Category Archives: Nicki’s Reviews

Night of Knives (Malazan Empire, #1) by Ian C. Esslemont

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Night of Knives is the first book by Ian Esslemont set in the same world as the Malazan Book of the Fallen series of Steven Erikson’s. I read this after the first five of Erikson’s books, so please bear in mind that this review may contain references or spoilers from those earlier volumes.

Jumping back in time to the last year of Kellanved’s reign, the story takes place on Malaz Isle and mainly follows the exploits of two characters: Temper, a veteran soldier who served under Dassem Ultor, and Kiska, a young girl with ambitions to escape the confines of the island on which nothing interesting happens. It tells the story of one night, a night we’ve already heard of but have yet to see firsthand: The assassination of Kellanved and Dancer and the claiming of the Deadhouse.

Kiska’s side of the story quickly began to grate on me. She’s a walking stereotype: Precocious child, check. Wants to escape homeland and see the world, check. Has a mysterious mentor who feeds information at plot-convenient points, check. Has a talent she has yet to fully realise, check… Hers also felt like a poor choice of POV to experience these events through. She has no real connection to them, requiring interminable amounts of sneaking about after considerably more interesting people, eavesdropping on conversations, accidentally stumbling into warrens, and generally getting underfoot. It’s not a long book to begin with, but if you cut out every instance in which you’re waiting for Kiska to stumble across something you already know or are forced to read another lengthy description of her trudging after/running away from something, I suspect what you’ll be left with is a novella. I did initially empathise with her as a young woman frustrated by her inability to affect the world around her, but not enough to enjoy the rest of her story, except when she was dealing with some of the characters who most intrigue me (Dancer, Tayschrenn).

Temper was more interesting to read about. As a worn-down soldier with a past full of familiar names and places he immediately felt like a better fit for a Malazan tale, and the flashbacks to his time with Dassem were my favourite parts of the book. I felt like Esslemont was more confident when writing about him as well, as the narrative was less choppy and the dialogue more convincing, although he still fell into the trap of having too many “As you know, Bob…” info-dumps. They certainly weren’t that blatant compared to some fantasy authors, but comparing (perhaps unfairly) one Malazan author to another, it was jarring. I’m not sure if it’s the reader or his own abilities that he doubts, but he also came across a little too strongly with the foreshadowing.

I’ve been quite critical here because the flaws in this book hampered what could have been a really exciting chapter in Malazan history, but even if it’s not a perfect Malazan book, it’s still a good fantasy story. The author can definitely turn a phrase, and there’s an immediacy to his prose that Erikson sometimes lacks. The ending had a twist that, while it seemed a poor fit for the story told in Night of Knives, promises a very interesting sequel or two. My next read, The Bonehunters, takes me back to Erikson’s work, but I will be interested to reach Return of the Crimson Guard in a couple of books’ time and see if Esslemont has stepped outside the boundaries of conventional fantasy and learned to take some of the risks that Erikson so deftly manages. If he does, then it could be something really special.

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Midnight Tides (Malazan Book of the Fallen, #5) by Steven Erikson

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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.

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.

Memories of Ice (Malazan Book of the Fallen, #3) by Steven Erikson

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I can see a pattern developing with Erikson’s books. I get to the last quarter of the book and start desperately wishing it were longer, even if it’s a thousand-page tome. With Memories of Ice, though, I have to say the pacing was damn near perfect — as was everything else.

After a prologue that covers two massive events in the history of the Malazan world, and which had me completely hooked all by itself, we return to Genabackis a couple of months after the events of Gardens of the Moon. Dujek’s outlawed Host, including the beloved Bridgeburners, are determined to forge an alliance with the forces of Caladan Brood and Anomander Rake, and together take on the Pannion Seer and his army of religious zealots and cannibalistic peasants. Their first goal is to ride to the aid of the soon to be besieged city of Capustan, but the alliance between such recent enemies is fraught with problems — like the little girl, Silverfox, who houses the soul that was once Tattersail, and is the centre of a tug-of-war over whether she’s too dangerous to live. I was also pleased to see Toc the Younger make an interesting return to the mortal world and quite literally trip over one of my favourite characters to date, Tool, sparking off an odd fellowship and a journey back to civilisation in the absolute strangest of company.

And as delighted as I was to be back with the characters I loved so much in Gardens, there are yet more new members of the cast and some of my favourite moments in the book actually revolve around them. The Grey Swords, a mercenary company dedicated to Fener and serving in the defence of Capustan, were responsible for a lot of those. Capustan will be seared into my memory as one of the finest and most heartbreaking pieces of fantasy writing I’ve encountered… which is more or less what I said about the Chain of Dogs sequence in the second book! Erikson’s really knocking them out of the park.

This is a very military book and I think most of its finest scenes are related to battle — if not in the midst of it then in the buildup or the aftermath — but there are plenty of breathers and a lot of things to love about those interludes as well. I loved the quiet moments of conversation and drink between Anomander Rake and Whiskeyjack. There are authors out there who are great at writing authentic romance, and in Erikson I’ve found an author who makes the ties between friends and comrades as memorable and realistic. That, to me, is even harder to find and even more worthwhile, especially when you’re dealing with the friendships between us fragile mortals and beings that have lived for tens or hundreds of thousands of years and watched our empires rise and fall. Those years never feel tacked on. You can feel the passage of time that’s twisted and changed these people, whether it be into something alien or someone, like Rake, who has learned the value of what makes us human. Or Tiste Andii, as the case may be.

Everything comes full circle in Memories. Although set hundreds of thousands of years in the past, the events of the prologue are all woven neatly into the modern day by the end of the book. Nothing comes out of the blue, the climax of the story is heart-wrenching and perfect, and there’s even a little time at the end to grieve for what’s been lost. There’s closure for the main events of this book, while more dangling threads have been added to the Malazan tale as a whole. My few (very few) complaints about the pacing of Deadhouse Gates are not echoed here, and it certainly has that fantastic book beaten in terms of scale. There are perhaps fewer moments where the writing itself stood out to me, but most of the time I was too engrossed in what was happening to be objective or pay sufficient attention to style.

This is where I’d close with remarks about the less positive aspects, but there weren’t any, and it isn’t often I can say that. Memories of Ice has scored the Malazan series a place on my favourites shelf, no matter what its sequels bring to bear. Do yourself a favour and treat yourself to these books, because you’ll have a hard time finding anything like them. It’s with as much regret to leave this book behind as excitement for what’s to come that I move on to House of Chains.

Deadhouse Gates (Malazan Book of the Fallen, #2) by Steven Erikson

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Unlike a lot of new Malazan readers, I loved Gardens of the Moon. There were a couple of bumps in the road, but the journey was extremely enjoyable. Deadhouse Gates brought me to a whole new appreciation of the series, though. It’s not often I finish a 900-odd page book wishing it had been longer.

Deadhouse Gates leaves Genabackis behind and crosses the seas to the Seven Cities, where the native population is preparing to throw off its shackles and ride against the conquering Malazan Empire in service to their goddess, Dryjhna. A couple of old favourites from the first book do continue their story here — Kalam, Fiddler and Crokus are escorting Apsalar home as they promised at the end of Gardens, but the wayward Bridgeburners naturally have a little more up their sleeves than merely assisting the damsel in distress (or in this case, the distressing damsel) — but the bulk of the story deals with a new cast. I can see how that has the potential to be confusing or off-putting to some, but I had no difficulty falling in love with the newcomers.

In most multi-POV tales like this one I develop favourites quite quickly and am excited to see their sections come around and disappointed to see them end, but every strand of this story had me captivated. Felisin, the youngest daughter of the Paran family who is sold into slavery by her sister as proof of loyalty to the Empress, is sometimes hard to read about because Erikson so fully and painfully captures the breaking and slow piecing back together of a sheltered young woman whose every solace in life has been ripped away from her, but although at times difficult to love she was never difficult to relate to. If I favoured one POV over the others it was probably that of Duiker, former soldier and Imperial Historian, who gives us our bird’s-eye view of the Seventh Army and its embattled flight across a hostile nation. I love what his own moments of wry humour, self-doubt, silent desolation and (rarely, but all the more precious for its scarcity) hope add to the story:

“‘Children are dying.’

Lull nodded. ‘That’s a succinct summary of humankind, I’d say. Who needs tomes and volumes of history? Children are dying. The injustices of the world hide in those three words.'”

By making it so personal, it somehow drives home the sheer scale of what’s happening around him. I can say no more for fear of spoilers, but the event that becomes known as the Chain of Dogs is one of the most heart-wrenching pieces of fantasy I’ve read in my life.

Erikson retains all of the strengths that made the first volume in the series such a pleasure to read. He foreshadows events with the lightest touch, sometimes indicating what’s to come with a single sentence that you can only hope to fully understand in hindsight, and yet when you reach the end and look back you see how perfectly everything adds up. There are no true “Well, that came out of nowhere” moments because even when it seems that way at first, if you look back over the hints you’ve been given you can see how elegantly you’ve been trapped in your own assumptions. The ten years that passed between the writing of Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates show in how much his writing has evolved, though. I said in my review of Gardens that there weren’t really any instances where his prose made me stand up and take notice, but in this book I found myself stopping to reread some paragraphs, despite the tension of the moment. He contrasts some of the most violent, heartbreaking moments of the story with some of the most beautiful description, as when we stop to note, “And over it all, the butterflies swarmed, like a million yellow-petalled flowers dancing on swirling winds” in the midst of a bloody slaughter. It’s one of the things that brought those moments to life for me, because so often fantasy authors seem to forget the world around their protagonists when the action ramps up, but in real life I find that the moments of greatest trauma give the world a concreteness that is overlooked during the humdrum of everyday life.

I honestly can’t name many complaints. Once again the ending felt too rushed, but nothing was thrown together at the last minute, all of the hints were given well in advance. I think I just wanted some closure for these characters — these people — before I’m ready to leave them behind for a while, but it isn’t there. And in book two of a long series, that’s a fair price to pay for having so much left to look forward to.

Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen, #1) by Steven Erikson

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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!