I was curious about Midnight Tides from the beginning, as I had picked up on the fact that it takes place on an entirely new continent, with little connection to the previous four books. As keen as I am to see the characters I’ve come to know and love, Erikson’s jaunts off into other places and times (like the Karsa Orlong section of House of Chains) have been thoroughly enjoyable to me so far.
The prologue quickly grounds the reader in the familiar aspects of the Malazan world, beginning with the invasion of the Tiste races and their battle against the K’Chain Che’Malle. It’s an epic start to the story, driving home once again how brutal the K’Chain Che’Malle are with the respective size of their forces and the losses taken by the Tiste Andii in particular. An age-old betrayal also sets the scene for later events in the book and we get a bit more of a glimpse into some of the greater mysteries of the setting, like the sundering of Kurald Emurlahn, and the Jaghut Gothos.
Then comes the present day, or the not-quite-present day, as it takes place somewhat before the events of Memories of Ice and House of Chains. This is as much a tale of two families as it is of two nations. On the one hand are the Sengar brothers Fear, Binadas, Trull and Rhulad, Tiste Edur of the Hiroth tribe. Trull is the only familiar face for the reader on this new continent. Through his eyes, we see how his people, whose tribes were only recently united under the rule of the Warlock King Hannan Mosag, are corrupted in their purpose and thrust into war with the Letherii. On the other hand, we have the Beddict brothers, Hull, Brys and Tehol, from Lether. Although I preferred the Tiste Edur side of the story the Beddicts were more interesting to me as individuals, for each one is possessed of a purpose so very at odds with the others, yet their relationships are not as devoid of substance as those between Trull and his brothers feel. Hull Beddict is wrapped up in self-recrimination because his peaceful gathering of intelligence on the tribes surrounding Lether was used to subjugate them, and now he seeks to ally with the Tiste Edur and answer his former homeland in kind. Brys is the King’s Champion, and much as he wants to ensure Hull’s safety his loyalty to his kingdom comes first. And Tehol… ah, Tehol. A genius living in poverty (or is he?) with his quirky manservant Bugg, and a mind to bringing down the financial stability of the heart of the kingdom. Tehol and Bugg are delightful comic relief, never over the top but with the dry wit I’d expect from a duo right out of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork.
Beyond these two families Erikson does have his usual broad cast, some of whom — a group of Crimson Guard far from home and the Letherii Acquitor, Seren Pedac — I adored. But in the end it always comes back to these brothers and what they have wrought, and I think maybe that’s why this book didn’t work quite as well for me as some of the others in the series. I wasn’t really emotionally attached to any of them except for Tehol and Trull, and even there their actions felt futile. Tehol is working on the financial destruction of a kingdom that is facing literal destruction, and we already know the fate of Trull Sengar from his appearance in House of Chains. What we’re left with is the epic clash of two nations narrated by people who are, perhaps, not best equipped to tell it, and for the first time in the Malazan series I found myself reading sections with impatience. Anything with Shurq Elalle in it was undoubtedly one of those sections. While I adored Tehol and Bugg, the undead (and her ootooloo) were far too slapstick to be funny.
It’s still a 4-star book, because Erikson’s writing is as beautiful and subtle as ever, his foreshadowing as clever and his story as mind-bogglingly epic. Were it not for spoilers I could wax lyrical about a number of little twists in the story that made me nod in appreciation of his skill. I come away from this book a little disappointed that so few of its characters have wormed their way into my heart, though, and wishing this particular clash of titans could have stirred me the way the Pannion War did.