Sunday, September 06, 2009
Where am I? I don't understand. Where am I? And what are all these broken things in my hands? Still crashing down - the roar is deafening! 'Save her,' he muttered. 'Yes. Save her - the only one worth saving. May she live a thousand years, proof to all who see her, proof of who and what the Barghast were. The White Faces.' We hobble ourselves and call it glory. We lift to meet drooling old men eager to fill us to bursting with their bitter poisons. Old men? No, warleaders and warchiefs. And our precious tradition of senseless self-destruction. Watch it fuck us dry. (p. 593)
Dust of Dreams is the penultimate volume in the main ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The prologue is long past; the convergences hinted at in previous volumes are crashing together, with each succeeding collision creating greater and greater concussions that threaten the lives of all in the paths of gods and those primal forces older and greater than gods. Without a solid grounding in this sprawling, complicated setting created by Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont, a reader trying to make sense of the ninth volume would be quickly lost, as events from the previous eight volumes are referenced before their consequences are revealed.
However, for those familiar with the Malazan series, Dust of Dreams is a logical thematic extension of Reaper's Gale and Toll the Hounds, the two preceding volumes. The action takes place in Letheras and the mostly "unknown" lands to the east. The Bonehunters have consolidated their control of the land. Tehol has maintained a precarious control of the Letheri people over the apparent years since the events of Reaper's Gale (apparent being the key word, as will be discussed shortly), while ancient forces such as the K'Chain Che'Malle and their nemesis, the K'Chain Nah'Ruk, have begun reasserting themselves in the Malazan world after hundreds of millenia of near-total silence. The White Face Barghast face an internal crisis after their migration to the Letheras continent, while the shadow (heart?) of the Crippled God looms over each of these (re)emerging conflicts.
For many readers, Dust of Dreams will bring a series of increasing explosions, culminating in the final quarter of the novel. For others, the novel will bring back bad memories of long expository scenes, very slow scene transitions, repetitive to the point of nausea soldier discourses, event outlines that seem to be off almost as much as the infamous, mysterious five year gap in Toll the Hounds. While I could spend quite a bit of time nitpicking about the narrative mess that this series has become, I believe there are some interesting developments taking place that have gone mostly unobserved in earlier reviews of Dust of Dreams.
Each of Erikson's Malazan novels has had some sort of thematic thread interwoven into that volume. From the fog of war of the first volume to the redemption elements in the eighth, Erikson (and presumably, Esslemont) have imbued this setting with an overarching theme that is only now starting to take its full, visible shape. Here, the main clue is in the title. Dust of dreams, the ashes of hope, the remains of failed belief. While Erikson arguably belabors the point quite a few times over the course of this nearly-900 page novel, there is a certain sense that this sense of failure, that societies, human and non-human alike, are doomed to repeat their mistakes is a sobering notion to consider. Erikson develops this point best in the scenes with the K'Chain Che'Malle and their human Destriant, as he explores theories of dualism and nihilism in a fashion that makes the subsequent clashes with the K'Chain ah'Ruk and others all the more powerful, because it serves to reinforce the ideas introduced there. If Toll the Hounds dealt with the power of redemption and forgiveness, Dust of Dreams concerns itself with the prices of vanity and conflict.
Is this handled well? For the most part, I would say that it is. While certainly there are times that Erikson fails to maintain his focus, not to mention occasions in which the plot pace is either choppy or sluggish, for the most part the action develops in a fashion that supports the theme of the hopelessness of clinging to old, faded dreams that are drenched in the blood of ancestors and nurtured with dreams of vengeance and glory. It is a sobering tale, one that easily can become overbearing at times, but by the end of the novel, it has led to a final scene that takes this theme and expounds upon it in an explosive cliffhanger that will be concluded in the final volume, The Crippled God.
On the whole, Dust of Dreams is a glorious mess. On a structural level, the novel is rife with continuity errors. If read immediately after Reaper's Gale, one would wonder why the events of that aforementioned novel were not immediately followed upon in this volume, not to mention why it took so long for certain events from the seventh volume to be addressed in the ninth. For those fans who read this series for the plot, there is much that will aggravate you. But for those who read Erikson's novels and try to speculate what this all means, I suspect will be a revelation that will further guessing as to what will occur in the final volume. Despite the numerous flaws in the plotting and occasionally in the writing of Dust of Dreams, I find myself waiting in anticipation for The Crippled God.