even this one it means that I have at least enjoyed it to an extent. The kind of extent of enjoyment is a key element that I think is rather important not only from my personal perspective, but also in defining what is that makes this series so widely successful and popular.

It is accessible, I’ve already said this before and it’s an important element, but what is truly meaningful to understand is something that was exposed in a snarky review written by this Adam Roberts guy and that I’m quoting:

The writerly-technical term for this is ‘padding’; but the prolixity is such a fundamental part of what Jordan is doing that I suspect it misses the point to object to it. I was reminded a little of Scott, and his swaddling swathes of garrulous prosifying (except that, unlike Scott, by bulk, about half of Jordan’s padding is dialogue). It has specific textual effects; and the one that struck me, on reading through it, is of upholstery. It’s a comfortable sort of style, like settling into a bath; a mix of stiff little archaic touches and chattily modern waffle.

Putting aside the (deserved or not) snark, what rings true for me is that reading this series is kind of pleasant. The comparison with settling into a warm bath is the most fitting he could imagine and one of the most important elements to which I ascribe the success of the series. Calling it in a different way, I’d define this perk as redundancy. It’s the redundancy that stands out in this series and in this book in particular, and that is a strength because in the same way the prose can soothe and ease into a bath, the redundancy helps to ease into a fantasy world and induce “immersion” (fitting word, thinking of baths). This redundancy, despite its negatives, is used as a quality here. It’s not just redundancy of prose style, but also reflects in the way characters are portrayed (idiosyncrasies that have fallen now into parodies well known among readers, with the infinite tugging of braids, smoothing of skirts or all three male protagonists convinced how the other is better dealing with women) and even the worldbuilding.

About worldbuilding. I’m still waiting. I’ve read how the series goes much deeper into describing the world and its cultures. The second book in the series opened things a bit and made them look more interesting and convincing than just a Tolkien-translated world, but this third book doesn’t really expand anything. Characters move and visit some key cities but the way these are described doesn’t add any meaningful depth beside listing some traits and differences. Which brings me back to the redundancy. Cultures are described in a simplistic way, mostly observed through the eyes of characters who know nothing about them, but this helps to define the perimeter of the setting. Nothing in the book appears out of the grasp of the reader. We get to know things in a way that is never staggering or unmanageable and, soon, we build familiarity. Familiarity leads back to redundancy and both have the effect of easing into the story and tag along. This is why it works. It comfortable and familiar, tension is kept under control and the redundancy helps to never feel like missing something important. The more the familiarity builds up, the more the ease into reading. Then he, Jordan, lets it flow.

It flows well even if I consider this book sensibly worse than the second in the series (that I thought was much better than the first, since it was starting to flesh out the world instead of simply mimicking devotedly Tolkien). In a total of 700 pages, the 650 in the middle are a very boring travelogue that doesn’t really add enough to the story to be considered entertaining. The second book had travel, but somehow Jordan was able to put at least something meaningful in each chapter, forming a deliberate structure that I thought was keeping the book going relatively strong. This one is just more ephemeral in meaningful content, it relies too much on the characters’ personalities which I also thought were particularly weak this time. While I didn’t overly noticed the characters’ idiosyncrasies in the first and second book, I felt as if this one was itself a parody of everything readers complain on forums and reviews. An endless stream of repetitive actions and thoughts that were themselves kind of circular and leading nowhere. This gave me a feeling of stall that made the travelogue even worse.

Bad habits in the writing style flare in this book, much more than the second. The whole first section of the book is one long coed sleepover with not one redeeming feature. The plot is rather stupid and utterly fails to build up a mystery that was already revealed as it formed. Characters and plots gets sensibly worse as they get separated and lack the friction and build up between each other. In this book they move on on separate stories too soon and by the time they converge there are only six pages left. The supporting cast is also thinner so, as a whole, I thought this one book failed to build something relevant. It felt too unwound and going nowhere.

Yet there’s something that I consider positive: characters evolve. Even if the book oozes immobility in plot, worldbuilding and characters, at least something happened between the books. This is important because it’s part of a strong thematic aspect of the book that I consider successful: there’s no turning back. As the series starts you see from the perspective of these farmboys and girls too scared of adventure and that would rather just return to their normal life. The book exposes enough of that familiar life so that it is familiar for the reader as well, so you get the feeling of how the scenery changes, you feel some of that estrangement and then nostalgia for the initial bucolic world. All stories seem built cyclically so that defeating the evil will bring you back right to the start and the happy life. Suspect builds, on a series of 12+ books, about plots being cyclical as well, one book copying the one that precedes it with slight changes. Instead despite the redundancy of certain aspects and structure, I felt that the characters are definitely moving on, that there’s no return and that the plot has at least a direction and that isn’t simply folding on itself and repeating. There’s a process of maturation that, even if it doesn’t fully affects personalities (being characters rather dumb), at least affects their roles.

I got again a certain satisfaction toward the last 60 pages, with the convergence. It feels like things start moving again and have a point. Jordan has still the quality of weaving the tapestry and having a control of the big picture, so when the pieces actually move in context this is satisfying, but the satisfaction didn’t last long because the actual final confrontation was stupid. Here comes the usual abstract battle between Rand and the evil guy, leading to one big revelation that left me completely indifferent since it changes absolutely nothing nor feeds any purpose. It’s just one unnecessary deus ex machina that fails even to build surprise (one also wonders why “evil guy” tries to strike Rand only the one moment when Rand is able to strike back). All characters are particularly retarded in this part, even worse between each other which made me dislike this (brief) reunion I was awaiting. Mat himself transformed for the whole book into a walking deus ex machina who can seemingly do everything simply because he’s “lucky”. So he pulls every kind of stupid stunts, makes plots align “by chance”, and even becomes an undefeatable warrior with a staff confronting veteran soldiers and whatever comes on his path. Boring, and on top of a character whose insubordination comes so much as a stereotype that I found it only annoying and arid. A character used poorly. Along Zarine, another character who could be at the very least fun, but that is destroyed by reflection upon Perrin, whose reaction to Zarine is totally pathetic and, simply, dull & unfun. It fizzles. Like damp fireworks.

This book puts aside much of the lore and infodumps that I at least enjoyed in book 2. They were at least shaping things up. Here instead there’s a dearth of ideas supporting the 700 pages. No new ideas, nor novelty in dealing with old ideas with potential. There’s some repetition. Only a very brief glimpse toward the end at the nature of evil, still done better in book 1 & 2. The bad guys are more willingly to say the truth than the good guys. There’s still a gray area that makes the bad side vaguely more interesting than just a stereotypical foe, something that works because Jordan takes it from a deeper truth coming from the real world, but that isn’t used well or up to the potential in this book.

I’m aware book 4 is considered by many the best in the series and adding some to the worldbuilding. Up to this book the setting has been traced not unlike the characters, with very typical and broad traits “borrowed” from real-world culture and often without original twists. I’m waiting for depth or even breadth. The characters still mostly don’t work for me. The traits that define them not only aren’t convincing but they also get annoying and I find myself enjoying a lot more supporting characters (Zarine here despite the mishandling of potential, Thom a bit less than usual since he’s been downplayed so that Mat could put his super powers on display, Loial, Liandrin, Min). I still enjoy the broad scope that sporadically surfaces and hints at more. If anything I found this third book as the most juvenile of the three while I hoped things would have progressed, even slowly, toward a more convincing (and engaging) maturity. Not all is lost and I still enjoyed the book enough to make to the end (and peeking at the first chapter of Shadow Rising, where’s the prologue?).

P.S.
There are various aspects I forgot to comment, one I wanted to add: I’m aware that the careful description of clothes has been criticized and considered excessive. I don’t agree, up to this book there’s always a purpose when it is used. The way people are dressed is a way to recognize who they are. Not only it differentiates cultures, but it also defines social structure and roles, and what you can expect from who’s in front of you. I don’t know if Jordan lingers too much in later books but here it’s done deliberately for a reason and provides infos that are useful in context. Another aspect is that, as I said at the beginning, I find Jordan extremely easy to read. I can read it before I go to sleep and when I’m tired. Not so much with other writers. There are fantasy writers that I enjoy much, much more than Jordan, yet Jordan is the one I return to more easily. That’s why when I begin to read just the first chapter of the next book there’s always the risk I won’t stop ;)

Crack’d Pot Trail – Steven Erikson

In the last two years, since I first discovered his books, Erikson has quickly became not only my favorite fantasy writer, but one of my favorite writers among all genres and classifications. And I started to ask myself what is that makes me “click” perfectly with some writers and not so much with others. What have Steven Erikson, David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolano in common (the three most disparate writers I recently read)? I also got myself an answer: truthfulness. They write on the page things that are true. And I imagine the spontaneously arising question: how can a fantasy story be “true”? It can very well, and “Crack’d Pot Trail” is a most fitting example.

Recently I read a review of the first three novellas (not including this one, that comes fourth) that considered them a bit disappointing because they lacked a “serious” depth or actually gave something more to the characters primarily involved ( the necromancer Bauchelain & Korbal Broach, plus their manservant Emancipor Reese, the real star). This reminds me that the most devious aspect of everything that comes from Erikson’s pen/quill/keyboard is about the approach. Thus my warning, right here: this story of Bauchelain & Korbal Broach takes place, in-truth (and out-spoilers, trust me, for the whole length of this commentary), at the periphery of these characters. It is a story about them, but not featuring them. On the other side you get Erikson. Erikson himself, the writer, who put himself in the story unlike, not like, but still somehow similarly, Stephen King did with The Dark Tower. He’s there in the page and sometimes even pointing his finger and laughing at you, the reader. But, again, I remind you of the devious approach: the laugh is not scorn, just affinity. Sympathy.

The novella has a plot, it has a direction and drive, it moves toward a resolution already from the start. Akin to other fantasy and non-fantasy plots, it is also a journey. But in this case the plot isn’t the idea that truly builds the novella, there’s a metaphorical one that more strongly takes the scene. So two parallel binaries of purpose and narrative intent, both requiring payoff before the end, while also getting entwined enough to not be simply juxtaposed. Succeeding in doing that is not easy task at all. The novella is written beautifully, as I already raved weeks ago, almost to the point of showing off, stylistically brilliant, but in the second half I started having some serious doubts that it could get a satisfying resolution. Doubt that increased exponentially when I had just 10 pages left to read and still unable to see things possibly coming together in a decent way (no matter my own doubts were repeatedly voiced in the story itself by both characters and narrator). Then Erikson is able to pull it, masterly, in like 3 pages. It comes all together in three pages.

While the plot moves in a direction (an hapless bunch of artists, hunters, and champions of rectitude, together in necessity, on the heels of our infamous necromancers), the real story is about the relationship between art and audience. The artist, the critics and the public, seen from all possible perspectives and often metaphorically, but in such a case that a metaphor is, right the story, always executed literally, very real and sound (which I don’t explain here to not ruin the greatest idea/association in the novella). The tortuous relationship is made focus and explored without filters. What, elsewhere, readers often mistake for boisterous arrogance (on the part of Erikson, toward readers) and are ready to jump upright and accuse, is instead a skewed perspective because Erikson never defends univocally one side, and what appears as spite and mockery (sometimes even truly, but healthy, as part of all relationships) is also always parody of all parts included. The audience as well the writer (self-parody as well self-doubt are featured, hopefully not smothered and forgotten after the ending, that does take a side but that shouldn’t be interpreted as the author’s own true belief that erases all doubts before, in a kind of very, you know, un-subtle way, on the part of the reader. But we’re spinning again here and you never know which side you end up facing).

Which falls perfectly in the trick that makes the book, as subjects and objects mingle together and you can’t discern anymore if you are reading a parody or if you are yourself the object of parody, the one who’s laughing or the one who’s being laughed at, or maybe just staring at yourself in a mirror, playing both roles, that also connects with other layers inside the novella, both as themes and plots. Which novella essentially is: a satire, a parody. Totally un-subtle, not even trying. As satires are meant to be: all-encompassing, clever, malicious, deceitful, outrageous, disrespectful, defiant, very politically un-correct. And, essentially: truly subversive at its core since it lacks even a verse. There’s no safe ground. Everything and everyone is subject of scorn as well as compassion. No filters nor prejudices, just a razor sharp sight that spares no one.

Well, no one besides Bauchelain & Korbal Broach, who, you already know, are just meant to win even when they lose.

The premise that founds the story: who’s more useless in the world than an “artist”? (especially a world where first priority is just surviving) And what if, to justify their existence, the artists were made to pay with their own life if their art was judged not entertaining enough?

And what if democracy (voting for: life or gallows) was made of stupids and illiterates who would only reward the worst of the artists?

As you can imagine I loved this novella as much I loved the previous three. It’s not a mad rush as The Lees of Laughter’s End, not as funny and as entertaining, but it has a similar drive of The Healthy Dead and quality-wise I judge it above. Sharper and more outrageous. Plot-wise it only shines toward the end and slacks a bit in the middle, but the payoff in the end redeems that aspect, as long you don’t expect the plot and just the plot to drag you along for 180 pages. As in all cases, you have to be interested in what the writer is writing about, and in THAT case there’s no slacking or word wasted even here.

“So I pose the following provision. Should she decide, at any time in your telling, that you are simply… shall we say, padding your narrative, why, one or both of the knights shall swing their swords.”

It also reminded me I love reading.

P.S.
In the 181 pages there’s also space for zombies (yes zombies, not T’lan Imass) and a good amount of graphic sex that will make you chuckle a lot (in a good way). Oh, and also a god addicted to jerking off.

Under the Dome – Stephen King

It seems the more book reviews I try to write the harder they get, but I wanted to try anyway. I read this book in slightly more than three weeks, 1070 pages. I’m not a fast reader so it’s quite an achievement for me. I didn’t even expect to read it whole. As I’m used to do, I usually just read the beginning, and, when satisfied, put it away to read fully later on. Especially because I had the Infinite Jest task at hand and I didn’t want to risk of losing track on that. Instead I started reading, curiosity pushed me past page 100 and at that point I just wanted to see what was next and there was no return.

This book is a real page-turner. With incredible constancy I kept reading way past my own target for that day. I told myself I’d finish the chapter, then read the first lines of the following to see where it was going next and continued for another thirty pages. It’s superbly readable. It’s also worth pointing out that I’m not exactly a Stephen King fan. I only read “IT” and that was many, many years ago. So I don’t know how this book compares to his others, or if he’s back to form, or whatever. On the internet there are mixed opinions. What I say is that this book is written really well. Something I didn’t expect.

I should make a distinction between the “what” and the “how”. Between the craft and the material. Not unlike the review I was trying to write about A Game of Thrones, it’s the craft that shines here. The book is masterfully driven and always under control. In books with a so high page count and large cast of characters there are always a number of diversions. I remember from IT that King loved to give his town its own story, and explore it fully, with patience. Plenty of stories to tell, interesting characters that demand their spotlight time. That is all pleasant to an extent, but it’s the opposite of what happens here. The story in this book goes straight on. No looking back, no diversions, no flashbacks taking the story on a different level. The whole thing stays focused, both time-wise and location-wise. It moves linearly onward. The spotlight lights on Chester’s Mill and its residents, never ever leaves them in time or place. This is also the major strength of this novel: it’s all incredibly focused, tight and moving on with unrelenting pace. Only by being very picky I could say that there are two slight passages, one about the middle of the book, another before the end, where the careful domino set-up takes a bit too much exposition time, but this is more due to subtraction than bloat. Things need moving and they are a bit downplayed in respect to others so that the story doesn’t go out of focus.

The books gives you no pauses even in the way it’s structured. There are bigger titled sections that chunk the story and give it a broad theme, but then the story is written in quick chapters that keep the pages turning and turning fast. There are many characters and points of view, but they never go on their own unrelated tangent that may or may not converge later on. Every story thread and point of view is kept tight to the main story that goes through the book. You are never left longing in frustration for one side plot while the book jumps to a different point of view. When this happens what comes next is closely related to what you left, and when the writer deliberately abruptly breaks the chapter is to cleverly build suspense that is then satisfied shortly after. The book is generous and doesn’t pretend more patience than what it deserves.

What I described is what defines this book. The tight focus and pacing. The only two moments where the action appears to relax coincide with the two I pointed out above, preceding the two major events in the book. Everything else stays on track, moving straight and never slowing down. The book looks huge but it reads like a fresh breeze. It goes down easy and never at the expense of quality. It’s very well handled. One could probably make a kind of book-reality sync and match the way time passes in the book with real time. It takes 1070 pages to tell linearly what happens in a week. Day after day. With absolutely no dull moments.

Now let’s talk about “the dome”. Everyone likely knows what the book is about whether they read it or not. The theme is what sells the book and the theme is that simple. This fancy barrier/dome comes down on a small town and this is the story of those caught within. Will they survive? Will they get out of the barrier? This is obviously a trick (the dome) so that the writer can focus on the real theme: the stories of those characters. Their lives, their emotions. What people do under stress, what they become. This is a story of people. You are meant to connect with the characters and live along with them this nightmare under the dome. Get in close contact with the best and worst people can become. The way the put on and off masks. But one also wonders if this “dome” stays just as a trick, external to the book, a writing device, unexplained, untouched, inviolable, unknowable. A mere artifice that enables the writer to have this huge magnifying lens on the characters, and watch closely. Set them on fire, maybe. Watch them run around with nowhere to go, trapped in there. Which comes to be the cipher of the book itself. I’ll say that, surprisingly, King tackles the theme of the dome itself (even if for 1050 pages the focus is somewhere else, and it is where the book works best). You won’t be left with a mystery and the whole thing will be explained and understood by the end. It’s not really the point, since the book is about what happens under the dome way more than about what the dome is, but the book is generous on this aspect and you will be delivered a decent explanation that wraps everything up neatly. If you were wondering.

Which leads me to talk whether it lives or not up to the task. While I was reading and turning the pages I just loved it, I already said, but I also wondered if the destination was worth it (payoff?) and if my opinion could change once I got to the very end. It’s like if what you read is at stake, because it all seems to have a point a go somewhere. Is this “somewhere” a worthy destination? Well, readers will likely be pleased and deluded. Depending a lot on what you expect. From my point of view the journey is wonderful and engaging, the destination satisfying, but nothing more than that. The moral theme that plays by the end seems on a different note than the rest of the book, and, once again, it’s the rest that works better. The end of the book is a valley after a peak, and it can disappoint. Everything is wrapped up neatly and yet feels like something is missing. I also think that the book works better on its meta-fictional explanation than in its fictional one (because, again, there’s a real end that fills all mysteries).

What readers may feel like a real problem can be summarized with this: everything is as it appears to be. This constantly through the book. The craft is far superior to the material at hand. The story works so great, delivers moment of real suspense, always keeps you on your toes. But it’s also kind of predictable and unsurprising. There are various moments in the book where guesses about mysteries are tossed around, and almost always things are exactly as they appeared to be with the delivery of the very first hint. There’s almost nothing truly spicy to unveil, and yet the book haunts you and makes you read and read on as if your life depended on it. What it takes is some awesome “craft”. King just executes brilliantly (and writes here really well) ideas that on their own wouldn’t hold the book. This also because he can truly realize characters and make them live out the page. None really original, but executed to perfection, a pleasure to read.

The book also tries to kick you in the nuts plenty of times. Lots of deaths in this book and for me some of them are quite hard to get through. A few times I wondered why I was doing this to myself and read a book so harsh. There’s some masochism involved. It’s not an horror, and this makes it harder to bear because the way it starts and moves on (at least 1/3 through) is hyper-realistic. There are no real supernatural elements that may downplay and estrange from what happens, so it’s harder to establish some distance. But, thankfully, the writing helps. King is able to balance things and sometimes he can produce something comical (yet authentic) out of an awful situation. It’s not a book that just kicks and slaps. It’s also plenty fun.

The writing is not my favorite style even if I appreciated it. The writer weighs in explicitly. At various times he’s there beside you, right in the novel, speaking with his own voice, setting things up. I find this way of writing somewhat “untruthful”. Something manneristic and showy. I also noticed that a few times different characters think metaphorically about their situation, and I thought that this was more a typical habit belonging to a writer than what someone usually does, especially since people don’t really have a good grasp of what situation they are in and their metaphorical thoughts in the book are too good and neat to be plausible. I don’t like much this tangible and direct presence and influence of the writer himself in the book, yet it didn’t get in the way and I was still able to enjoy the book.

This is what it is. The story of the people who live in a town, the best, the worst that comes out of them. But then, even more, what turns the town from fine to armageddon in just four days is internal. Triggered but not made by the dome. The dome works more as a reveal than the real immediate problem. People project problems on the dome, but it’s their own problems to surface and take them by the throat. The pace is unrelenting, the focus always tight. An agile and thrilling read. There are various hints that set the story somewhere in the close future. Obama is still president. There’s even a kind of queer endorsement of his health care plan. In the book it is already approved and working but the context seems to suggest that, no matter of good intentions, the Americans will find a way to screw it up. The plot and characters are not overly original or surprising, and King uses tricks to create suspense that have been tried and honed a million of times across different media. But they still work. Everything is splendidly executed even if not entirely new, and reading is a pleasure.

I agree with what Dan Simmons said about this book. It’s a breath of fresh air that you can’t usually expect from a so prolific writer who’s probably already squeezed out all the creative juice. Instead there’s nothing tired about it, nothing perfunctory or superfluous. You can feel the enthusiasm and drive that went in the story and characters. It all seems to come with no effort. To balance all this it also shows a perfect control of structure and pacing and perfect execution all around. I don’t know if it’s the best King, but it’s lively and fun.

There are a couple of big moral themes at play, but I think the most fitting is the dismay about how far and wrong things can go before you can fully realize it. It’s an entirely political concept and it’s the true protagonist of the novel. Unsettling because we are all under the dome, and it doesn’t end by just closing the book.

P.S.
If you are interested in the meta explanation I’ve hinted I can suggest to follow this link.

Colours in the Steel – K.J. Parker

Instead of sticking to a series and read every volume before I move onto something else I try to cover as many authors I can, so that I can have a better idea of the fantasy genre as it is today. The mysterious K.J. Parker isn’t one who gets as much attention as other, more popular writers, but in comments and reviews I read she (we assume it’s a she, but the true identity is unknown and name used just an invention, being mysterious like that) has a very good reputation and more than once caught my attention. Especially when Pat posted an excerpt from a recent book that I thought was brilliant. I made a mental note to buy that book when it came out (a standalone), but sooner than that I read some more comment of an earlier trilogy she wrote (The Fencer Trilogy) whose first book was a detailed and realistic description of a siege to a city, down to the smallest details.

The siege and a lot more I found in the 500 pages of the book. I’m not one to have prejudices, but thinking that the writer may be a woman couldn’t be more misleading. There’s a constant in her writing that I read is common to all her books, and it is the cynicism. This is a story that is always told from a detached point of view. Surgical. It’s like a screen that filters and separates the one who tells the story and what goes on in it. You are, in reading and sharing the seat occupied by the writer, an observer. This is a displacement that is always present. But the cold, detached point of view is perfectly balanced and matched with a sense of humor that makes the writing always interesting.

It’s easy to be mislead by the premises. Along with the cynicism there’s also an obsession with the technical details. At times the book stops to be a story and becomes a technical manual about how to build siege engines and other tools of war. It explains the materials, how they are chosen, how they are treated, all the steps that are required up to the final output. Then explains you how to use them. Whether it is about fencing or how to properly plan the siege to a mythical high-walled city that is the theme of this book. One would assume that a read couldn’t be more boring and I imagine you thinking right now of reading this book and falling asleep after two paragraphs. Instead it’s surprisingly compelling and it’s all merit of the writing itself.

As odd it may sound, this is a character-driven book. None of the characters stand out as memorable. There isn’t any way to quickly describe them and the reason is that they aren’t stereotypes. This is far from a typical fantasy novel and more alike to an historical fiction that isn’t historical simply because the setting isn’t real. But it is real in every element that forms it. An imagined story whose aspects are meticulously researched. The same treatment that goes in the setting goes in the characters. We don’t have key-roles or striking, recognizable characters. We have normal people, defined even here with attention to the detail. They are part of their world down to their mentality. If I had to make an example I’d use Richard Morgan. If in Richard Morgan you have a fantasy written through a modern eye (like we see in the dialogues), here we observe characters that truly live in the book and are shaped by what’s around them. With plenty of natural blind spots.

The execution is excellent. You can’t avoid to admire what the writer did here. The way she can transform potentially boring parts in pages that you can’t stop reading. What is up-to-date is the point of view, the writing itself and cleverness, even wisdom, disillusion. Cynicism again. Black humor. Sometime you feel like you are observing one wicked experiment where guinea pigs struggle and die in the most cynical ways. That detachment between what we know as people of our time, opposed to a medieval world with all its simplicities. You can see what is coming and it produces a wicked sense of humor since you aren’t there, you are observing how people are stupid, or just victims of their time. Victims of simple beliefs. Or just victims in general because no one can really control anything.

There are no winners. There’s also a kind of predestination that is bound with the idea of progress. The medieval world is allegory of “change”. Of science versus beliefs. One day before the age of enlightenment. Parker here is the innate, perfect writer for the task. In the same way there’s this dualism of modernism and pre-modernism, the writer incarnates the perfect match and dualism of the soulless meticulous technical detail and the sense of humor and originality that ties everything together. Art and tech. Enhanced with an air of magic that exist in the book, but that is another allegory of itself. Not a showy, controllable magic. Not fireballs, invisibility, flight or other useful uses. Not devices and desires. But an hopeless fight against destiny and its whims. Trapped guinea pigs that can only believe the illusion in front of the eyes and that are fated to be victims. Humorous tragedies of life that you enjoy only till you understand that the huge distance between you and them is an illusion too.

Don’t expect from this book a story with heroes, spectacular battles or even complex political intrigue or power struggle. Don’t expect escapism or identification. This book needs brain and is great when you admire its cleverness in all its aspects. It has none of the trappings that appeal to younger readers, none of the immediate appeal and satisfaction. It is infinitely more subtle but also more satisfying. In any case this is an original voice that is precious in the genre. The flaw is that she wrote many books and, while investigating many different aspects and improving in what she does best, they all play with similar tones. But if you want to explore human genius and despair at once, this is the best journey.

P.S.
First volume in a trilogy, but the ending is so satisfying that you can take this as a standalone. The choice to move on the next books is on the reader more than forced by the plot.

Wizard’s First Rule – Terry Goodkind

My reading pile is so high and filled with awesome that one wonders why I waste time reading Goodkind, especially considering I’m a slow (but steady) reader that has yet a vast ground to cover before feeling satiated about what the genre has to offer. The reason is simply curiosity. Some writers are loved everywhere, some writers are niche, some bring controversy. In the blogs and forums I read Goodkind isn’t just considered an example of the worst, but also a receptacle of laughter and continuous mocking. The books as its fans. I read this book in parallel with Memories of Ice and The Colour in the Steel of KJ Parker. Quite different stuff in style and intent, meant to be, so that I could gleam better what makes all these writers different. Since I re-started reading fantasy and sci-fi, about a year and half ago, I tried to pick representative writers and books, vastly different one from the other. I do a lot of “research” (meaning reading plenty of reviews online and forum threads) before buying a book and, no matter what I plan, at the end I start reading the one that makes me more curious. In this case it felt a perfect companion (like their opposite) to the books I was reading, and I was curious to know how bad it was to deserve all that negative noise, and yet why it was also hugely successful with the larger public. The goal was to find a convincing answer to both questions.

I wasn’t even sure if I really wanted to stick with it from the first to the last page, I just wanted a sample. The fact that I arrived to the end is already a sign that I didn’t find it so horrid. Quite a page turner in fact. I’m not saying that I couldn’t put it down, but I had an easy time with it, more than with other, better books, and found myself reading further than the point I had decided to reach for that day. This due to a well-planned structure. Every chapter serves a particular purpose in a way similar to Jordan’s style, and every one chapter ends in a way that makes you curious about what happens next. Well balanced in all its parts. There isn’t any high peak in quality or particularly boring point. Mostly even with the exception of the last 100 pages, where all tensions vanishes and the plot comes to an end in quite a ridiculous way. Those last 100 pages are quite dreadful.

The whole beginning of the book instead went rather well. In fact I was writing on the forums that I was having an easy time reading it and that I considered it a relatively well written “young adult” fantasy novel, with the inclusion of some gruesome scenes. Well, that was before reaching the part with the PoV of the dark side. At that point isn’t a matter of violence and gore that aren’t suitable for younger readers, but scenes intended to be excessive. The problem of this book is that it takes itself way, way too seriously. So while it was working quite well as an accessible, easygoing and pleasant fantasy novel, it felt as if Goodkind started to add explicit violence and nasty themes only so that the book would have been taken seriously. As if he was marking the point and make sure he was going to be considered “adult”. Wannabe adult, but quite childish in truth. Childish and perverted at the same time.

Later on this point of view changed because while the book indeed has contrasting elements, it all brings back to one unitary view that then corresponds to a simplification of Ayn Rand philosophy. He didn’t just make parallels with themes, but also tried to replicate the reason behind the writing. Ayn Rand doesn’t write realistic characters, she writes only conceptual representations. She uses characters as precise embodiments of a concept, using them to explain this concept. They are descriptions of an intent, didactic. Means for an idea she wants to pass on. In the same way Goodkind creates characters, including main ones, more like archetypes than multi-faceted, complex figures. Slightly less conventional and already seen, as the archetypes aren’t typical of fantasy, but Ayn Rand archetypes (“The Queen’s tax collectors came and took most of my crops, they barely left enough to feed my family”). Richard, the seeker, doesn’t just acquire special powers because he becomes the seeker, but he actually becomes the seeker because he is already one. He already is the natural manifestation of the archetype itself. So he is chosen for the role, as a consequence.

This is both the weakness and strength. It’s quite obvious: if you don’t like when a whole book is meant to shove down your throat some strong ideology, then you’ll come to hate this book, because there’s really nothing “natural” or spontaneously going. It’s all driven to “mean”, from the first to the last page. On the other hand it quite works because while Rand’s principle aren’t smoothly working when dealing with real life, here the setting is serviceable and partial enough to be consistent with its intent. Fiction gives you that power, you can filter what you want and make sure your ideas work flawlessly. The simplification of Rand that Goodkind makes here works quite well and drives the story in an intriguing way. I mean, I hope you aren’t one who starts arguing at a book, because there’s A LOT to argue, plenty of brow-rising parts, but overall it works and exposes well some central themes, like the manipulation of masses. Even the “Wizard’s First Rule” is well explained and meaningful in the book. Sometimes Ayn Rand works, in most cases when it corresponds to a simpler concept: pragmatism. The concept of “truth” simplified in the book often corresponds to pragmatism, or what is true bared of opinions. There are situations where people behave absurdly (like the mob of people going against Richard, Khalan and Zed at the beginning), but it’s still fun to read and find out how the various situations are resolved. Most of the book is built showing an impossible dead end, only to have the characters, Richard mostly, find a way out. Without too many tricks, in fact. Just a good use of the simplified principles and some slight deus ex machina to nudge things this way and that.

For most readers this layer of morals and philosophy will probably go above their head. It’s not even that central. Central is the narrow point of view on Kalan and Richard, their relationship. That’s the hook thrown at the readers. Even here the main protagonist is an handsome, yet naive boy who lives in a corner of the world without surprises. Quite a good and typical role for identification. The disclosure of the magical, mythical, foreign world happens through the eyes of this boy, so easier for the writer to gently introduce themes and details, because Richard knows just as much as the readers. Vehicle for experiencing and awe. Add an attractive, mysterious, even scary girl and you have already a recipe for win. At least a large public type of win. The PoV only rarely moves away from the central duo, so it’s quite “zoomed in” and intimate. Another strength is the heavy use of redundancy. This is not a book where you risk to miss details. If there’s something slightly important then be sure it is going to be repeated over and over, and then again. It’s already chewed food. But it works well in the style of a page turner, where your attention is on the characters and their adventures. That’s why I think in the end it works well and is quite fun to read, while on the other hand it juggles with some themes. There is the clash some people perceive and that may increase with the later books, where, I’m told, the preaching prevails on the adventure.

Later in this book there’s an endless part that deals with torture and imprisonment. At the beginning it felt like a reference to Jordan’s second book, where Egwene is captured near the end of the book, but in this case there’s an excess of violence that is marked over and over, and even a much stronger presence of SM themes. So much that it makes you wonder. Goodkind makes absolutely sure that all the devious practices are exclusive of the bad guys, so he can point and put the blame on them and their evilness, but you wonder if in truth he enjoys these perversions in the end. Considering the increasing presence of these elements in the other books, the suspect is legit.

The part also made me think to “The Real Story”, first book by Stephen Donaldson in the Gap series. In this case the rape scene and theme is used to warn readers. It’s definitely not a book for everyone. Compared to Goodkind’s heavy handing it’s almost lightweight, but it’s way more unsettling even if it’s dealt less bluntly. In this case too Goodkind’s approach is more juvenile. “I’m bad, but ultimately good”. Versus the rape in the Gap series: “I’m bad, but if you look better, just gray”. Perverse, miserable and mean as most human beings. Amoral, filled with greed. So I think it’s the realism that makes the Gap case unsettling, while it quite doesn’t work the same in Goodkind. The tale is spoiled. First because you know where it goes, you know there will be the happy end. Second because there’s no real “letting the plot loose”. Goodkind follows solid principles, he uses the book as a way to exemplify them, as a representative model. The moral is shoved down your throat because the book is an example of it. A mean for the end. The gap is more ruthless. You don’t really know where it is going, the characters are less predictable. The writer explores a character the way it is, not the way he ought to be. There’s a sense of uncertainty. In Goodkind it’s the opposite. You know how it ends, you are just waiting to discover what trick is being used to win, and by the end there’s even atonement, so everything is being forgiven and put under a positive light. Coming out clean.

In fact that part is so overdone that I started to make parallels not anymore with Jordan’s Egwene, but with Jesus. Richard goes trough a kind of experience that is not unlike “the passion”. Just in this case what drives him forth is not love for god (that would be quite a betrayal of Rand’s atheism), but love for his gal. So the love story goes on, raised to dramatic heights. Even though there’s plenty to dislike in this part, I read it, surprisingly, with interest. The way out of the situation was unclear and, despite the incessant repetition of the same situations, I continued to read and probably faster than the rest of the book. In fact once that part is passed the rest feels even anticlimactic and the tension goes suddenly down. But then you are at those 100 page before the end, so you go on.

Now my curiosity is mostly quenched by what I read and I doubt I’ll move soon to the second book. There’s a short excerpt at the end of the book that was interesting and different from the rest, so it’s still possible I continue even if I don’t plan to. Everyone out there says that the more the series goes on, the more the flaws stick out. Not exactly a deterrent as I can be more interested in controversy than adventure, the part that was quite successfully executed in this book. I know now how Goodkind exposed his side to attacks because of the weird and dubious mix of themes and the simplified, juvenile approach to them. At the same time I also understand why this series is so successful around the world. It’s accessible, has a good pacing and easy for identification. Then there’s Drama. And true love, heroism, friendship. Hell, there’s even an almost-sex scene surprisingly well written (the one at the Mud people, not the one later). Sex scenes are usually the low point in books, this one was the high one. Incredible.

I had a good time with the book. It worked perfectly as an interlude between the denser Erikson and KJ Parker.

Every book should be enjoyed for what it is and nothing more. This one isn’t THAT bad.

Memories of Ice – Steven Erikson

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.

Bauchelain and Korbal Broach – The Collected Stories – Steven Erikson

This book collects at a (relatively) accessible price the three novellas that PS Publishing published separately. I didn’t know what to expect, how much they were connected to the bigger series, how relevant. If a significant effort with its own purpose or just a diversion intended for the most passionate readers who won’t miss even the minor works. Well, I don’t even know where to start with the praises because this isn’t simply a “worthy” read compared to the rest of the books, but may be as well the finest writing Erikson ever achieved. And by a good margin.

The most impressive achievement is how the writing style changes and adapts to the different form. It is the same Erikson, with the multitude of characters and crazy ideas and inventions at every page, but at the same time it feels as if the constraints to the short form fueled the already wild creativity. The stories and characters seem explode out of the pages, unrestrained. The more they are squeezed tight, the more they come alive and claiming their space. Single sentences that read like poetry and filled with meaning on multiple levels.

Not only Erikson is at ease with the short form, he excels, shines in it. He understands it fully and carves out all the potential there is. It’s not the wild creativity, the crazy characters, the usual convergences that accelerate to a mad rush toward the end. It’s not in the content itself (that has always been seen as THE strong point), it’s in the execution. Here Erikson shows sheer talent. It oozes out of the page. From the first page. From a writer who’s used to publish once a year books with more than a thousand of pages you expect a writing style that is merely functional. Something quick and cheap that gets the job done. Well, here the real protagonist is the writing itself. It’s Erikson at his very best (or worst for some detractors), talking right at the reader in this meta-narrative game:

“But what do we know? We’re no brush-stroked arched brow over cold, avid eye, oh no. We’re just the listeners, wading through some ponce’s psychological trauma as the idiot stares into a mirror all love/hate all masturbatory up’n’down and it’s us who when the time comes -comes, hah- who are meant to gasp and twist pelvic in linguistic ecstasy.”

He’s “loose” and highly pretentious. Condensed, focused awesome. Everything that makes the readers love or hate him with a passion.

I used to say that from my point of view he is among “traditional” fantasy writers the one with the most “literary” intent. For these novellas this intent is shown prominently, but not limited to this show-off I’m celebrating. There are a number of memorable characters, plot twists and plenty of humor. Even if the writing has the predominant role, it doesn’t overshadow or gets in the way of the fun of the more traditional elements. “Over the top”, excessive and raving indeed. But still a masterful execution from every point of view.

It was a pleasure. Not just about what is written, but how it is written. I developed a familiarity with it, absorbed some of it as if it were mine. I really couldn’t ask more.

Blood Follows

The novels are put in the book in the chronological order of the plot, but the second was actually written and published last. This is interesting to consider because it proves again Erikson’s growth as a writer. There’s a steady, definite improvement between the three novellas in the order they were written, so with the second representing the real peak.

With the first one Erikson seems to take confidence with the new format. He shows sparks of genius but it’s still the beginning of a journey. He sets the foundation, starts to present the characters and develop the style (along some recurring habits and quibbles of the characters) that he will fully exploit later. Here he shows an economy of writing compared to the other novels, starts to play with the words to look for an intended effect, using them more for what they evocate than their explicit meaning. Showing a contagious love for the language that shares the similar beauty and lure of poetry.

There are a few memorable scenes, like the very first encounter between Bauchelain and Emancipor Reese and a myriad of details are presented that will only make sense later, following a similar trend of the main series. The first novel is also the one more connected to the Malazan world. The relatively familiar setting isn’t a weight. There are a number of interesting informations and perspectives, but they are used as “flavor”, not as key points.

The tone is far from the realistic one used in the main series. There is still a bleak and dark atmosphere but no restraints for the humorous and excessive side of things. Characters are caricatures, exaggerated in their traits, clever and naive at the same time. In some ways he reminded me more of Abercrombie here, with scenes intended both to to give personality to the characters and to be fun in their own way. Circumscribed situations with their own (often comic) purpose, while also driving the plot.

Maybe it’s the reason why I thought the end was not completely satisfying. With so much focus on the “performance” itself, what was being performed didn’t have the best denouement possible. This worried me since also for book 1 and 2 in the main series I was partially deluded by the ending. Maybe I really had a problem with the way Erikson ended his stories. The reasons of the disappointment were due mainly to the fact that some plot threads and characters seemed to pass by without a definite aim. Or better, the novella was so rich that it built a number of expectations that lead nowhere by the end of it. There were characters and plot threads that ultimately revealed to be dead ends, or still not used fully or significant enough for the potential I saw in them. As if I saw more in what was hinted than what revealed to be the real intent.

Still, the journey was fun and I developed a lasting sympathy and fondness for the characters that is only comparable, again, to what I felt for Abercrombie’s characters.

The Lees of Laughter’s End

It represents the high peak and the one case where I can say: there are no flaws.

100 pages of condensed AWESOME. Everything and then more happens, including the assault of a god. The ending is a mad dash in typical “convergence” style, only this time the convergence all starts and ends in the limited space of a ship. You’ll be amazed at how many stories tangle there, without even an ounce of the confusion that sometimes can be found in the main series. It’s all sleek, cleverly assembled. It’s a celebration of all things Erikson.

This time all the expectations built along the way were fully realized and even surpassed. The ending is great and fitting, without leaving that feel of incompleteness. In those 100 pages he sets up the scene and wraps it up perfectly.

He even conjures an external narrator in the form of a child and her old mother, who live completely alone in the crows’ nest of the ship and observe from far away everything below. They become at times the narrators of the story, some kind of abstract, symbolic figures, playing with different tones and registers, only to have their own patterns broken in some incredible way. Nothing is safe, not even an omniscient narrator.

This sent chills down my spine and one case where Erikson surpasses Gene Wolfe at his own game. It happens in a few pages and yet is extremely powerful and not at all vague. It plays with your expectations and breaks them, turn them on their head. Whatever you take a granted, breaks apart. And then again and again.

The Healthy Dead

Erikson meets Pratchett. This novella reads like satire, with plenty of wit and paradoxical situations.

It is the least “Malazan” of the three and also the one more “over the top”. It even uses some fantastic elements that do not seem to fit or belong perfectly to the world. Its explicit intent is also more driven and specific. It isn’t “loose” like the others, it doesn’t follow its own pattern and consistence. To understand it you need to draw parallels with our “modernity”. It’s fantasy fiction but working only in direct contact with what we live every day, which is what the satire is supposed to do with its metaphorical value. This purpose is already manifest in the disclaimer in the first page (and in those quotes I extrapolated):

Warning to lifestyle fascist everywhere. Don’t read this or you’ll go blind.

The novella brings to the front a different style. How to convey the most disparate thoughts through a story made as a vehicle. The plot and characters, including our protagonists, aren’t here the ultimate destination, they are means to an end.

It also marks a structural difference compared to the more usual worldbuilding. The majority of fantasy writers shape a world around the story, so that the world is functional to the story, or the intent behind it. Erikson instead shapes his world as a frame that can contain all possible stories. It’s a “world” in the true sense because it’s not one-directional.

The world is the frame, the characters are his “voices” and the stories his meaning.

But even if in this case he has a definite purpose and thesis he wants to prove, despite the whole novella pivots around “expedients”, it’s still a gorgeous, utterly fun read. The usual trio feels almost out of place at the beginning, as if those Malazan characters finished into a different, impossible world. But that’s also what fuels it all and makes those characters even more appropriate. Both Bauchelain and Emancipor become perfect vehicles for the message as if they were created and meant just for it. And, more, they came out even richer.


If you expect these novellas to integrate the main series and say something vital you’ll be disappointed. If you expect them to be throwaway little-efforts, forgettable digressions, you are also absolutely, terribly wrong. This book swiped away all the reservations and doubts I had of Erikson as a writer. He may show up and lows throughout the whole main series, but I am now sure he has an indubitable talent. As James Barclay put it in the introduction to the second novella:

The Lees of Laughter’s End is a splendidly outrageous offering. It is utterly fearless and compelling. Most of all, it is hugely entertaining. Erikson in this mood is a joy to read.

The big problem I have now is that while reading the novellas I couldn’t wait to move onto Memories of Ice, considered Erikson’s masterpiece. Now that I’m 200 pages into Memories of Ice I feel… nostalgic. I’m developing a serious case of withdrawal from the novellas and the 1100 pages of this new book aren’t helping much. I’m addicted to those novellas, to the wit, the superb writing style, the memorable characters. So every time I sit down to read the new book I actually take in my hands the novellas and read some random pages. It’s like being in deeply love with someone of whom you’ve left just a photo.