This was my third reading of the book. The first time I read it, back in May 2007, I was more in a rush to catch up and get to the then-just released seventh volume, Reaper's Gale, than I was with taking the time to consider just what was transpiring here. The second time, back in the late spring of 2010, was read during a time when I was swamped with a lot of other responsibilities (including the final reads for what ended up being an aborted editorship of an anthology) and I believe the reading suffered then, as there was a lot I discovered during this reading that I had missed during my first two reads.
Coming off of the comedic-tragic Midnight Tides, the general tone here veers more to the apocalyptic, even more so than the previous two volumes, Deadhouse Gates and House of Chains, set on the Seven Cities sub-continent. Sha'ik Reborn's rebellion has been crushed, but not at the hands of the Malazan 14th Army. The last rebels, led by Leoman of the Flails, have fled to the site of a battle that became a curse to the Malazans over a decade before (more on this battle can be read in Ian Cameron Esslemont's Night of Knives). For the first half of this massive novel, much of the plot focuses on issues of faith. How does one respond to the crushing of one's initial fervor? What forms do apocalypse take? How can a group forge an identity when it is comprised of the untested and the broken? How is salvation envisioned by those who scarred and disfigured?
Much of the action here revolves around those questions. While doubtless those readers who read the series primarily for its scenes of "high magic" and battles were disappointed by Erikson's focus on exploring those issues, I found myself taking a keener interest in reading this. What at first appeared to be an inconclusive, extraneous subplot (that of Felisin Younger and her eventual installation as yet another Sha'ik) became something more substantive during this re-read. In the midst of character reflections on the bones of past societies (here, the "bonehunter" symbol becomes more than the literal bones that cover some who survive a conflagration), here was the birth of yet another human mechanism for coping with grief, loss, and suffering. The ways of pleasure, chimeric as they may be, does present a way of looking at how humans strive to create order and happiness in the midst of chaos and pain. The more I think about it, the more suitable it was that this subplot was left hanging here, with no conclusion in sight.
Yet there are problematic areas within those elements that I did enjoy reading. It is not so much that certain things appear redundant (such as the wandering of Heboric's group, Kalam's adventure in Malaz City, and a few other scenes), as reiteration can serve to reinforce and reinterpret past events, but rather that there are so many elements occurring here (the transformation of the 14th into the Bonehunters, the ways in which Icarium and Karsa find themselves being transported to Lether, the corruption of Imperial politics and the subsequent uprisings against the Wickans, the further development of Ganoes Paran, the seemingly smaller subplot with Barathol Mekhar, among others) that at times the novel lacked the strong internal cohesion that the earlier novels possessed. Much of this can be attributed to the need to develop seeds for events that both Erikson (Reaper's Gale, Toll the Hounds) and Esslemont (Return of the Crimson Guard) were to explore in greater depth later. While the events set up here mostly are worth the effort devoted to them, the side effect was a narrative that felt fractured, as though the various subplots were pulling too strongly for attention. However, the saving grace (beyond the eventual development of these subplots in later novels) is that the thematic core pervades each of these subplots, forging a stronger union than that provided by the main plot itself.
Despite this almost-unavoidable narrative weakness, The Bonehunters contains a wealth of interesting plot and thematic developments. The Bonehunter scenes, whether they be "big" things such as the survival of the conflagration or the conflict on the seas or the "little" things like the introduction of Captain Sort, develop further the issue of how identities are forged. The scenes involving Ganoes Paran reveal important developments in regards to the looming battle of the Malazan world's gods/Ascendants and the brief times that Heboric's PoV is presented, a foreshadowing of the ultimate end game is provided in a way that is subtle yet well-constructed when viewed in light of reading the tenth volume. It is not a perfect novel, as the narrative does feel stretched to near the breaking point at times, but it is a crucial volume for understanding the events of the final books. Certainly a better book upon re-reading than on its initial read.