House of Chains (Malazan Book of the Fallen, #4) by Steven Erikson

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After the monumental scale of the last two Malazan books, the beginning of House of Chains is quite a change of pace. After the usual mysterious prologue that dovetails neatly with later events, we jump back to before the events of Gardens of the Moon and pick up the journey of a single character. Karsa Orlong is a young Teblor warrior from an extremely isolated society, and he has no awareness of the greater world of the Malazan Empire, the lands it tries to conquer, of ancient races or meddling gods. His concerns are with carving a reputation for himself among his clan the way that his grandfather did, and having now marked his passage into manhood he rides out with two of his fellow young warriors (calling them “friends” might be a stretch) to commit a daring raid and set two of their neighbouring clans at war.

As his naïveté is peeled back the aspects of the Malazan world with which we’re already familiar — the T’lan Imass, Icarium, etc. — are unravelled from a wholly different perspective. The Teblor have been separated from the outer world for so long that it seems they remember little of it at all. Up until now Erikson’s quite artfully woven a story in which the reader knows less than almost all of the people they’re reading about, so it’s definitely a novelty to be in the opposite situation and have fun piecing together clues as to whether the people, places and legends that Karsa encounters are the familiar principal players of the world. Karsa’s not always the easiest character to read about, though. He rapes, maims and murders, he’s single-minded and suffers no fools, and he initially seems quite devoid of compassion. It’s a testament to Erikson’s skill that a character who is despicable by any modern standard is so engaging to read about. And he grows in leaps and bounds, moreso, I think, than any other character in the series to date, for his arrogance and belief that his people have the right of it cannot survive contact with the larger world, and he bends rather than breaking.

The story stays with Karsa, through a series of ridiculously unlucky events that showcase his proclivity for breaking any chains that bind him, until it ties into the beginning of Deadhouse Gates, then it jumps ahead to the end of the Deadhouse Gates/Memories of Ice timeline and picks up where Seven Cities left off. Adjunct Tavore is preparing to take the Fourteenth Army to Raraku to confront Sha’ik. The Malazans will be marching the Chain of Dogs in reverse, and the untried new Adjunct has many veterans looking to her to live up to Coltaine’s legacy. Behind the Whirlwind Wall, Sha’ik is plagued by mistrust and betrayal — her councillors all have their own agendas, and some of them collide messily. Crokus, Apsalar and her father have reached her home village in Ito Kan, only to discover it a place bereft of life. When despair claims her father’s life, they look for a reason to leave and a place to go, and Crokus finds their answer by agreeing to serve the interests of Cotillion and embracing a new identity as the assassin Cutter. Erikson once again shows his knack for creating wonderful, unlikely friendships, this time between a T’lan Imass and an outcast Tiste Edur…

I’m only scratching the surface there. We see other old faces too, including a couple of stray Bridgeburners. There’s no denying that the second half of the book is action packed. I loved the dry wit that peppered the exchanges between Onrack and Trull Sengar. I loved seeing Cotillion in action with his titular rope! It was good to see more exploration and explanation of certain warrens and their fates and interconnectedness, though some of it had to be read twice to make my head stop spinning. I took a lot of satisfaction from the conclusion as well, chaotic and bittersweet (and sort of anti-climactic, but honestly, in a fitting way) though it was. Contrary to Memories of Ice, where some of the best moments centered around battle, most of the deeply affecting parts of House of Chains are subdued, such as reflections from the Malazan soldiers en route to Raraku.

It was just lacking some of that Malazan magic. I couldn’t get into a lot of the dithering that went on at Sha’ik’s camp, important dithering though it may have been. I am tired of Crokus, or Cutter, and though he’d started to show some personality in Deadhouse Gates it’s certainly missing in action here; worse, he’s dragged Apsalar down with him (though she does feature in one of my favourite scenes with Cotillion). I’m really ready for their story to be over. I wish the introduction of the Tiste Liosan had been half as interesting as it promised to be, but sadly they remain little more than haughty caricatures throughout the book. I also think the author addressed some serious topics, namely rape and female genital mutilation, in a way that had the potential to be powerful but never got there. The acts themselves were written sensitively but there was no space for the emotional fallout to actually take place, and while I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say it trivialised the issues, if the emotional impact beyond the act itself wasn’t going to be written out was it really necessary to include them in the first place? Of course, this is a series, and perhaps it is necessary to be patient and allow time for things to play out in the sequels.

I wish Erikson could have kept the 5-star run going; nonetheless, this is still a really solid and enjoyable entry in the series, well-deserving of your attention. I go on to Midnight Tides with undiminished enthusiasm, but the hope that Malazan will wring my heart again the way it did with Memories of Ice.

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