The OF Blog: Malazan Re-Read Series: Steven Erikson, Memories of Ice

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Malazan Re-Read Series: Steven Erikson, Memories of Ice

For a book that I recently described as perhaps my favorite of the Malazan Series, it took me several more days than usual to complete a re-read of the third book, Memories of Ice.  This is curious, as it was not that I was too busy (I did finish reading another half-dozen or so books this past weekend) nor that I was disinclined to read the book (I would read for 15-20 minutes some days, between other reads), but rather that it seems that in re-reading this book for the first time in five years, I felt as though I were simultaneously reading each of the last four novels that Erikson has written in this series.

When I first read this book in October 2002, I was impressed with the thematic elements that Erikson introduces in this work.  In many ways, Memories of Ice feels like the "true" beginning to the series proper, as Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates began to seem to be little more than prologues to the action that unfolded within this volume.  The main antagonist for this series, the Crippled God, makes his first true appearance in this volume, after passing mentions in the first two volumes.  Incidents from the first two books (the second occurring near-simultaneously with this novel) have their importance amplified here.  From the menacing threat of the Pannion Seer to the mystery surrounding a Tiste Edur corpse and the hints of their rise to power, Memories of Ice lies at the heart of what follows afterward in the Malazan series, for good or for ill.

The structure of this novel differs in several respects from the first two.  Although each had their moments of comedy (Kruppe, Iskaral Pust), it is here where Erikson reveals more fully a wide range of comic styles, not all of which I found to be successful.  From the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Brauch (who star in their own series of novellas, which I will re-read/review after the main series) and the black humor involved with them to the ludicrous send-up of artists (and the frog Critic), there is much more levity present here to balance out the heavy scenes that occur later in the novel.  For the most part, these lighter scenes fulfilled their purposes, but at times it just seemed to be a bit too much.  Reflecting  back on the past few Malazan novels that I had re-read for the first time in 2007-2009, many of the complaints I had about their structures perhaps could be tied back to the patterns of sometimes-forced levity and numerous subplots that emerged here in Memories of Ice.  But this is only a suspicion; my opinions of the latter novels may improve when I re-read them, after all.

I alluded to certain thematic issues in this novel that appealed to me.  What I noticed the first time (and still do, upon my fourth read of this volume) is the level of compassion that is directed toward former/current foes in this novel.  Erikson easily could have portrayed the Pannion Seer and the cannibalistic Tenescrowi in broad black strokes, as that would have been acceptable for a war-related novel.  But he chose not to do this and those choices I have suspected for a long time will have repercussions that will be seen in the series' conclusion.  After all, why introduce a character such as Itkovian and make such an issue out of the ability of a man to embrace the pains and sorrows of disparate peoples and to do a sort of quasi-absolution of their sins and shortcomings?  There were several powerful scenes involving this, scenes that I am unaccustomed to seeing in an epic fantasy series and I believe my continuing interest in the series depends strongly upon the hope that there will be similar emotionally-moving scenes such as the ones depicted in this novel.

But despite these several moving passages, the narrative flow to this novel was all over the place.  There were times where I wondered why the pace had slowed to a glacial level and if Erikson felt constrained to introduce so many plot foreshadowings and subplots just to convey a sense that the war against the Pannion Seer was merely a microcosm of a coming apocalyptic struggle.  Then toward the end, it felt as if too much was being crammed into two very lengthy chapters spanning most of the final 150 pages.  This lurching pace and the resulting herky-jerkiness of the characterizations felt rough, as if Erikson had not polished the story enough, something that I seem to recall being an increasing problem later on in the series.

However, despite these grave concerns about how the narrative was structured and executed, I enjoyed what I read for the most part.  Erikson threw enough elements on the canvas that enough good elements remained visible to overshadow the weaker points in the narrative.  It was akin to seeing a car spinning out on the interstate and correcting itself just before crossing the median into oncoming traffic (I actually had this happen to me five years ago, thus the vivid analogy that came to mind).  Somehow, despite the flaws and wrong steps, things come together in the end and it all works out without the narrative train jumping the rails completely.  Might not be the best of stories to read from a technical standpoint, but the thematic elements contained within perhaps will appeal to quite a few people trying to figure just what it is about this series that appeals to others.  Now onward to the fourth volume, House of Chains, which hopefully won't take parts of five days to read.


Abalieno said...

I don't actually remember a lot of humor in this book and surely not to the point of considering it excessive, that's odd.

Instead my overall impression is that when it comes to the writing and overall execution, MoI was not quite on par with Deadhouse Gates. As I said in the other comment, DG is uneven in its last part, but what comes before is excellent in both writing and structure. MoI instead is dense and wasteful, as if there's way too much crammed in the book that some good ideas are simply wasted and not played to their full potential.

Yet I still followed the most widespread opinion and would rate MoI above DG, solely because the scale and impact of the book and the last 150 pages are so powerful that they exceed and redeem every other flaw. Even if not flawless MoI more than compensates through sheer ambition (delivering and keeping all its promises, in spite of that ambition).

Where I go against the stream is with House of Chains. I'm still 200 pages from the end (and you'll be done before I put another 50 pages behind me) but it dawned on me that the book is superior to every other up to this point.

The writing in HoC is as strong as DG, the book is much more focused and deliberate in what it does, and does it cleverly and efficiently. The structure is much different than other books, but it is excellent and enhances the book whenever it joins, separates and re-joins. Most of its "tricks" are self-contained and executed with an unprecedented clarity and sharpness, same for the themes. The introspection here never comes as trite or already seen or redundant. It always follows as an interpretation to what happens, so it never exceeds its purpose or feels heavy-handed.

It is also successful in the impossible task of making DG itself better in retrospective, by adding some depth where it was missing and resuming some plot threads that didn't seem to have consequence.

Wise Bass said...

I agree with your assessment that it feels like the "true beginning" of the series. It was for me, at least - I had stopped reading Garden of the Moon about 150 pages in, and failed at completing Deadhouse Gates with about 250 pages left.

It's the only Malazan book that I almost wholly enjoyed. I liked parts of the following books, and of Deadhouse Gates, but in those books it was offset by things that I really didn't like.

In any case, I'm waiting for your review of Midnight Tides, which was the book that stopped my progression on the Malazan series cold. I still haven't gotten back to it since.

Rajashekar Iyer said...

I had a very similar reaction to the themes of this book, Larry. But after reading further novels, where 8 year old bullies are made out to be irredeemably evil human beings, I cannot anymore say that Erikson is in any way say that Erikson is consistent or sensible with the themes in his stories.

They are a sham because issues like forgiveness and empathy, the balance between the need for and the senselessness of war, etc. are treated as the plot demands.

If the protagonist is a six year old child for whom Erikson wants to engender sympathy, forgiveness and empathy be damned there will be an eight year old bully, and the reader will not be allowed to feel any empathy for this antagonist. But the Pannion Seer is to be understood (though his actions never approved) because he was scarred in childhood?

In the same vein, when the world weary and cynical Malazan soldiers have to be built up as heroes, there's an expansionist empire that kills off opposition in the ready. But these same soldiers approve of their own empire, that ships off noble children to slaver, or even kills them all, so as to exert control over their newly conquered territory. And there is no sense that this is the expected hypocrisy of nationalism. How can there be when every soldier who speaks sprouts deep philosophy?

The earlier books had consistent themes within them, the latter have started losing that aspect as well. The series on the whole definitely does not have a consistent application of themes.

Bill said...

This book was my stopping point for the Malazan series. I suppose I seek a better 'flow' of continuity to be compelled to keep at a series. I just didn't feel that connection to the series.

I suppose I may have to consider your response to #4, and maybe give the series another try. I have to read something while waiting for ADwD after all.

The Evil Hat said...

You're not alone Abalieno, House of Chains was when I became a true fan as well, though I enjoyed large parts of the first three.

When I tried to convey the sense of reading the early Malazan books to a friend right after reading them, I called them a "Glorious Clusterfuck," and I stick with that. The books feel like they're composed of every element under the sun thrown together, with individual sub plots and themes left to sink or float on their own. Large parts of this are brilliant, in the early books, but there are also elements that didn't work for me at all, and the combination of the various parts felt slapdash at best.

The ending of Memories of Ice is the best example of that I can think of. (spoilers to follow, for anyone who hasn't read the books.) There are literally a half dozen (at least) various plots climaxing in the same moment and location, and the effect of their simultaneous explosion manages to add up to be less than the sum of its parts. Things that would on their own have been riveting suddenly feel like distractions, while some events that normally could've been the emotional crux of the narrative feel wholly unnecessary (crashing Moonspawn itno the fortress AFTER THE BATTLE WAS, essentially, OVER, reduced what should have been a painful sacrifice and a jaw dropping climax into a confusing afterthought.

Erikson's later books are different. I'd say that there are less jaw dropping moments after Memories of Ice, though they're still there, but he has far more control of his writing, and the overall effect is, I feel, greater because of it, even if the individual plot elements sometimes don't shine as well as they did in the earlier books.

Though I still haven't read Toll the Hounds or Dust of Dreams, so there's still time for my opinion to change.

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