Saturday, May 18, 2013

Book Review: Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson

Reaper's Gale is the 7th in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

For long series like this one, it's sometimes difficult to split the thoughts into each individual book. However, now that I think about it I realize that the Malazan series tends to have a unique and separate focus for each book, which greatly helps to keep them apart:
In Book 1, we see the fall of Darujhistan as part of the Malazan conquest of Genabackis. In Book 2, we see the Seven Cities rise up in the Whirlwind Rebellion. In Book 3, the Malazan empire gives answer to the threat from the Pannion Domin in Genabackis. Book 4 introduces us to the very interesting Karsa Orlong and his role in the Whirlwind and the House of Chains. Book 5 places us among the Tiste Edur and we see the Emperor of a Thousand Deaths emerge. In Book 6, the Malazans confront the remnants of the Army of the Apocalypse in Seven Cities and set off to answer the growing threat of the Tiste Edur. And all throughout these books we see the influence of the Crippled God and the rise to power of his House of Chains.

My review of book 7, Reaper's Gale, now follows.

Overall Impression
I really liked this book and I'm enjoying the Malazan series. Several plot lines were neatly closed. It's always great when you see all that buildup pay off. The characters are the same we've come to know and love, with a few extra ones that get the spotlight. The plot, as with every Malazan book, encompasses a lot of things at once, but it wraps up at the end.

One great thing about Erikson's works is that each book in the series has a clearly defined goal and yet it remains part of the overarching plot. The prologue to each book usually outlines the main focus, in this case it revolves around Scabandari Bloodeye's soul. While we see plenty of action involving the Malazans, the Letherii, the Awl, and the Tiste Edur, in the end, everything ties together back to the focus in the prologue and provides a satisfying conclusion. Long series can struggle to give relevance to the middle books, where characters are already introduced, but plots haven't converged. Erikson's style cleverly avoids such pitfalls making every book stand on its own.

Plot-wise, this book is a continuation of the prior two books and artfully ties them together. In Book 5,  we saw the Edur conquest of Lether and the rise of the Emperor of a Thousand Deaths, so named because he comes back to life every time he is killed. In Book 6, we see the ravaged remains of the Bonehunters fighting (at one point against the invading Edur forces) as well as the gathering of champions to face the Emperor. This book brings us back to Lether where we witness the arrival of the champions, among them Karsa and Icarium, and the Malazan forces bent on retaliation. All of that will put strain on the Letherii empire and especially on the fragile state of the Emperor as he struggles under the Crippled God's power.

At the same time, however, the Letherii empire is rotting from within. The greed we saw back in Book 5 is still strong and has poisoned the people. But how can one bring down an empire when its head, the Emperor, cannot be killed? Even the conquering Edur want no part in the empire. Some of them, in fact, are seeking the soul of their ancestor, Father Shadow -- Scabandari Bloodeye, to make use of his power and make things right again.

We see the return of many favorite characters, including Trull Sengar, Karsa Orlong, Quick Ben, Fiddler, Tehol, etc. The list goes on and on. A whole lot of characters have something to do with the book. At times it almost seems like too many characters are given the spotlight. However, in many cases two or more characters will be at the same location, so despite the switch in perspective we are still seeing the same overall scene play out.

There's also some memorable new characters. One that stands out for me is Beak. Beak is a surprisingly powerful mage in the Malazan army, yet unlike Quick Ben, Bottle, and many of the other mages, he is simple minded and very innocent. It seems like some of the most powerful characters are often times some of the most wounded. His scenes, especially near the end, may bring tears to your eyes.

The deviantART website has lots of fan art on the Malazan series. At right, I've included a slaine69's depiction of Silchas Ruin, an albino Tiste Andii central to some of the events in Reaper's Gale.

Setting / World Building
Like other Malazan books, this one continues to present the Warrens as sources of magic and destinations to visit. Nothing particularly major, to my recollection, is revealed in this regard. At this stage in the epic story, we have all the pieces in place and it feels like, even if we don't understand everything, anything else revealed will just be details to color the story and it's setting.

One of the interesting aspects of this book is the clash of the two empires. Malaz and Lether have different approaches to fighting and we see them adapt as they respond to each other. It's also very cool to see the Moranth munitions in full force. We've seen them before, but here the author vividly shows how they can turn the tide of battle.

Final Thoughts
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Despite the length (~800 pages) and the long delay between my prior Malaz reading, I was kept enthralled almost from the start. As I keep telling my friends, however, these books are not easy reads. There are a lot of characters and plots all presented at once. The system of magic, ascendants, gods, etc, etc, can be confusing and even now I still don't have a full understanding of it. Furthermore, the author sometimes waxes poetical or philosophical adding greater depth to the story and its prose. While this is a great series thus far, you have to be willing to dedicate some time and thought to fully appreciate some of the intricacies of the storytelling. If you do, you'll be richly rewarded.

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