The OF Blog: Malazan Re-Read Series: Steven Erikson, Reaper's Gale

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Malazan Re-Read Series: Steven Erikson, Reaper's Gale

Ever since I read it in May 2007, Reaper's Gale has been the sort of book that I endured rather than enjoyed.  In preparing to re-read this for the third time total earlier this week, I found myself pausing for a bit after The Bonehunters, as things had begun to build toward what I knew would be a troubling fourth act.  The stage had been set by the end of the sixth book, the characters (largely) had made their initial appearances and the character/group motivations were beginning to be revealed.  The deluge was set to follow.

Yet in some cases, the act of re-reading can recast a novel in the mind of particular readers.  By reading it slower than normal and by interspersing it with the first section of Esslemont's Return of the Crimson Guard (which occurs almost in parallel with some of the events outlined here), there was not the sense of unrelenting tragedy that I associated with the book.  What I noticed during this re-read was more humor (minus the comedic-oriented scenes starring Tehol and Bugg) from unlikely sources, particularly that of Karsa and his Seven Cities companion and that of some of the Bonehunter soldiers.

When reading more recent epic fantasy works, I have often derided authors who confuse a near-total focus on the darker, more violent aspects of human behavior with "realism."  A "realist" fantasy set in a faux-medieval level technological society would not wallow in despair and in the poor treatment of women and others deemed to be of lower status.  No, there would be humor, both erudite and baudy in nature, and some would dare to have faith in something greater than themselves, all while jostling about with those whose cynicism would put even Sartre to shame.  To his credit, Erikson does leaven his stories with a mixture of scenes, from the comic to the tragic, weaving a tapestry from human emotions and beliefs that is more vivid because it is not dominated by "grittiness." 

Yet there are times that the humor falters and the grimness settles in a bit too much for comfort.  There were scenes that were a bit uncomfortable to re-read, such as the imprisonment and sexual assault of the scholar Janath.  Now while this no doubt was meant to underscore the depravity of those in civil authority who had fallen under the sway of coin and power, it just was described in a bit more detail than the similar assaults on male subjects (granted, Janath does display courage and gets her revenge, but the horrificness of the abuse inflicted upon her was much greater than that of the males in this book and in previous volumes).  It just struck a sour note for me, perhaps due to discussions I have had on this topic with others in recent years (not to mention my experiences working with former students who were survivors of rape/incest).

There were other discernible flaws in the narrative structure.  Although Erikson largely avoids the PoV/plotting quagmires that engulfed the WoT and ASOIAF series, there is a lot of ground that each of several competing subplots from the previous books (the voyage of Hedge and Quick Ben through a largely-forgotten underworld, the travels of Onrack and Trull, the Bonehunters, the Letherii, Icarium, Mappo, Karsa, the Tiste Edur, among others) has to cover.  At times, the scenes feel a bit disjointed and sketchy because of the need to wrap things up within this volume.  There are times that truly moving scenes, such as Onrack's body reawakening in a dreamlike world, that are remarkable for how sympathetic a reader can be to his discovery of what it feels like to take a breath or to bleed after hundreds of thousands of years of existing in an undead-like state.  Yet dozens or even hundreds of pages go by between those initial scenes and further developments in that particular subplot.

This leads to a relative lack of narrative cohesion.  Previous books contained a greater sense of parallel unity (one group traveling to inflict revenge, another fomenting rebellion, for an example taken from the second book) and purpose than found here in Reaper's Gale.  In parts, it is a well-told story, but when considered as a whole, it is weaker because so much is packed within its 900 or so tradeback pages that it is difficult for the reader to parse much of what has occurred within without devoting time to multiple re-reads.  Fortunately, re-reads do add to the experience, not just from being able to grasp more of the plot or action, but also because there can be a greater appreciation of the one common thread that does unite most of the subplots:  the theme of tragedy and its many forms.  Reaper's Gale is perhaps the most tragic of the Malazan books, with the possible exception of the just-released Forge of Darkness.  Some of the moments are cruel in their carelessness, such as that of a certain two who failed to follow ill-defined rules of hospitality, while others are gut-wrenching because of a sudden "push" of fate.  Yet tragedy can be cathartic at times.  Here, it comes close, but yet the incompletion of the narrative leaves that catharsis for the future, leaving instead a rawness that is not alleviated at book's end.

As a single volume, Reaper's Gale shows its "seams" more than the previous volumes, as Erikson struggles at times to shoehorn important scenes (and foreshadowing for the remaining volumes) into its pages.  Yet by novel's end, things appear poised to spill over into the greatest conflagration of a series full of them.  Now, more than ever, would be a good time for an interlude, which perhaps explains why the eighth volume, Toll the Hounds, veers off the expected course a bit, providing a necessary pause before the final act begins in earnest.

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