The OF Blog: Malazan Re-Read Series: Steven Erikson, House of Chains

Monday, May 31, 2010

Malazan Re-Read Series: Steven Erikson, House of Chains

After the helter-skelter events of Memories of Ice, it is easy to overlook the more staid, focused narratives found in the fourth Malazan book, House of Chains.  When I first read it in December 2002, it took a while for me to get into the flow of the narrative.  I recall one major hurdle at the time was having one-quarter of the book devoted to telling the backstory of Karsa Orlong, who was a minor character known as Toblakai in Deadhouse Gates.  Added to that was the change back over from then-more interesting Genabackis-based novels (Gardens of the Moon, Memories of Ice) to the Seven Cities tales (Deadhouse Gates, House of Chains).  It was a difficult transition, especially considering the wham-bam ending for the last novel.  At the time, I seem to recall my impression being that this novel was not as powerful as the other three, although it had its moments where some of the series backstory made for some intriguing possibilities for future novels.

Fast-forward around seven and a half years.  I had re-read House of Chains I believe twice between 2002 and 2005, but it has been five years since my last reading of it.  Having read all of the published Malazan stories to date, I now have a slightly better idea of how to gauge this novel.  What I discovered during this latest re-read is that this is actually one of the most focused and well-written novels in the series.

Some of the complaints about the previous novels revolve around Erikson's rather sketchy characterizations.  Although there were individual characters (Felisin in particular) that I thought were well-drawn, there still was not enough backstory for several of the presumed major characters for me to be able to see them more as Figure A or Figure B doing Action X or Action Y.  But here in House of Chains, several characters and their motivations become more dynamic and well-rounded.  I noted above that on my initial read that the first section revolving around Karsa's past history was a hurdle that I had to overcome.  Here in this latest re-read it became a strength.  Seeing how Karsa evolved as a character was interesting as with very few exceptions, there really haven't been good revisions on the Conan-style overwhelming barbarian.  I found Karsa's conflicts, both internal and external alike, to be much more fascinating because of how his issues with his people, his gods, and with those who had mistreated and deceived him over the past few years were presented throughout the novel.  The scenes in which he appeared were among my favorite in the novel.

Another enjoyable part of this novel was showing the doubts and fears that existed among the Malazan 14th Army, led by Ganoes Paran's sister, Adjunct Tavore.  Although Tavore is kept isolated and to the margins throughout the novel, this actually served to underscore the divisions that beset her army as it arrived at the port city of Aren and began retracing the Chain of Dogs to the holy desert of Rakuru, where Sha'ik (or Felisin, Tavore's younger sister) and her rebel army awaited.  Whereas Memories of Ice perhaps had too much solider banter and odd attempts at humor, the humor here in House of Chains is more constrained and yet ends up being more effective because it doesn't feel as forced as it did in the previous novel.

As I said above, there were some interesting plot and character developments in this novel.  The conflict between the three Tiste peoples (Andii - Dark, Edur - Shadow, Liosan - Light) is explained in much more depth.  The Edur Trull Sengar, whom I had found earlier to be dull and rather irritating, provides some interesting moments of pathos (later revealed in full in the next novel, Midnight Tides) regarding the tragic histories of these warring kin.  His friendship with the battered T'lan Imass Onrack the Broken was understated and yet effective for the scenes in which the two wander in search of renegades (who are now minions of the Crippled God) who seek to capture the Imass First Throne, not used since Emperor Kellanved's apparent assassination.  Futhermore, the Crokus/Apsalar angst did not bother me as much in this novel, perhaps because of the revelations surrounding the Patron of Assassins, Cotillion.  Here he has much more depth of character and surprising motives than what one might expect from an assassin god and I found the hints regarding his and Shadowthrone's real plans to be intriguing.

There is of course a huge convergence at the end, where the forces of the Whirlwind goddess battle not just the Malazans, but also the spirits of the land.  This part was actually the weakest, in large part because there were so many subplots (several of which revolving around the rival factions in Sha'ik's forces) that it took over one hundred pages just to cover the battle in full.  This resulted in a rather turgid affair that sapped the vitality from what had been a very strong novel for its first 600 or so pages.  However, this did not fatally hurt this book in my estimation, but rather it was a noticeable flaw in what had otherwise been a very good read.  Now onwards to the fifth volume, Midnight Tides.

1 comment:

Kesera said...

Hey Larry,

Have enjoyed your exercise thus far, and was wondering when you were going to recommence the reviews? I'm very curious to see your views on the books from here on out, as there is a majority opinion that the series suffered after the first 3 books.

Looking forward to it.


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