"Bless you, that you not be taken. Bless you, that you begin in your time and that you end in its fullness. Bless you, in the name of the Redeemer, in my name, against the cruel harvesters of the soul, the takers of life. Bless you, that your life and each life shall be as it is written, for peace is born of completion."
Reviewing eighth volumes of series as massive as Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is not exactly a thrilling task, as this late into the series (there are only two more books remaining in the planned main sequence) most readers will have already formed their own opinions about the series as a whole, not to mention have already weighed in on the thematic elements contained in each book. Therefore, there will be those readers here who will want to know if Erikson returns to a more action-packed storytelling mode, while others will be eager to learn whether or not Erikson has learned to curb his tendency to be verbose, utilizing too many points of view in an effort to shoot that plot/thematic development fly with a cannon. For those readers, Toll the Hounds may prove to be a problematic read, but for others who are not quite as dissatisfied with Erikson's work, this book may prove to be one of the more revealing novels in the series, both in regards to its own plot and theme developments as well as to furthering an understanding of the series itself.
The action here has shifted back to the continent of Genebackis, specifically to the cities of Darujhistan and Black Coral, somewhere around five years after the events of the third book, Memories of Ice. This region, devastated first by the ten years of war between the invading Malazan army and later by the depredations of the Pannion Domin and its cannibalistic Tenescowri, still feels the effects of these conflicts. Erikson utilizes many PoVs, from the former Bridgeburners Picker, Blend, and Antsy to the former caravan guard Gruntle and his companion Stonny, to the various members of Darujhistan's council to show what changes have taken place in the interim. As a whole, it is an effective reintroduction to a locale that has not been visited for five books, although Erikson skirts close (as he tends to do in most of his novels) to providing too much information, too fast.
In this region between Darujhistan and Black Coral, two new cults have developed. One is dedicated to worshipping the futility of life, its ever dying moments full of despair and its rapacious frenzy to claim and to use up before the life spark is extinguished. Embodied in the patchwork puppet-like body of the Dying God, this delirious, maniacal force is at odds with the second cult, that of the Redeemer, whose willingness and ability to grant absolution serves as the antithesis of the Dying God. But this Redeemer, whose cult began around Itkovian's barrow, is very young and weak and throughout the novel, the question of whether or not redemption and its attendant spirit of forgiveness can overcome the rapaciousness and destructive forces of hatred and nihilistic self-denial looms large.
Toll the Hounds also contains the continuing subplots of the Tiste peoples and Mother Dark's abandonment of them to their own fates of tragic murder and betrayal. Anomander Rake serves not just as a principal character in this novel, but also as the symbol of a people who struggle to find a purpose in a life filled with regret and the burdens of brutal, bloody mistakes. In addition, the Dying God has begun infilitrating the Tiste Andii, with the early takeover of the mind/body of Clip, Rake's "Mortal Sword" serving to illustrate the very potent threat of nihilism to a people inured to millenia of despair and seemingly futile attempts to redeem themselves to Mother Dark and to they themselves.
Traveller's quest to reach Darujhistan for a fateful encounter with a force that has devastated his past serves as the third main beam of this novel. Driven by revenge and bearing a sword that has the dual names of Vengence and Grief, he relentlessly pushes on towards the city to a long-fated confrontation, one that his companions, including Karsa Orlong, cannot comprehend. His search for redemption in retribution and its aftermath symbolizes a very common reaction of people who believe they shall find their redemption in revenge. All too often, the consequences are more than what most can imagine.
These thematic elements drive Toll the Hounds and made for a mostly compelling read for me. Although Erikson many times comes close to drowning these elements in dozens of PoVs that are not fully developed, many times little elements, such as that of two Teblor girls and their mangled canine companion, eventually come to represent some very key components to redemption. Those wanting hundreds of pages of battles or convergences may find themselves frustrated by the slow build, same goes for those who would prefer Erikson to pare down his PoVs to fewer than a dozen, but for those readers who enjoy seeing how an author can take certain themes and develop them in various subtle ways over the course of a novel, then those readers may find Toll the Hounds and its conclusions to the issues I hinted at above to be quite enjoyable and thought provoking. I myself was left thinking that Erikson's treatment of these themes of redemption, nihilistic self-denial and self-loathing, revenge, and the recovery from deep loss to be one of the best-developed in fantasy, especially in epic fantasy. While others may bemoan the lack of action for the first 4/5 of the novel, I found that there was a lot that was occurring under the plot surface that led to a plausible, satisfying conclusion, one that has left me excited again about the possibilities of this series and where it might conclude.
Publication Date: July 2008 (UK), September 16, 2008 (US). Hardcover and Tradeback.
Publishers: Transworld/Bantam (UK), Tor (US)