Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book Review: Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson

When looking at my blog stats I realized that my Malazan reviews are some of the most popular and that I've been writing them every 2 months. I figure that's a good timescale: that means only 20 months to read the 10-book series and I think I'll try to stick to that. With all the recent travel and work  I've had, I am falling behind on this tentative schedule. That is now rectified with this review of Book 5 of the Malazan Book of the Fallen: Midnight Tides.

Overall Impression
Many series tend to lag in their middle books. You can search online and see others note this for such classics as The Wheel of Time and The Sword of Truth series. The problem is that we already have all the characters and world introduced, but haven't yet placed everyone where they need to be to conclude the story. Hence, it all feels drawn out unnecessarily. This however, is not the case for Malazan. I am reaching the middle point of this 10-book series, yet books 4 (House of Chains) and 5 (Midnight Tides) have been just as strong as the prior books. Steven Erikson has taken an interesting approach with these two books: he looks at a single character we thought minor (ie, already introduced) in great detail and tells all the backstory. While doing so he reveals more of the world and offers clues as to the ties between the major plot lines. That is one interesting way to deal with the middle-book slump. In fact, given the book's nature, you could very well read it on its own without having read the previous books. You would loose some detail, but get the main story without any problem.

The story follows two groups of siblings: the Sengar family (of which we've seen Trull Sengar) and the Beddict family. These two families are caught in the struggle between two growing empires: the Tiste Edur and the Letherii. The clash of empires, and more importantly- the powers behind them, will reverberate throughout history. Though set very far into the past relative to the events of the prior books, we still see connections to the Crippled God and the current struggle in the Malazan universe, thus introducing a new perspective on the major plot lines.

Plot
As I just mentioned, this book follows the tale of two families. We break away from the turmoil left behind in the prior books and start fresh by going back thousands of years to a time when the Malazan empire did not yet exist a few years (Note: My subsequent readings clarified this to only be a few years back; see also the Comments below). A similar strategy, was done for House of Chains, when we saw Karsa's backstory. This entire book, however, is all backstory: we do not 'return' to the present time (there are some suspicious characters that show up, though). However, we do get to learn some details behind some of the gods and the Tiste Edur. All of this is just building up to a massive conclusion in the later books, I'm sure, but by presenting it this way, the author has avoided the all-too-common middle book slump.

Half of the story concerns itself with the Tiste Edur and how they rise up in ambition to take back what they feel is owed to them. This begins an era of conquest that, as we know from the prior books, extends for millenia. The other half focuses on Lether, a once-colony of the First Empire, now a burgeoning kingdom of its own. It has conquered its neighbors and feels it can take on the Tiste Edur. The Letherii have a familiar-sounding culture in this world:

Why not worship money? At least its rewards are obvious and immediate. But no, that was simplistic. Letherii worship was more subtle, its ethics bound to those traits and habits that well served the acquisition of wealth. Diligence, discipline, hard work, optimism, the personalization of glory. And the corresponding evils: sloth, despair and the anonymity of failure. The world was brutal enough to winnow one from the other and leave no room for doubt or mealy equivocation. In this way, worship could become pragmatism, and pragmatism was a cold god.
Aspects of Lether sound somewhat like modern-day America and we immediately know that things will not end well for them.

Characters
At the prologue of Book 4, we saw Trull Sengar, a Tiste Edur banished from his society. Book 5 tells part of the tale of his life and the events that shape his character. His brothers, Fear, Binadas, and Rhulad, also play a key role in developing the story. Of them, only Trull and Rhulad are frequent viewpoint characters and so we sympathise with them, especially with Trull who appears to be the most level-headed of them all. Trull's weapon of choice is the spear and he is one excellent fighter. Here is some really cool artwork by slaine69 on deviant art of Trull Sengar. I personally didn't imagine him so muscular, but it makes some sense given he is an expert with the spear. Rhulad's tale is very interesting as well, but I'll let you find out why when you read the book.

A depiction of Trull Sengar of the Hiroth tribe of the Tiste Edur.
See also this one, which also includes a character from Book 4. Credit: slaine69

The other family we follow is the Beddicts: Hull, Tehol, and Brys. Though all are viewpoint characters at some point, we see much less of Hull and he appears to be broken in spirit. His quest for vengeance drives him towards the Tiste Edur lands and the betrayal of his own people. Tehol, and his mansenvart Bugg, are absolutely hilarious. They serve as comic relief throughout the story. Despite appearing to be buffoons (especially Tehol), they are brilliant and ruthless in their economic domination of the Letherii market. Brys, the last sibling, is a Finnad (captain) of Lether. He struggles to do what is right for the kingdom and his king, but we get the impression that he is in a little over his head in terms of the political subtlety of the royal court. Regardless, he comes out as an honorable and the type of person we'd want guarding our back.

The story also features some cool and surprisingly interesting characters such as the aforementioned Bugg, Ceda (head sorcerer) Kuru Qan of Letheras, the Indebted slave Udinaas, and the undead Kettle. All are surrounded by mysteries that help reveal the nature of the world around them.

Setting / World Building
Like the prior Malazan books, there is a lot of military terminology and description of tactics here. Many of the main characters are soldiers or fighters of some sort and are more comfortable in the battlefield (despite their reluctance, in many cases) than not. The Malazan universe is one of continuous strife and struggle. You barely have time for romance (indeed, that is the one aspect I find missing when compared to other epic fantasy series) given all the fighting that must be done. Those that aren't fighters tend to be slaves or servants or otherwise 'simple' folk. Despite their lower status, however, they can be founts of wisdom amidst all the turmoil.

In Midnight Tides, we again see signs of the Forkrul Assail and, of course, the other founding races: K'Chain Che'Malle, Jaghut, and T'lan Imass. We also get some tantalizing hints on some of the children of Mother Dark: Andarist, Silchas Ruin, and Anomandaris Irake (aka, Anomander Rake). However, the focus is on the Tiste Edur. This is probably the first place were we learn that the Tiste races are not natives to this world. On the prior books, we hear a lot about Houses and warrens. Here we hear more about Holds, the predecessors of Houses. The difference, if any, is not clear to me yet. One example given is House Shadow and its warren Maenas. The Tiste Edur also draw on Shadow, but through Kurald Emurhlan, which is more of a Hold and, as we already knew, is shattered. I will be curious to learn how it was that Kurald Emurhlan was shattered, given how important a role it has played in several books.

One of the things I found odd was the treatment of the Azath House. We have seen the Azath before: these are 'cages' to hold powerful, dangerous entities from going forth and destroying the world. I don't want to spoil it, but something important happens to the Azath House in Letheras which I thought could not happen (the implications are terrible). There is also an interesting mystery in Lether related to what happens in the Prologue and nature of the Hold of Death.

There's even a bit of astronomy in the book, as the Ceda explains to Brys:
There are actually at least four moons, lad, but the others are not only distant, but perpetually occluded from reflecting the sun’s light. Very difficult to see, although early texts suggest that this was not always so. Reasons for their fading as yet unknown, although I suspect our world’s own bulk has something to do with it. Then again, it may be that they are not farther away at all, but indeed closer, only very small. Relatively speaking.
It should be easy to tell the distance if you know the period of the orbit: the faster they go around, the closer they must be. But perhaps they don't have a good measure of that for the fainter moons? Also, I have no idea what the author means by the "world's own bulk" having an influence on the fading of the moons. Of course, in situations like these magic is so important that it can trump the laws of physics (just like the seasons in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire). Regardless, as an astronomer, I'll be interested to see whether there are future mentions to the moons in Malazan.

Final Thoughts
This is yet another fine addition to the Malazan universe. I don't think it was quite as engaging as Books 3 or 4, but it was still a great story. The one downside is that at times it feels like a side story to the main action of the prior books. Despite this, it manages to be very interesting thanks to all the interesting characters it presents. The ending is excellent and leaves you wanting more. We know for a fact that much more must happen to these characters before we reach where they are in the more contemporary Malazan story.

8 comments:

  1. There's plenty of stuff about the moone in later novels, especially in The Bonehunters and Toll the Hounds.

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  2. I start holidays tomorrow and I think this may be the book of choice thanks to your review. I had read this some time ago so a reread is on order.

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  3. Actually the timeline is wrong in this review, the book is set 2-3 years before the events of Gardens of the Moon, not thousands. Decent review though.

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    1. Thanks for the heads-up. Reading the subsequent novels does clarify this.

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    2. Nice review! I would advice to change your timeline, as mentioned since your review is ranked very high on Google and thus might confuse readers looking for more information on when This book takes place. Cheers! Keep reviewing

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    3. I think you should also change the sentence 'Though set very far into the past relative to the events of the prior books', since it is still confusing.

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    4. Upon further reading i notice the mistaken time differential has effect on a lot of the review...it's distracting from an otherwise great review

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