Sunday, March 18, 2012

Book Review: Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson

Memories of Ice is Book 3 of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Naturally, you should probably check out Book 1 (Gardens of the Moon) and Book 2 (Deadhouse Gates) before this one. It feels like the series diverged in book 2/3 with the story following some characters in book 2 and simultaneously following the other characters in book 3. However, the stories are very well contained so it doesn't feel like the similarly split Feast for Crows/A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin.

Overall Impression
The book is suitably epic: the prologue starts 300,000 years before the present (take that Wheel of Time, for just starting 3000 years before the present) and continues with an event taking place about 120,000 years before present. Despite the enormous timescale, these events are key to the plot of the books, as are other events that took place just a few thousand years back. When you're dealing with gods, undead, and ascendants, these timescales become ordinary.

One minor quibble I have is that my version (Kindle) had quite a few orthographic and punctuation errors. For example, sentences don't always end in periods and some words like Morn sometimes appear as Mom (also Toc/Toe, Serc/Sere). It makes we wonder how the digital book was produced. Did they scan the pages and use some word-recognition software? That could explain why 'rn' gets turned to 'm' and why some punctuations are missing, but why do that? Shouldn't they have an electronic manuscript already? And even if these errors are in the print version, I'm sure they would have been corrected in subsequent printings. Still, the story can be read and enjoyed despite these errors so we'll move on.

The story takes places simultaneously with book 2, but with different characters. A whole lot happens in the book and I don't want to spoil any of it. I will mention that the book feels more like 2 books. About halfway in the book we reach an important event centering on the city of Capustan. It literally feels like the end of the book is near, but there are still side-plots being introduced and character arcs that haven't wrapped up. Then the book develops on events centering on the city of Coral which feels like a second conclusion or climax to the plot. However, at the very end everything ties together (including the prologue events 300,000 years past!) and you realize this is just a huge tale in the making. While the main bad guy here, the Pannion Seer, is confronted, we do hear about the Crippled God and the House of Chains. This makes it clear that this book is only a small part of a larger overarching story.

I've noticed in these 3 books that Erikson is a master describing combat scenes and military practices. There exists a genre in science fiction devoted to military-type stuff, known as military sci-fi. I wonder if there is such a thing as military fantasy, since the Malazan series seems to fit in that archetype. That's not to say that all of it is combat and soldiers walking around, but it does feature heavily in comparison with other fantasy series where you have a more quest-oriented plot or social intrigue.

The book follows many of the original characters from Book 1- Quick Ben, Captain Paran, Whiskeyjack, Kruppe, and others that were mentioned but we only saw briefly, such as Caladan Brood. There's also new characters that grow through this book and by the end you're cheering the new comers as well. There are several times the characters are presented choices- one good, one bad, or so they appear to the limited reader. In many cases the character fails and chooses the wrong path, but does so in a completely believable fashion. The struggle is even greater, but somehow, things manage to work out.

Like books 1 and 2, some of the character relationships are those between normal mortals and the gods. In several cases, the mortals go do their own thing and outright defy the gods, which just squirm and hide. One mortal character in particular appears to be able to grant or at least acknowledge godhood in the form of allowing presence within the Deck of Dragons. These gods aren't as powerful as everyone makes them out to be and they are many times clueless as to how to solve the world's problems. As one of the character says: "The gods can be damned thick-witted on occasion -- probably why they need us mortals to do the straight thinking when straight thinking’s required."

One interesting aspect in both Martin's and Erikson's work is that no one is safe. At any moment a character, even the primary ones, can be killed. This keeps you on your toes and makes you feel that everything is at stake. However, Martin's deaths sometimes feel senseless, like they are just there to show you he can do this. Erikson weaves them a bit better into the storyline and you join in the surviving character's sadness when they grieve for their fallen comrades.

Setting / World Building
The world has already been introduced in the first few books, but Book 3 delivers additional information, such as the nature of warrens, the Deck of Dragons, and even describes events that took place 300,000 years before the present. The world of Malazan literally drips with magic. Even characters with no magical training or affinity can get swept up, usually unwillingly, by the gods and receive amazing powers and abilities. This is in contrast with anther big epic fantasy of our time, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, where magic is almost absent in the story, particularly in the first few books.

As a fan of magic, I enjoy the Malazan series. However, the rules behind magic are still unclear to me. Whether or not magic should have rules is actually a contentious topic in fantasy fiction, I am of the mind that rules can enhance one's appreciation of the story. As examples, of clear rule-based fantasy I point you to the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson and The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. Of course, a magic systems whose rules, if any, are hidden from you gives the story a unique feel. For Malazan, we feel at a loss and like toys to the greater forces, and it allows us to connect with the characters, most of which feel the same way.

One of the bigger additions that Memories of Ice provides is the introduction of the K'Chain Che'Malle. These, along with the Jaghut, Imass, and Forkrul Assail, are one of the four founding races. At the start of the series we believe that only the T'lan Imass, in undead form, are the sole remnants of those races. Since then we have seen the brief release of a Jaghut Tyrant, suspect Jaghut activity elsewhere, and now see the velociraptor-like K'Chain Che'Malle in undead form. This is all very satisfying and I would not be surprised to see the Forkrul Assail emerge at some point in the future.

An impressive depiction of a K'Chain Che'Malle K'ell hunter by dassemultor.
If you ever find yourself facing an undead dinosaur with full armor and swords for hands: run, run fast.

Final Thoughts
While the book felt long, particularly given all the action surrounding the Capustan and Coral battles, it was all one self-contained story and I can understand why it was not split. The characters and setting are as strong as ever. Books 1-3 have all dealt with a singular problem and have solved it in that volume, though each kept mentioning the Pannion Seer who features heavily in Book 3. With the introduction of the Crippled God in this book, we finally see a problem that will likely span many books in order to solve. I've said it before and I'll say so again: this is one amazing epic fantasy and I wish I would have started it earlier.
As one of the characters says: "The tale's far from done, after all."

The next book in the Malazan series (House of Chains) is among those few fantasy novels that I have seen here in Chile:
However, I'm going to stick to reading it in English. The $21.700 price is a bit high (~43USD) for a trade paperback, in my opinion.

What's next for me? Likely Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell, since I purchased it at a discount. I've added a little widget to my Goodreads reading list on the right. You can use that to keep track of what I'm reading and how far along I am.


  1. due to the lack of comments, I have to believe I am the only person that reads your blog!! hahaha But this one has made me want to have a read the series, seems a lot going on!!

  2. This blog is relatively new so I have yet to build up enough of an audience for frequent comments :)
    As for the Malazan series: I would say it almost feels like too much is going on!

  3. Thanks for the review!! The problem with the series is that, it's difficult to remember the events of the earlier books while reading the current one. And the story isn't spoon-fed, one has to think too much to understand the storyline and the motives of the characters are not clear.