Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Steven Erikson - Midnight Tides (Book Review)


Steven Erikson, a name well renowned in the realm of fantasy fiction, is often remarked to be sitting on the proverbial throne of contemporary fantasy, keeping company with such authors as George R.R. Martin and Scott Bakker. This is of course debatable, but in my opinion the sheer scope of his work remains unprecedented - truly epic in every sense of the word.

Midnight Tides, the fifth entry into the epic fantasy series bearing the name of Malazan Book Of The Fallen and it in no way closes any of the hanging plot threads from previous installments. They seem to be entirely abandoned for the page-length of this book, and myriad of new questions are raised, since the events in the book occur on an entirely new continent (if you are familiar with the series you should already be acquainted with The Central Malazan Empire, Seven Cities Continent and Genabackis), where the Kingdom of Lether and the tribal nation of Tiste Edur clash arms for what seems to be a simple conquest and hoarding of riches but in the end it turns out that the stakes were higher, much higher, and the meddling of gods becomes imminent.

Erikson’s world is vast, divergent and populated with heterogeneous cultures, but somehow it feels unduly stale compared to Middle Earth, Westeros and some of the other more vividly animated worlds. Don’t get me wrong, his world-building is colossal and imaginative, but somehow lacks a certain flare – even the densely populated city of Letheras sometimes feels empty and devoid, with small exception of our protagonists and a few sidekicks. There is another odd thing that I’ve sensed about the world: I have a feeling that it is not thoroughly alive, but only lived at specific moments. I rarely got immersed into the atmosphere of the world, even though I am not a huge fan of info dumps and descriptive narrative, so I never even expected it from him. Where Erikson truly excels is myth-creation, may it be strictly religious, or more broadly cultural. Concerning those elements, his world is lush, complex, exotic and what is most important – quite unique. Here Erikson’s anthropological prowess comes to the fore.

Pantheon is complexly built and in MT there are some familiar (Mael and Ossric) and some new deities (Scabandari Bloodeye, Silchas Ruin etc.) that rear their (ugly) heads into the game, most prominently at the end, when the convergence occurs and the big players uncover their agenda. Gods in Malazan universe somewhat resemble those of the Greek pantheon, as they posses quite human qualities and are as flawed, they meddle in mundane affairs, are quite uncaring of peoples wants, form alliances and play power-games behind the screen if possible and out in the open, if not. The Crippled God and his agenda is the most notable connection with the previous books. This figure might as well represent Satan, Loki or any other negative god-figure in our world. The religious system is closely connected with magic, and priests are as likely to pray as to delve into more arcane arts – most probably both. We get a closer look at the Deck of Holds, previously only hinted at and described as a natural predecessor of the Deck of Dragons. There is also a brief explanation of what warrens are actually supposed to be and what is their connection to magic. Hovewer the explanation is highly subjective, unclosed from the perspective of a mage of The Crimson Guard, thus being just another partial view of a vast and complex system of magic.

Some of the themes that Erikson tackles resonate with those from the previous books: convergence, question of fate and the battle of free will vs. predetermination,… The main plotline is built around a certain prophecy, which is at once vague as well as ever-present. The diverse cast of characters bemoan, give in, honor or belie the prophecy/fate.

MT also mirrors the contemporary world in a way that the previous installments never have. The characters live out and debate about similar themes that are closely related to those of modern imperialism and capitalism: greed, self-centeredness, money as a new religion, loss of identity, corruption, enslavement, racism, globalization, dreams of grandeur, materialism, power of bureaucracy, exploitation, social inequity etc.

Regarding the plot there are few if any threads that are carried over from previous books in the series and those links that exist, are temporally mixed (the events of MT precede those of HoC) and spatially displaced (events take place on an entirely new continent). The story seems less erratic - the narrative flows smooth, but at the end of the book the reader is not only left in the dark with regards to previous loose ends, MT actually opens many new questions. I cannot help but wonder if Erikson has it all figured out, or he wanders in proverbial dark a bit himself. Nevertheless, his storytelling ability remains impeccable, making the reader temporarily uncaring of the baffling and enigmatic story. In MT we have two complementary storylines; first one concerns itself with the Tiste Edur (the shadow-folk and brethren to Tiste Andi and Tiste Liosan) and their rise to power; and the second explores the crumbling Kingdom of Lether – mostly the events in its capital city, Letheras. As already stated above, what binds those two storylines together is the convergence (of powers) and an ancient prophecy of an empire rising, which turns out quite differently than how it was interpreted in the beginning.

As much as I wanted to like MT, I must admit that I was a bit disappointed with the book. I cannot exactly pinpoint what bothered me in the beginning and in the middle of the book, but they turned out a bit pale compared to the second and the third book. But that does not account for the ending, which was the best that Erikson wrote up until MT. It was less rushed, not so feverish and more elaborated than his previous finishing chapters. If I had to choose, than this would be the most notable improvement I’ve noticed about Erikson’s writing.

The single character we’ve seen before is the enigmatic Trull Sengar and we get to learn a fragrance of the story that delivered him to such dire straits as those in which he found himself at the beginning of HoC. As much as I like larger than life hero types Erikson actually manages to over-saturate the pages with such men and women, and so the feeling of awe diminishes notably. What I also longed for is the totally kick ass dialogue that embellished his previous work. The tendency of every (side)character to turn into philosopher once in a while is a bit stretched too, since the most profound thoughts are delivered from simple mercenaries and slaves as well as scholars and gentry. Most of the cast also feel trapped by their past and take the future for pregiven. I’m sad to say, but most of the characters are not that memorable, they lack the emotional intensity of those in DG and the supreme nonchalance of those in MoI. I would also wish for more insight into the character of Trull’s brothers (especially Fear and Binadas). Some side-characters felt a bit paper thin (Mayen, Feather Witch, Binadas, Hejun, Rissarh, Shand, Shurq Ellale and others). The balance between magic and weaponry is still not redressed completely – magic is too powerful. I can also see why Erikson wanted to included lowborn characters, unlike Martin, but they do not behave like uneducated peasantry from middle ages, do they?

Erikson’s is a competent linguist and has a definite knack for humor, but which often feels strained and falls flat with repetitive sex jokes in MT (at least for my taste; “when hell freezes over” was a nice one though:) ). This is unfortunate, since he rather excels at parody in his novellas about Bauchelain & Korbal Broach (a couple of necromancers we get to meet in MoI). The humor is more prominent than ever before as well, with the exception of the novellas I’ve mentioned (I believe Trin is writing a review for one of them).

In the end, whatever my complaints, Erikson’s creativity remains prodigious, he shows no sign of ever slowing down and his vigor and imagination are in full span. As ingenious of storyteller as he is, the dialogue sometimes turns overly didactic (delegating his his worldview to the reader); nevertheless, the sheer power of the story makes me almost forget about this. I admit that I’m nitpicking…but Erikson deserves the critics – in a positive way. His work draws circles around the work of the majority of other fantasy writers; and my criticism is good natured, wishing for him to improve.

Erikson’s books serve to help us escape reality, but sometimes this escape can be liberating, opening new horizons, instead of hiding us from responsibilities of the real world. Good fiction always does, and by my standards, Midnight Tides is good fiction:
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3.5+/5
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- Thrinidir -

3 Comments:

Madwand said...

Could you review the series from book one onward?

Anonymous said...

Great in-depth review. A bit too long for my liking though, but I can understand where it's coming from since I know a little bit about your "background". :)

With time you'll only get better mate. ;)

Anonymous said...

you sound like a delusional moron criticizing erikson's style. it's not the fact that you're criticizing either, its the manner and the content of your criticisms.

erikson is miles beyond tolkien and grrm

in the case of tolkien the time context makes this somewhat debatable. i feel tolkien did an amazing job given the number of examples he was able to work from.

grrm however... man dont fuckin compare erikson to grrm.

what does grrm have to say about anything that is new/meaingful? i dont care if the stunted midgets like to fuck whores... i can empathize, but why the fuck would i bother...honestly theres bigger problems.

erikson makes a point of weaving the contemporary world into his novels.. i've begun to feel like i'm reading a very long, very creative essay on human nature.
and it's not all bad news either, just hard news about the state we're in.

the world could use a few hours alone with midnights tide, and if they cant read it/it should be put on tapes and translated.

 

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