Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Midnight Tides - Steven Erikson

Midnight Tides is the fifth volume in Erikson's Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series and something of a favorite of mine. By this time the series is already ridiculously complex but Erikson manages to weave a new strand into his tale nonetheless. With the first four volumes going back and forth between events on the continent of Genebackis and the rebellion in the Seven Cities, a return to Genebackis might be what the reader expects. In fact, Erikson will get back to that continent for a while in volume six, The Bonehunters, but this book takes a step back in time and moves us to the distant empire of Letheras. I think this is by far the most interesting place Erikson has created in his series, certainly given recent events regarding the world's economy.

The empire of Letheras has been expanding for centuries. A combination of rampant capitalism, merciless greed and military might has lead numerous peoples to complete cultural annihilation. Now, the empire has turned it gaze towards the lands of six tribes of the Tiste Edur for new resources. In the eyes of the Letheri, the Tiste Edure are uncivilized people. Although the tribes don't have a monetary economy and are few in number, they do posses a dreadful kind of magic. For as long as anyone remembers the Tiste Edur have been divided, always fighting amongst themselves. Recently the Warlock-King of the Hiroth tribe, Hannan Mosag, has managed to unite all six tribes under his rule however. And his ambitions go far beyond the Tiste Edur lands. The two nations are on a collision course, one that will pit not long armies against each other but also dreadful magic and powerful ideologies. It is a clash that cannot fail to attract the notice of the gods.

In the previous book, House of Chains, Erikson dedicated a quarter of the text to the back story of a single character. Now, we take another step back to find out the history of Trull Sengar, the flooded realm we first encountered him in, and the actions of groups of Tiste Edur referenced to throughout the first four novels. The chronology of the these books is a bit problematic, with several contradictions cropping up in the text. For me it would make most sense to place the events in Midnight Tides several years prior to Gardens of the Moon but some people insist it is set later.

One of the things I like most about his book is the depiction of Letheri society. It is a culture where money is the most important status symbol and indebtedness leads to slavery. It's the Uncle Sam king of capitalism in overdrive, an economic systems that crushes anyone who plays the game poorly. Erikson shows us the follies of this system, many of which resemble to cycles of boom and bust in our own economy, though the eyes of two of my favorite characters: the apparently destitute financial genius Tehol Bedict and his (unpaid) manservant Bugg. There is a lot more to this comical duo than meets the eye. Their attempt to crash the Letheri economy is a story line that continues into the seventh volume, Reaper's Gale . It's a brilliant bit of satire that never seemed more relevant that these days.

I said Erikson makes things even more complex and he doesn't just do it by adding a new continent, the whole system of magic we've come to know in the previous four books is left behind as well. In stead of Warrens, a rawer, wilder, more primitive magic, tied to Holds can be accessed here. Curiously enough, the Hold of Death is empty, Hoods influence non-existent, meaning the dead can be made to linger. This gives rise to a number of phenomena we haven't seen before in these books. Armies of shades, curses that keep a soul tied to an already dead body, and even people who specialize in cosmetics for zombies. Some of it is utterly bizarre.

The manipulation of death takes another shape in the figure of Rhuald Sengar, younger brother to Trull. Rhuald is the subject of another ploy by the Crippled God, who abused the absence of Hood's influence to gain influence over the Tiste Edur. Rhuald is the character in which all the fractures in the Tiste Edur society come together. From the ancient corruption of historical events to the smaller scale of the conflicts in the Sengar family. Rhuald's bride, his relationship with his brother Trull and his meteoric rise to power all put an enormous strain on him. And that is on top of the manipulations of th Crippled God. It makes Rhuald one of the most convincingly insane characters in the entire series. Disturbing to read about but also a character who evokes pity in the reader.

Midnight Tides is also the book where Erikson starts to explain a few things in fairly plain language. That is not to say he coddles the reader, you'll still be thrown into strange situations that take a while for it to make sense, but for the first time we get a description of what a Warren is (or an interpretation of what they might be at least). He also sheds some light on the troubled history of the Tiste peoples. The prologue of this novel shows us a pivotal point in their history, one that will define the future of the Tiste Edur. Until now, we've mostly dealt with the Tiste Andi and only received hits of the trouble between Dark and Shadow. I don't think I caught the full significance of the prologue, both to this novel and the over all series the first time through. It's worth keeping that information in the back of your mind when reading this book.

New continent, new characters, new forms of magic and new gods. Midnight Tides almost feels like a new start to the series, but Erikson will merge this new story line into the other novels quite quickly in subsequent novels. It is also the first novel that will have the story spin outwards from the Malazan Empire. Not all readers may be pleased by yet another totally unfamiliar setting but I enjoyed the change of scenery tremendously. The fact that Erikson introduces a host of fascinating characters doesn't hurt either. From the comical Thehol and Bugg to Trull Sengar, turn between loyalty to his family and knowledge of an ancient wrong and a new threat to his people, Erikson once again delivers an epic, dramatic and superbly entertaining Malazan novel. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Book Details
Title: Midnight Tides
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 960
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-553-81314-5
First published: 2004

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