House of Chains by Steven Erikson
1 April, 2011
House of Chains, volume 4 of Steven Erikson’s epic Malazan Book of the Fallen, took me a lot longer to read than the previous two. In some ways, it wasn’t as relentless as it was coming to some kind of conclusion begun in the first three books. But we all know it’s still a LONG way from the end and we can only heave a small sigh. As you’ve probably come to realise if you’ve read my posts on Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice, I rate Erikson pretty highly and this book didn’t disappoint either. But I’m actually beginning to feel that I must needs re-read Gardens of the Moon just to make sure I ain’t missing anything, and this might be a good place to do so.
Because although a resolution is in sight, things have gotten even more complicated. In House of Chains, we are once again re-united with the main characters from Deadhouse Gates (volume 2) and the events follow on directly from then albeit with flashbacks from several pertinent characters. The book starts with how the ferocious warrior and giant Thelomen Toblakai (one of the founding races of Erikson’s world) became one of the Sha’ik’s followers and bodyguards. This ties in with a deeper mystery of the origins and evolution of the main races in the long and ancient history of the world. We follow the Teblor warrior Karsa Ohrlong, before he became known as Toblakai, as he tries to cement his reputation by leaving his sheltered home, is taken prisoner by his enemies and then the Malazans, loses his innocence, begins to understand the value of friendship and slowly unveils the secrets of his seven gods. We also see the fractured army of the Sha’ik Reborn as Felisin is taken over by the goddess of the Whirlwind, slowly losing herself in order to exact her revenge on her sister Tavore, and how this affects her loyal followers Heboric Light Touch/Ghosthands, Toblakai, Leoman of the Flails and Felisin Younger, her adopted daughter. And we see Tavore herself, untested Adjunct to the Empress Laseen, trying to hold together the shattered remnants of the Malazan Army. And we are once again re-united with the Bridgeburners, Kalam, Fiddler and Quick Ben as they converge in the Holy Desert Raraku, home of the Whirlwind rebellion, to aid the Malazan army. But Tavore hasn’t forgotten Felisin and tasks Pearl, a Claw, and Lostara Yil, captain of the Red Blades, to find her sister.
This volume was a much slower read than the previous two partly because there was a lot more information to digest, not just from this volume but from the previous volumes. The cast of characters is huge and sometimes it’s easy to get lost. But Erikson keeps drawing you back into the story so you are never quite as lost as you think. Here too there are some truly hideous characters such as Bidithal, the priest who shaped the first Sha’ik, obliterating all emotions and memories of pleasure so that she can become the vessel of her goddess, and who has cast eyes upon Felisin Younger, the adopted daughter of Sha’ik Reborn. Erikson doesn’t shy away from the grotesque, and although it’s not graphic, it leaves you feeling soiled. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not even though there is some sort of redemption. It does make you think about the treatment of women in sff and Erikson is pretty much in the minority in being fair, but I think that’s for another post. The gods are no better as they are exposed as selfish, self-serving beings uninterested in the fates of their believers so long as they fulfill what is needed of them.
For me, the most poignant moment was when Tavore and Felisin finally come to face each other and in some ways I didn’t like what Erikson did although I’m sure he had his reasons and we will see why as the series progress. It was gut-wrenching because of the suddenness and sparse style.
I loved the banter between the soldiers, especially the Bridgeburners, and Erikson excels in showing the spirit of the soldiers as they face a huge and unknown enemy. And did I mention how amazing Quick Ben is? He is fast becoming one of my favourite characters. And I particularly liked the pairing of Pearl and Lostara Yil, initially struggling to balance their contempt for each other with an uncertain flirtation. We are also re-united with Icarium, the ancient Jagh, and his travelling companion Mappo the Trell, when they encounter Karsa Orlong on his travels.
And on top of all this, we find out more about the invading races Tiste Edur (shadow) and Tiste Liosan (light) who are related to the Tiste Andii (dark), a little more about the T’lan Imass and we are introduced to the Forkrul Assail, another of the founding races. All I can say is thank god for Malazan Wiki where I can keep up with all this info.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen isn’t a linear tale, although it follows one big broad event, and it does takes some getting used to. While you are reading about events in one particular geographical place, you are also constantly reminded of what is happening elsewhere which together increases the tension in the tale. But when all the little pieces click together and things start to make sense, it’s an amazingly epiphanic feeling.
The question now is whether I should go back and re-read Gardens of the Moon now or plough straight into the next volume, Midnight Tides. Decisions, decision.
You can read an interview with Steven Erikson here .