I first read this book a couple of years back, and I remember enjoying it, but I also remember coming away with the feeling that I’d grasped maybe 70% of the details at best. After a year I’d pretty much forgotten everything that happened in it. I just finished reading it again as part of a buddy read and I am so glad that I chose to revisit.
After a short prologue which introduces only a handful of the main characters, Erikson advances the timeline by several years and throws you right into the middle of a war. The Malazan Empire has been conquering the Free Cities on Genabackis and at the start of the story all have fallen except for Pale, which is besieged, and Darujhistan, which is where the heart of the story takes place, although some readers might find it frustrating that it takes a while to get to. There’s no shortage of action in the meantime though, with a devastating and spectacular sorcerous battle for Pale coming into play so fast that you barely have time to absorb the names of the vast cast of characters before all hell breaks loose.
And what a cast it is. The last supporters of the late Emperor, the servants of the new Empress who wants the dregs of the old regime gone, the rulers and behind-the-scenes powers of Darujhistan, the gods and their playthings, scattered members of dying or forgotten races and the insular, sorcerous and extremely long-lived members of a flying mountain-fortress who have their own bones to pick with the Empire — they all have their own agendas, and all of them come to life through multiple and diverse POVs. This is not the kind of book where you follow the ‘good guys’ for the whole story and their opponents remain inscrutable, their perspective never explored until the very end. While Erikson doesn’t really go the same ‘everyone’s a bastard’ route as, say, Martin, pretty much everyone wants things for at least partly selfish reasons and screws up in their attempts to get them, and you’re always right there with them when they do.
This even includes the gods, and makes the book something of an exceptional case for me, because I normally dislike novels where the gods play a role in mortal affairs. They usually come swooping in at a perfectly opportune moment, hand out a deus ex machina and walk off again. Not so here. The gods are as much a part of the cast as any of the mortal characters and are as conniving, self-motivated and prone to hold grudges as any of the mortals they deal with. From the very beginning they’re in there manipulating things for their own ends, and in a couple of memorable instances, being manipulated and used in return by the mortals they took to be their tools. And here, gods can die.
The whole thing came together much better for me than it did in my first, vaguely recalled read. I found the world difficult to visualise and the characters difficult to grow attached to back then — and now, I really can’t remember why. Erikson isn’t a lyrical writer, and there weren’t really any instances where his prose made me stand up and take notice, but Genabackis felt like a place this time, a place I actually cared about, rather than a flat canvas on which the machinations of the gods and mortals were painted. That’s especially true of Darujhistan, and I urge any reader who isn’t grabbed by the fast-moving beginning to reach the point where the action moves there before making a final judgement on the book.
So why is it four stars instead of five? Well, two reasons. It sounds funny to say that the ending of a 700-page book was rushed, but I did feel that too many elements came in at the last minute. The Azath, for instance, which kind of swept in out of nowhere and put paid to an adversary who deserved a more conspicuous ending. And about three quarters of the way through the book everyone suddenly starts getting very nervous about the rise of a Seer who’s never even been mentioned up until this point, if my memory serves. Nor do he or any of his agents put in an appearance in the book, it seems he’s just there to generate fear and set up events later in the series. I don’t mind books that leave particular threads unresolved until later books, and in a series of this length and magnitude I expect there to be plenty of them, but it feels clumsy when it’s nothing more than a ‘Coming soon…’ trailer for a later episode.
Secondly, there was the occasional instance of a character acting stupid for the sake of pushing forward the story, and that’s really jarring when the characters in question are often so competent. Perhaps the most annoying example of this is a moment where two expert saboteurs neglect to consider that a city lit entirely by gas lamps must be piping gas through the streets where they’ve spent ages laying out munitions. Because veterans of numerous wars whose sergeant reflects on how amazing they are at sabotage wouldn’t possibly put together the connection between gas and explosions, would they?
Four out of five’s still a damn good rating coming from me, though, and I’m now off to jump into the next book!