Tuesday, June 21, 2011

House of Chains - Steven Erikson

House of Chains is the fourth of ten volumes in Steven Erikson's Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Like everybody, I have my favourites in this series and two of the books I enjoyed most are Memories of Ice and Midnight Tides. House of Chains is in between these two and I consider it the weakest of the ten books. That is not to say I didn't like it, but it doesn't work quite as well as some of the others. It is a novel that sets the stage for taking the story far outside the boundaries of the Malazan Empire however. There are lots of hints and bits of information about events elsewhere in world that prepare the reader for what is to come. I missed a lot of that on my first read. It's very easy to underestimate the importance of the bits information Erikson provides in this book.

Once again, the story takes us to the Seven Cities where Adjunct Tavore Paran and her recently formed 14th Army have arrived to deal with the aftermath of the Chain of Dogs. She's an inexperienced commander, leading a green army, seriously outnumbered, short on mages and fighting on hostile terrain with supply lines stretched to the breaking point. In other words, the situation appears hopeless and Tavore doesn't even know the worst of it. Her sister Felesin, whom she allowed to be sent tot he otataral mines during Empress Laseen's latest cull of nobility, leads the Whirlwind rebellion. Now possessed by a vengeful goddess, Felesin awaits her sister's army in the Holy Desert of Raraku. Like her sister, Felesin has her problems. Her army is made up of a number of factions, each with their own agenda and often with ambitions that far exceed the Whirlwind rebellion. Such a clash of power and interests is bound to catch the attention of the gods. A convergence seems inevitable.

One of the things that is remarkable about this book is that the first part, about a quarter of the total novel, is completely taken up by the back story of one character. Karsa Orlong makes a brief appearance in Deadhouse Gates, the novel chronicling the events that lead up to this book. Karsa is Erikson's way of making fun of a fantasy cliché's, he's Conan on steroids. Especially early on, he's presented as a giant, barbarian warrior, obsessed with a quest for what he considers glory, and out to slay as many enemies as possible. When he leaves his isolated tribe and ventures into the lands of the 'children', as his tribe views ordinary humans, he has a hard confrontation with the world. Surprisingly, he learns that not all problems can be solved with violence. I absolutely love the way Karsa keeps expressing himself in the terms a Teblor 'barbarian' would use but tackles ever more sophisticated ethical and philosophical opinions with it. One such opinion leads to one of the most hilarious scenes in the novel as Karsa rides up to the Tavore, backed by a full Malazan army, and tells her of his change of heart concerning the Malazan Empire.
'Speak then,' Tavore said.
The giant bared his teeth. 'Once, long ago, I claimed the Malazans as my enemies. I was young. I took pleasure in voicing vows. The more enemies the better. So it was, once. But no longer. Malazan, you are no longer my enemy. Thus, I will not kill you.'
'We are relieved,' Tavore said drily.
Karsa Orlong and Adjuct Tavore - Chapter 26
Another aspect of Karsa's story I liked a lot was his quite literal demonstration of his opinion that man makes gods and not the other way around. As important as Karsa may be for the rest of the series, it does feel as if the first section is a huge prologue and that the novel doesn't get started until we fast-forward to the events following the Chain of Dogs. In terms of structure it was a peculiar choice of Erikson to include such a long section that is essentially set apart from the rest of the novel.

Another major player we meet in this novel is Trull Sengar. First of the four (and here I was thinking Erikson likes to do things in three) Sengar brothers, he is left chained in a destroyed part of a warren known as the Nascent. He's another character who gets surprisingly little done in this novel. Erikson is setting things up for Midnight Tides I suppose, a lot of which deals with Trull's back story. The friendship that develops between the Imass Onrack and Tiste Edur Trull is interesting to watch though. The author slips in quite a bit of history of the world into the conversations between the two and those they meet along the way. More bits and pieces of the ridiculously complex history of this world fall into place.

The finale of this novel is surprising in a way. There is a convergence of course, but the whole campaign plays out differently than one might expect. Erikson leaves a lot of cleaning up to do for Tavore, which will be dealt with in The Bonehunters. Although the final confrontation between Tavore and Felesin had to potential to be as dramatic as the finale of Memories of Ice or Deadhouse Gates it didn't have the same impact on me.

I appreciated what Erikson tried to do with this book a bit more on this second read. As with the three previous books, I picked up a lot of stuff I missed during my first pass through this part of the story. I still feel Erikson is building a bit too much in this novel. It is a bridge to the third major story line Erikson will open in Midnight Tides and events that will take place in The Bonehunters and beyond, but it doesn't stand on its own quite as well as the previous books did. That being said, it is still an amazing fantasy novel, once again underlining the enormous scope and ambition of the series. It is not my favourite but even so, it is a treat to fans of the series. And a novel that only gets better the second time around.

Book Details
Title: House of Chain
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 1035
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-81313-7
First published: 2002

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