Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Book Review: House of Chains by Steven Erikson

House of Chains is the 4th book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson. I have previously written reviews for Book 3Memories of Ice and Book 2Deadhouse Gates.
I understand that Ian Cameron Esslemont has also written books in the Malazan universe and they both collaborated on the series. I may have to check Esslemont's works later on, but I intend to finish the 10-book series first.



Overall Impression
One thing I was warned of is that the books are not necessarily written in chronological orders. This fact becomes obvious in this book. The story takes places near the beginning of Book 1: Gardens of the Moon, but at the halfway point it skips forward to the end of Book 2Deadhouse Gates, which in turn takes place at about the same time as Book 3Memories of Ice. Some of the latter events in Book 3, though, are coincident with Book 4, though we are clearly moving forward in time with this book. All this shuffling around with time can make things confusing, but also extremely interesting and engaging.

The book starts of very differently from the rest of the series thus far, but in a way it is extremely satisfying and fresh. After a bit you return to the typical Malazan fare of jumping amidst distinct characters who slowly converge on the book's main story arc. Like all of the Malazan books thus far, the conclusion is action packed with the convergence of all seemingly unrelated arcs. Even the prologue, which I had forgotten about by the end of the book, is satisfactorily addressed.

Plot
The first part of the book follows the story of Karsa Orlong of the Teblor. It feels very personal and starts out detached from the rest of the Malazan universe. You're almost not sure you're reading in the same universe, until you start seeing signs of T'lan Imass and find a Forkrul Assail. Compared to the rest of the series, this part seems very focused and intimate, you see the character grow and change as his world expands and his nature is revealed. He goes from being warleader of a tribe of 'savages' (compared to the Malazans, say) to an escaped prisoner that gets tied up in the Whirlwind rebellion. This part of the story takes place somewhat between Book 1 (Gardens of the Moon) and 2 (Deadhouse Gates) and we see signs, references, and foreshadowings to the events related in those books that help tie the series together.

The next part continues from where we left of in Book 2. I was somewhat confused as I didn't remember that Felisin gives her name to an orphan, thus creating a Felisin Younger. Hence, some of the conversations and what I remembered of the characters didn't match up. Once I realized this, though, everything went smoothly. It's difficult to discuss what happens without spoiling this or the prior books, so I'll not provide too many details. I will say that this part switches back and forth between characters among the Malazan forces in Aren, the Whirlwind rebellion in Raraku, and a few other side plots.
Alas, the sections dealing with the Rebellion are, at first, relatively weak compared to the rest of the book. When we focus on Ghost Hands or L'oric things are cool and feel like they are moving forward, but the rest of the characters seem to drag the story. There is a lot of unrest within the rebellion and when the viewpoint shifts to many of the characters there it feels as if they spend too much time discussing what will be, rather than acting it out. We still learn useful facts, and the story does require such moments, but they feel slower than other parts of the book, that's all. Near the end, things finally pick up on this arc before everything converges.

Characters
Karsa Orlong is one of the key characters of Book 4. He had previously appeared as a secondary character in Book 2, though we never learnt his name. This time we see his story and he becomes fully fleshed out, maybe even more so than some of the characters we've seen (whose backstories are either a mystery or revealed in expository fashion). By the end of the book, he joins the ranks of awesome, bad-ass characters like Anomander Rake and Icarium.

At this point we have seen all of the Paran family: Ganoes Paran, the eldest, who features prominently in Books 1 and 3, Felisin Paran, the youngest, who features prominently in Book 2, and Tavore Paran, who is mentioned in Book 2 and makes more of an appearance here in this book. It appears that the events connecting this family together are a significant plot line in the Malazan universe.

The one flaw here, though, is that there are far too many viewpoint characters in this book. You have what feels like 20 different viewpoint characters, all of them important, including those who aren't viewpoint characters. Hence, you get a very broad view of the world, at the expense of the personal development of some of these individuals. Characters like Karsa, which get tons of screen time early in the book, or Kalam, who we know from prior books, come out as strong and engaging, but others like Febryl or Gamet are less so. The Dramatis Personae at the start of the book is invaluable as it gives a brief mention of every character in the book and can help you keep track of everyone. As long as you remain focused, though, you should have no problem. Note that there is also a Glossary at the end of the book that can help you refresh your memory on the various Ascendants, Houses, and Warrens involved.

While gods have played key roles in the books, they generally direct events from afar. In this book, however, we see Cotillion, the Rope, the patron of assassins of High House Shadow, take on a a much more active role in events, even going as far as physically materializing. From what I understand, gods can be killed in that state so it was quite a risk and reveals a more "human" side for the gods. This book, and the last, have seen the rise of a new god and house: the House of Chains. This is clearly a major plot line that will be explored throughout the series. Despite the fact that the Crippled God is presented as evil, I can't help but cheer him on just to see the chaos that will ensue.

Setting / World Building
One of the neat, yet subtle world building events in the book is the reveal of the Forkrul Assail, one of the 4 founding races. We have now seen all four races: Jaghut, T'lan Imass, Forkrul Assail, and K'Chain Che'Malle. Despite the reveal, we don't receive a lot of details about this race yet. Instead, we get to learn a lot more about the Thelomen Toblakai. Below is an awesome depiction of the four races and the Thelomen Toblakai made by Deviant artist genesischant.
Note that Imass are up to 4' 6" tall so that can give you a sense of scale (ie, Toblakai are sometimes considered giants).
Jaghut, Thelomen Toblakai, Imass, Forkrul Assail, and K'Chain Che'Malle. Credit: genesischant

There's even a really cool scene were we enter a memory of how the world was many hundreds of thousands of years ago. The Imass don't even exist, but we see structures of the Jaghut and K'Chain Che'Malle K'ell Hunters prowling about. We also see Hounds of Darkness in the memory, comparable to the Hounds of Shadow that Shadowthrone and Cotillion command. This world just keeps getting richer and richer.

In this book, we see the Tiste Liosan for the first time. This was cool, yet expected given the fact that we've seen the Tiste Andii and Tiste Edur already and the recurring themes on light, shadow, and darkness. This quote sums up the underlying spirit of the book:
Shadow is ever besieged, for that is its nature. Whilst darkness devours, and light steals. And so one sees shadow ever retreat to hidden places, only to return in the wake of the war between dark and light.  -- OBSERVATIONS OF THE WARRENS INSALLAN ENURA from House of Chains by Steven Erikson

One of the things that has impressed me in the Malazan series thus far has been the attention to details concerning the military and its soldiers. I don't consider myself a fan of military sci-fi, but this is actually rather cool, though it can be sometimes overwhelming with all the corporals, sergeants, captains, commanders, fists, etc.
In this book, as in the rest of the Malazan series, we see killing in many of its forms: the brutal raids of barbarians, the rigid order of imperial armies, the wild chaos of rebellious tribes, and the silent knife of the assassin. Hot iron, cold iron, and the few that can be both.

Final Thoughts
Yet another fine addition to the Malazan universe. However, I think I prefer Book 3 a little bit more. Books 1 and 3 have presented a grand universe and shown us the world in precarious balance as new forces emerge to the center stage. Books 2 and 4 on the other hand, reveal a more personal tale focusing on the interplay between the Paran children and the bubbling chaos in the Seven Cities subcontinent. In these two books, you have a harder time of telling who are the good guys and who are the bad (ie, is it Malazan or the Seven Citites we should root for?). In this book, we begin to see how these later events are connected to the overarching plot presented in books 1 and 3, suggesting that things are converging across these two continents. The ending, like in the prior books, manages to tie everything together in ways you didn't expect yet in a manner that satisfies the reader. I look forward to continuing the series with Book 5: Midnight Tides.

I took a long time to finish this book (3 weeks for a 660 page e-book). My original goal was to finish, read The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin, and then move on to Railsea by China Mieville. Alas, my delay means that Railsea has already been released and I really want to start that. So my plans are changed: all aboard the moletrain!

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