…by Steven Erikson. Every time I’m about to begin another chapter in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, I get that prickly sense of anticipation of a reader who knows they’re in for some of the good stuff. House of Chains, Book 4 in this series, definitely meets that standard. The paperback checks in at over 900 pages. It has maps in the front, a glossary, and a character list. It starts with a scene of callous carnage – bloated corpses washing upon the shore in the aftermath of battle.
House of Chains picks up with threads from the previous books, though the central plot element involves the showdown in the holy desert of Raraku between Felesin, now possessed by the vengeful goddess Sha’ik, and Tavore, Adjunct of the Malazan Empire. Felesin and Tavore, who happen to be sisters, each have their respective armies and their Ascendant patrons in the mix. This includes a couple of hard-to-kill Bridgeburners and other recurring characters to round out the cast.
As always, there are ancient threads and multi-planar intrigue tied to the showdown. On either side there are other characters drawn in to battle who have their own histories and agendas, some of which provide hints and clues to this world’s epochal history, some of which will no doubt feature in future chapters.
One such character is Karsa Orlong of the Uryd Tribe of the Teblor. He’s much like Conan – if Conan were of an ancient magic-resistant race of long-lived half-ogres. Karsa is a true badass (and Erikson knows how to create and write powerful characters) with an unforgiving and savage tribal code. He’s also being manipulated by his tribe’s would-be gods, who have set in motion plans to free them from a millennium of imprisonment, stripping the Teblor tribes of their history and independence. Karsa starts to figure this out, shaking his beliefs and sense of purpose, but setting him on a path to confront these beings and reclaim his peoples’ lost heritage. He ends up being one of my favorite characters in recent memory. He’s hell-on-wheels with a sword, with unflappable confidence and iron resolve, but he also acquires the wisdom to value friendships and allies, to anticipate his enemies’ aims, and in the end – compassion. In other words, he’s an evolving character. Erikson does this well. Some of his characters are semi-static, but most grown and change as the chapters and books go on. There’s no doubt Karsa Orlong will feature prominently in subsequent books. This pleases me greatly.
Erikson’s books are like an advanced course in fantastic fiction. He has the complex plotlines, the huge cast of characters, the metaphysics and spiritual powers of this world. But he never pauses to explain, leaving the reader to piece it together. Sometimes you may be wondering what the hell is going on, or how a particular sidebar journey relates, and it may be 400 pages before you get your answer. And then the answer may be vague. And one could make the case that with nearly a thousand pages, the story could be tighter, more compact and focused. You won’t hear me making that case, though. Unlike some writers of Fantasy, whose lengthy books dwell in detail on every. single. scene. Erikson jumps in and out of characters and plotlines, some of whom are immortal or ascendant, thus spanning millions of years. You may be in a warren or plane constructed of a dead gods memories, or an interstellar scene of future import. Then you’re back in the trenches with a soldier-of-the-line or a desert raider or a camp follower. It’s High Fantasy from multiple levels and perspectives, woven deftly and intricately with a gauntleted fist. Do not try this at home.
But by all means, read Malazan Book of the Fallen if you dare.