Friday, November 18, 2011

The Bonehunters - Steven Erikson

The Bonehunters is the sixth book in Erikson's sprawling Malazan Book of the Fallen series and the only one I haven't reviewed yet. Like the previous five books, it is absolutely huge. In fact, it may be the biggest book in the series up to this point. My mass market paperback contains well over 1200 pages. It wasn't a favourite of mine when I first read it in 2007, hemmed in as it is between Midnight Tides and Reaper's Gale, two of the stronger books in the series. It is a pivotal moment in the series though. Erikson is spinning events away from the Malazan Empire and heading for the continent that will be the setting of the finale of the series. In the wake of this book, he also leaves the space that will be filled by Ian C. Esslemont's Return of the Crimson Guard. You'll definitely want to have read the Erikson's series up to the sixth book before tackling that one.

This novel follows up on events described in House of Chains. The Whirlwind rebellion has been put down and the 14th army, commanded by Adjunct Tavore Paran is chasing the last remnants, a force lead by Leoman of the Fails towards Y'Gathan, a city where they are expected to make their last stand. It is not a random location, Y'Gathan holds bad memories for the Malazan Empire. It is the place that saw the downfall of one of it's greatest heroes, Dassem Ulthor. Plagued by bad omens and uncertainty regarding their leader, the relatively inexperienced 14th is heading for what looks like a difficult assault. Rumours of a plague rapidly approaching them force the Adjunct to decisive action. There is not time to starve out Leoman, they will have to take the city quickly.

The military element of this novel is actually quite small compared to some of the other books. The outcome of the battle is a forgone conclusion, only the way the Adjunct handles it is of import. Erikson moves on to a number of other things he needs to set the stage for Reaper's Gale and the final two novels of the series, Dust of Dreams and The Crippled God. We see the empire waste the last of its human capital and finally gain a bit of insight in Laseen's desperate bid to stay in power. I've always thought it was an interesting choice to leave the internal politics of the empire behind in later books as he focusses more on the upheaval taking place among gods and ascendants as well as events in Lether.

The war among the gods takes centre stage in the middle part of The Bonehunters in particular. Ganoes Paran, now Master of the Deck, has sanctioned the House of Chains, opening a whole new phase in the struggle between the Crippled God and the forces that oppose him. Ganoes is very active exercising his power in this novel. He does a lot of things that could be considered rash, stuff that has major consequences. It makes him one of the more interesting characters in the novel. He may have been in constant trouble in earlier novels, in this books he is clearly someone you don't want to mess with. As a number of supremely powerful beings find out.

Where Midnight Tides had a closer look at the dangers of unlimited capitalism, religious fanaticism are an important theme in The Bonehunters. We see a number of examples of fairly extreme religious practices and just how easily they can turn to large scale violence. It's something Erikson has been pointing to in the earlier books as well but this novel really drives how the way the relationship between gods and mortals is a two way street and that neither is safe from the other. It is absolutely one of the things that sets this series apart form most epic fantasy. The gods are at war and in a way mortals are caught in between. The gods had better beware who they mess with though.

Another notable figure in this novel is Karsa Olong. His conversations with Samar Dev on the nature of civilization are fascinating. Karsa mostly is of the opinion that civilization just brings the misery it says to raise people out of to ever larger numbers of people, while to Dev it is something one ought to strive for. The entire novel is full of references to to disappeared, failed civilizations. There appear to have been countless examples of this since the fall of the First Empire. Corruption, war and environmental degradation often causing their demise. In this respect, some of the comments of Laseen in the final chapters of the book, on the state of the Malazan Empire are very interesting. She is clearly a woman used to keeping her thoughts and emotions to myself but in these remarks a measure of desperation can be found. Which makes it all the more surprising that Erikson lets go of the eventual fate of the Malazan Empire. I guess the comments on the rise and fall of civilizations and those on burning up natural resources in particular can also be seen as a commentary on the state of our world. Either way, it is food for thought.

After this reread I still consider The Bonehunters something of a bridge between two stages of the story. As a novel, it is not quite as successful as the neighbouring volumes. That being said, it still contains the complex narrative, the huge cast, military heroics and tragedy, a overarching story of divine conflict and many more elements that makes the Malazan Book of the Fallen series stand out among epic fantasy. As with previous parts I've reread, I discovered a lot of detail I missed the first time around, making it even more obvious that this series is unrivalled in the genre. Especially the last of the four books the novel is divided into, contains a lot of interesting bits of information. I'm almost tempted to to reach for Reaper's Gale and reread that one as well.

Book Details
Title: The Bonehunters
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 1231
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-553-81315-9
First published: 2006


  1. Nice site! Just found it randomly. I've read up to Book 5 of the series, but, it's been awhile. While I do remember stuff from House of Chains, I'm a crux. To re-read or not to? Any thoughts. I really wish they had a good summation somewhere on the web.

    I wonder how Erikson keeps it all straight. :)

    1. How could you possibly summarize something like a Steven Erikson book? Just a synopsis is a pain in the backside :P

      If you didn't read HoC too long ago I'd say just go for it. Sure, details will be lost but I don't think there is anyone who will 'get' the entire series in one reading. These books are made to be reread but I tend to prefer to read it through and then start at the beginning again.

  2. Ya, I was just looking at the TOR site with the re-read chapter summations, and I was like, umm, I could just go reread the series.

    Good point, who could possibly remember everything in this series. I know my biggest problem is that I let time to slip between the books. Maybe I will re-read Midnight Tides as that was the last one I read sometime ago. And look for 'summations' on HoC via the net.