Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book Review: The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

In this post I review The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson, the 6th book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. It has taken me far longer than I expected to read this book. Normally a book of this length (~800 pages) would take me 2-4 weeks to finish, not over 2 months. This is in part due to the 'heavy' nature of the book (see below) and to a bunch of travel, work, and other things I was up to these past few months.

Read on to learn what I thought of this book. As always, I try to avoid spoilers of this book though prior books in the series are considered to be fair game. Here are all the reviews thus far I've done for the Malazan series (technically, this is any blog post tagged as Malazan and so a few are not actual reviews).

Overall Impression
This is yet another fine addition to the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. By now, the story is well in place and the characters are all familiar. As in every other book, the plot is epic and overwhelming. It is satisfying to see many threads connecting, but the sheer scope of it is vast. The author, unfortunately, tries to grasp everything at once and it requires a very dedicated reader to follow along. I'm almost certain I lost some important details that would only be evident if I had read more carefully or go back and reread the entire series. While the books thus far are very cool, they are heavy, not in the sense of being thick or long, but in the sense of having a lot of philosophical content. This is not light reading in any way. This heaviness (combined with other things in my life) made me read slower than usual and thus I didn't enjoy the story as much. It was almost as if the story was dragging, though in hindsight it may just have been my own pace. I would still recommend the book, but be sure you can dedicate the amount of time it deserves.

Plot
The story feels like it's all over the place and far less focused than some of the prior novels. This is very strongly a middle book in that the characters are all known and are just positioning themselves (and making discoveries along the way) for the final confrontation. While there are clear climaxes or turning points in the novel, most of it feels like it's jumping around trying to follow the diverse set of characters. I wonder how the book would feel if instead it had followed a few characters along a narrow story line and then repeated the same time for separate characters (in this or a future book).

There are several arcs to the story. Without spoiling much, there is the arc surrounding the city of Y'Ghatan, another regarding Dejim Nebrahl, another involving the Tiste Edur (which ties the story quite neatly with Book 5), another with the First Throne, and a final one involving unrest in Malaz City. Add to this the greater arc of the Crippled God, which touches on nearly everything that happens in the book. This is similar in style to some of the other books in the series and keeps the story engaging in smaller-sized chunks. However, if someone where to ask "what happens in the book" it makes it impossible. A better question could almost be "what doesn't happen."

Characters
There are many characters in the book, from classics like Quick Ben and Karsa Orlong to additions from recent books like Bottle or the mysterious Eres'al. Many have some role to play, be it small or large, and thus the story feels gigantic in scope. Some books have been very focused on a single or just a few characters, such as Book 4: House of Chains (a heavy focus on Karsa Orlong) and Book 5: Midnight Tides (for Trull Sengar). This is not that type of book: nearly everyone from A (Apsalar) to Z (or at least Y: Yan Tovis, an Anti-Preda of Lether) has something to do in the book. The overwhelming cast of characters made me feel lost at times, particularly at the beginning of chapters were the story may focus on a different group than the prior ones.

One of the interesting new characters in the story is Dejim Nebrahl. He is a D'ivers T'rolbarahl, which will mean absolutely nothing to those who are not reading the book, but I don't want to say too much about it here. Regardless, a large portion of the first third or so of the book focuses on him and efforts to stop him, though it is not very clear why the threat he poses is so great. The efforts to deal with him involve ever more desperate acts and we get to see new powers and old ones unleashed once more (ie, the Degorath, which coincidentally we had heard about in prior books). While Dejim Nebrahl never feels like a central character, he (or his presence alone) nevertheless puts a lot of things in motion that will undoubtedly place further strain on the balance of power in the world. In contrast, the Eres'al feels more central despite only brief and mysterious (but powerful) appearances throughout the book.

Setting / World Building
As I have previously mentioned in prior reviews of the Malazan series, words of wisdom can be found among many of the characters, even ones of "lower" status. This is very much evident here and, in my opinion, have made the story a bit heavy. It is not surprising to start a chapter with a character undergoing deep reflections on the nature of life, gods, duty, love, etc. Sometimes interesting aspects of the world are revealed in such reflections, but more often than not these only add to our knowledge of the character. What is surprising is the frequency with which it happens and how it comes from characters we don't expect. Soldiers or officers in an active army, I would expect, would be more focused on their tasks rather than, for example, wondering the nature of the gods. Some of these discussions feel a little out of place and can make the story drag a little.

We get some more astronomy in the book, with mentions of fireswords (meteors) and the Roads of the Abyss, which sound very much like the Milky Way. We also get to hear some cool myths/stories about the moons in this book. In fact, an amazing event takes place that focuses attention to this at one point in the novel. The implications of the event are interesting and will be something I'll be paying attention to in the next few novels. It is evident that all (or nearly all) characters are aware of turmoil among the gods at this point.

We also see briefly, once more, the K'Chain Che'Malle. This time they are not undead, but it is unclear what they are up to. The travel through the Imperial Warren on their flying fortreses (like Moon's Spawn, Anomander Rake's fortress) and feel like relatively new players. Some of the characters end up in some of their ruins and we get the impression that some of the K'Chain Che'Malle were actually technologically advanced. I certainly look forward to when they become more active players in the story.

As always, the story has gods and ascendants and we learn ever more about them. Some even serve as viewpoint characters. Here is an interesting excerpt detailing one ascendant's ideas. It showcases the complexity within the series and how even the characters themselves can be blind to the nature of their own world.
Ascendants who find worshippers become gods, and that binding goes both ways. Ascendants without worshippers are, in a sense, unchained. Unaligned, in the language of the Deck of Dragons. Now, gods who once had worshippers but don’t have them any more are still ascendant, but effectively emasculated, and they remain so unless the worship is somehow renewed. For the Elder Gods, that means the spilling of blood on hallowed or once-hallowed ground. For the more primitive spirits and the like, it could be as simple as the recollection or rediscovery of their name, or some other form of awakening. Mind you, none of that matters if the ascendant in question has been well and truly annihilated. So, to backtrack slightly, ascendants, whether gods or not, seem to possess some form of power. Maybe sorcery, maybe personality, maybe something else.

Final Thoughts
The book feels heavier than it needed to be. A lot is going on and the focus of this book alone is not made clear. As part of the larger arc, it certainly holds a place in the Malazan series, but on its own the book cannot stand complete. If you've been reading the Malazan series then this is a fine addition, but you should never consider starting from here. I would also recommend one read it at a faster pace than I did, if you spend several days without reading you may loose track of its complex storyline and suffer accordingly. It is certainly not light reading and requires a careful examination (which is undoubtedly rewarded by amazing characters and events).

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