The fifth volume, Midnight Tides, is rather audacious in its presentation. Erikson here jumps back in his narrative timeline several years and goes to a continent barely mentioned at all in the previous four books, Lether. It is a very different novel in its narrative, its prose, and in the characterizations. It also is where certain themes introduced in the previous four books (in particular, betrayal, pride, the search for salvation, but not as much on redemption) become more crystallized and integral to the story itself; a pattern that manifests itself for the remaining books of the series.
When I first read it in 2004, I was in turns amused by the antics of Tehol and Bugg and saddened by the deepening tragedy of the Tiste Edur, particularly that of the Sengar family. Having now re-read this book a year after finishing reading the final volume in the main series (and just after reading the first Kharkanas trilogy volume), Midnight Tides contains several events that foreshadow those of the concluding volume, The Crippled God. Here, one may discover ruminations on the virtual slavery caused by power inequity (yes, the parallels between Lether and state capitalism – particularly that of the United States but not limited to it – are made quite explicit) that then dovetail into explorations of suffering and the role religion/gods play in that. In hindsight, Erikson did establish the motives for not just the characters of this novel, but also those of the Crippled God and others in scenes here.
One complaint that I had before reading the final volumes was that Midnight Tides seemed to lack a cohesiveness to it. The witty banter of Tehol, Bugg, and other denizens of Lether seemed to clash with the grimness of the Sengars, particularly Rhulad's descent into madness after his acquisition of a sword touched with the Crippled God's power. Yet as I re-read this volume earlier this week, I began to appreciate this difference. Comedy is not necessarily the antithesis of tragedy and here, the pathos of the final scenes is intensified because of the amusing first half. In turn, the tragic elements (such as the betrayal of the Tiste Andii by the Edur) have sharper edges to them because the humorous scenes have set the stage for a more devastating conclusion.
Furthermore, this devotion of a middle volume to filling in the backstory of the mysterious raids on several continents adds a necessary pause to the greater narrative. Set up at the end of House of Chains to be Trull Sengar's tale of how he came to be chained to a wall in the flooded Nascent, the reader begins to get the idea that the true story is not that of just a struggle against the chained Crippled God, but rather it is a multi-level exploration of what motivates people to seek justice, to cause pain, or to share suffering. That last point in particular is worth keeping in mind for the latter half of this series, as when I first read it (and re-read this book prior to The Crippled God) I missed the significance of it being a focal point of Midnight Tides.
By itself, the novel is good but not extraordinary. As I noted above, without the context of what follows afterward, the narrative can seem a bit fractured between the poles of comedy and tragedy. Yet when placed within the larger narrative, Midnight Tides becomes a vital volume, as it contains the germ of the seed that later blossoms at the series' conclusion. What at first glance appeared to be an extended throwaway section becomes upon re-reading the entire series a harbinger of the events, tragic and triumphant alike, to come.