Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reaper's Gale - Steven Erikson

I have an exam on Saturday, severely limiting my reading time this week. Unless you include such fine titles as Arbeidsrecht in de praktijk and Sociale-zekerheidsrecht. To keep you entertained I put up this review of one of Steven Erikson's novels. I wrote the original in September 2008. It's undergone some serious editing, I'm afraid the original version was not very good.

This massive tome is the seventh book in Erikson’s Malazan series. The sheer size of his novels (some 1260 pages in my mass market paperback of Reaper’s Gale) make reading Erikson a time-consuming hobby. His books are something of a pain in the backside to review. He employs a huge cast of characters and has the habit of dropping the reader right into the action with fairly little background information. Even something as simple as writing a summary of this book is a challenge. His books make for an fascinating read however, so it is time to stop making excuses and start writing a some reviews. Once the final volume The Crippled God is released later this year, I am going to see if I can review some of the older titles in this series.

In the previous six books of the series the story lines and characters have been spread out over several continents. Now many of the characters are converging on the Letherii Empire, an empire beset on all sides by it’s enemies. In Midnight Tides, book five of the series, we witness the rise to power of the Triste Edur emperor Rhulad Sengar. Possessed by the Crippled God, Rhulad has died a thousand deaths over the last couple of years, only to be resurrected again. This has not improved his mental condition, which was already bordering on insanity at the end of book five. Rhulad’s armies are searching the world of new and ever stronger challengers to face the emperor. A fleet with the latest group of challengers, the formidable Karsa Orlong and the equally dangerous Icarium among them, is approaching the Letheri capital.

The Edur empire is now in serious trouble but Rhulad is carefully shielded from the world by his Letherii administrators. Even his most loyal followers are kept away from him. Although the Edur rule the empire in name, much of the real power lies with the Letherii administration and they are happy to let the Edur think they are in charge. Tensions between the Letherii and the Edur mount when it becomes clear the Letherii are keeping the Edur away from their emperor.

Several other developments outside the court threaten the empire as well. Economic genius Tehol Beddict and his servant Bugg are trying to undermine the Letheri economy by removing as much gold from circulation as they can. On the borders of the empire, the warlord Redmask is stirring among the Awl people and there are rumours of unrest in the eastern kingdoms. An even more serious and unexpected threat is posed by a Malazan army under the command of Tavore Paran preparing to stage an invasion of the continent. On top of these worldly threats several gods also taken an interest in the affairs of the empire. Errant, Mael, the Crippled God, Shadowthorn and Cotillion and several soletaken try to influence events in Lether. When all these parties collide the outcome is nothing short of catastrophic.

This synopsis doesn’t even begin to cover everything that happens in the novel. Erikson’s work is epic in every sense of the world. Some people will think this book as slow moving as the glaciers of Omtose Phellack, the author does take some time to get going. Once you have the various story lines more or less sorted out it is a much more coherent novel that The Bonehunters however. In that book the author spends a lot of time setting up events for the final books in the series. And indeed a lot of things begun in The Bonehunters fall into place in Reaper’s Gale.

I will leave the theorizing about what all of this means to the upcoming books in the series to the die-hard fans but there are a few things that struck me about this novel. The time line of this series covers some three hundred thousand years. While many of the details of what happened during all that time remain vague the author clearly has put a lot of thought to the history of this world. You can see this in countless details. In this book it struck me that the city of Lethras is built like a city in Norman England, never tearing anything down, just building layer upon layer. It also shows in the way Erikson describes the technological level of the various societies. The T’lan Imass are particularly interesting in that respect. They are something of a contradiction. A society that chose not to develop technology beyond stone-age tools but possessing such a highly developed spiritual life and powerful magic that they are a force the be reckoned with nonetheless. They even go so far as to making themselves immortal, a snapshot from a society hundreds of thousands of years old, remembering what mortals have forgotten. Quite a contrast from Icarium, who has created machines that are the pinnacle of technological development, but doomed to forget his actions and start over again and again. History repeating?

Erikson again describes a group of pastoral nomads, the Awl, who are being wiped out despite their prowess in battle. If I remember correctly the Malazan empire subjugated several of such tribes during their expansion. Given Erikson’s background as an archaeologist I can only assume the topic interests him. There are various theories on how for instance the Mongol Empire was able to pose such a formidable military threat to the more ‘civilized’ empires surrounding them, but also why their way of life is ultimately unable to sustain such an empire without adopting the practices of the subjugated peoples. This is what happens to the Edur as well in a way. Their society is seems to have regressed to a hunter-gatherer like tribal structure. The Letherii eagerly make use of their backward ways. The book even contains a warning of what will happen when one tries to settle the steppes and farm them. Pastoralism is a complex and very dynamic way of managing the environment. While farming usually quickly leads to depletion and erosion of the top soil, pastoralism is much more sustainable if one manages to prevent overgrazing (search for the tragedy of the commons if the topic interests you).

Another interesting element in the story is Erikson’s criticism of capitalism, in particular the myth of perpetual growth. Tehol and Bugg intentionally create a bubble, a construction company that floats on loans and more loans to pay of earlier loans. They are able to withdraw huge amounts of gold from the Letherii economy, making it impossible for anybody to actually collect on the outstanding loans. When Tehol’s company collapses the under the weight of all those debts, a chain reaction is set in motion and financial chaos is the result. Erikson uses this theme as well in Midnight Tides but in this book Tehol and Bugg are brilliant. Especially the scene where Bugg explains things to this lawyer and the poor man finally understands what’s happening is hilarious.

The Malazans fight another brilliant campaign in Reaper’s Gale. I am not quite sure I understand the motivation of the army to fight on when they apparently have been cut loose from the empire, but the way they go about is admirable. Unfortunately Erikson is also a bit long winded on this part of the story. A lot of the rather large cast consists of various squads of the Malazan army and Erikson diligently chronicles their manoeuvres.The campaign itself is interesting, especially once the trap laid by the Letherii is about to close, but I do think this part of the book could do with some editing. I have to admit the character Beak, among all those soldiers, stand out. He’s a very interesting character. Unfortunately the brightest flame burns quickest.

Although it would be nice if Erikson could keep his novels in the three digit range, I have to say Reaper’s Gale was a very satisfying read. More so than The Bonehunters. Memories of Ice is still my favourite but Reaper’s Gale does not fall short of that achievement by much. If it wasn’t clear already, this book definitely shows the Tales of the Malazan book of the Fallen is going to be a landmark in epic fantasy once the series is completed. And it looks like we won’t have to wait that much longer to find out how the story ends. Erikson keeps to a tight schedule of one book a year. With the mass market paperback of Dust of Dreams expected in June, the final instalment of the series, The Cripled God, expected in fall (mind you, there is no official release date yet) and Ian C. Esslemont's third Malazan novel Stonewielder expected in December, 2010 is going to be a big year for fans of this series.

Book Details
Title: Reaper's Gale
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam
Pages: 1264
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-553-81316-6
First published: 2007


  1. Excellent review :)
    Thank you very much for recommendation and for the final push in starting the series. It is an awesome and I am only at the first novel :)

  2. Thanks :D

    I think Erikson doesn't really find his stride until you hit the Chain of Dogs in book 2. Not that Gardens of the Moon is not an excellent read but there is a noticeable difference in style (and according to the fanatics some inconsistencies) between the first book and the rest of the series.

    Maybe I should try to reread Gardens of the Moon before The Crippled God is released.