Thursday, June 5, 2008

Steven Erikson - The Bonehunters (Book Review)

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"Bonehunters" (Amazon: UK, USA)
by Steven Erikson (Wikipedia)
Format: Paperback, 709 pages
Publisher: Bantam Books

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It took me the better part of the month to work -- yes, sometimes it really felt like a chore, but which ultimately paid off in the end -- my way through the sixth novel in the sprawling Malazan Book of the Fallen series. I found out that most of the things I’ve ascertained in my review of Midnight Tides (review) still hold true for its successor – The Bonehunters. Erikson is a genius epic fantasy writer, but alas, the series is beginning to show first signs of jadedness.
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In The Bonehunters, Erikson returns to the continent of Seven Cities, where we once again encounter Fid, Kalam, Bottle, Quick Ben and the rest of the menagerie that is the Malazan’s 14th Army under Adjunct Tavore Paran. The 14th is in the pursuit of Leoman of the Flails and his Dog Slayers, the last remnants of the Shaik’s rebellious army. The Jhag Icarium finds himself with a new companion, a witch named Samar Dev, as does Karsa Orlong, whose long time companion, Mappo Trell, is ambushed by Dejim Nebrahl, a D’ivers agent of the Nameless Ones, and then replaced by Taralack Veed, a warrior of the Gral tribe. Tiste Edur scour the seas in send foraying parties to all parts of the world in search of champions who deem themselves worthy of challenging the Emperor of Lether. Their second objective turns out to be The First Throne, defended by a meager crew – consisted of Minala, Aptorian deamon, a legion of warrior children, Trull Sengar and his loyal companion, Onrack The Broken -- scrapped together by the two rulers of The High House Shadow. Heboric Light Touch, Croaker, Scillara, familiar Greyfrog and Felisin the Younger are on their way to reach Otataral Island. There are also other (semi)important characters appearing, but suffice to say that everything builds towards another convergence, this time to happen in the heart of the Malazan Empire, The Imperial City of Malaz itself.
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I have to admit that the novel left me pretty unconvinced until well after the page count passed the half mark. The set up, the characters -- their musings and wanderings, overstretched and relatively unimportant for the plot -- and the rest of the elements of the first half of the novel seemed insipid when compared to some of the things that transpired in the previous books. The first thing that crossed my mind was that Erikson’s writing would really profit from stricter editing; the book seems vague at times and overlong for at least 200 hundred pages or so.
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The world’s scale is as colossal as ever, with a few sprinkling details added, some of them even sufficiently explained – but once again, the questions raised supersede by far those answered. I really hope that Erikson manages to bring his saga to a proper (or at least satisfying) conclusion with the last three books that are yet to see the light of day. Some of the gods/ascendants get a proper (re)introduction -- I’m referring to Cotillion and Shadowthrone -- which is a good thing; but also a few of the previously unseen god-figures make their presence in the book, which is not such a good thing, since we are once again left wandering in the dark regarding their motivations, heritage or what is most important – allegiance. I admit that I sorely miss Anomander Rake, Caladan Brood, the laconic T’lan Imass and some of the other previously encountered characters and races.
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The most probable reason that I didn’t get into the book for what seemed like an eternity was because the characters left me nonplussed – the pathos that reverberated within Deadhouse Gates (book two), Memories of Ice (book three) and even House of Chains (book four) is now mostly gone. One of the best times I had with the book was when Erikson unleashes Iskaral Pust (one of my favorite characters, no doubt). On the other hand, Bottle, who plays a big role in The Bonehunters, never managed to entice me as much as I would have liked. I’m aware that it’s the plot that moves the series forward, prior to characterization (or anything else for that matter), but I’d still prefer, if Erikson wouldn’t use his characters as a vessel for his baffling musings on life, war, religion etc. so much, because it becomes sordid with overuse. I’d also opt for lesser number of POV’s; this approach is slowly outgrowing “epic” and is becoming something big, misshaped and unrecognizable. It’s hard for a reader to follow all the new players and the recurring old ones (dramatis personae and internet recaps are a must).
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---“Now, prepare to ride – I shall lead, but I shall not once wait for you should you lose the way.”
---“I thought you offered to guide me–“
---“Of lesser priority now,” she said, smirking. “Inverted in a most unholy fashion, you might say. No, what I seek now is to witness. Do you understand? To witness!” And with that the girl spun round and sped off.
---Swearing, the cutter drove heels into his mount’s flanks, hard on the girl’s tale.---(pg.541)
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The above excerpt seems something to reflect Erikson’s attitude/relationship towards the reader. (I've made an intentional lapsus linguae, which makes for a perfect pun)
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Erikson’s writing is competent, but also bloated and overindulgent at times. His usage of extremities (larger-than-life characters, exponential magnitudes of suffering and misery,..) gradually leads to a dampening-effect with the reader; nothing seems extraordinary any more. I often speculated who would beat who in the book, but Erikson deftly avoids such ambiguity by carefully planted misdirection or just by simply avoiding the question at hand. I’m also glad that he lessened the amount of humor used in the story, which I felt was overdone and not really that funny in Midnight Tides.
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Malazan Book of the Fallen has a set of constantly recurring themes: convergences in becoming (the foremost theme), chains/chaining (i.e. obligations, indebtedness), warmongery, misery (but which feels spread thin against all the power-struggles), anti-war sentimentality, power-struggles and so on. But we are also given something new to contemplate in The Bonehunters – the relationship between gods/ascendants and their followers. Is this relationship really one-sided or does it go both ways and is more arbitrary than we were lead to believe?
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I’m aware that I made this book sound horrid, but which clearly it is not. It’s just that I have really, really high expectations of such a talented author as is Steven Erikson; I got the feeling that he let me down in some essential way. Ok, sure, the series is showing signs of wearing down, but no matter how jaded it gets, Erikson still weaves the most complex, multi-layered, multi-threaded and colossally epic fantasy tale to date – he upholds the throne of badassery.
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~ Thrinidir ~

11 Comments:

RobB said...

I'm reading this one right now, so I'll drop back after I finish.

On an administrative note, the font for the quoted text is unreadable, it looks like Web dings.

ThRiNiDiR said...

tnx robb, it's been dealt with (webdings,right).

I'll be glad to hear your thoughts on the book.

Joe Sherry said...

I think I liked this one better than Midnight Tides, but Erikson's kind of hit a valley for me. Not that exceptional.

If my memory serves me right, though, unleashing Kalam near the end of The Bonehunters was one of the more exciting things I've read. Erikson just took a while to get to the goodness.

ThRiNiDiR said...

As did I; but MT had stronger ending in my opinion; the fights in front of the Azath House, fights with Rhuald and the closing line itself -- "And now...I'm going to beat me a god senseless." -- are priceless.

What can I say - once a fan, always a fan; Erikson really needs to do something stupid next to lose me :)

Loki said...

I feel you're a little harsh. The long, at times almost tedious build-ups are what I expect from Erikson, he's never NOT done them. Bonehunter was, in a way, better than others, as it had a very grand convergence at the middle of the book (Y'Ghatan) as well as at the end. This did mean that the end was less overwhelmingly awesome than some of the other books' endings, sure, but I felt it was still far sufficient to make it worth getting there.

The build-up BEFORE Y'Ghatan was the slow part, for me (it took me ten months - that's right, compared to one month for the rest of the book. I'm honestly not a slow reader, I just read very rarely these days), but it was not nearly as confusing, slow-paced or verging on uninteresting as, say, the first 20% of books one or two of the series. It was just Erikson being Erikson, and I kind of feel like anyone reading this series should expect that form of slow build-up by now.

As for the musings and philosophy, I'm sitting here realizing that wow, yeah, there was a lot of it. I barely noticed. Mostly, probably, because I find it interesting and appealing. The only characters who do these musings are the clearly intelligent, far-sighted individuals (of which there are a lot, we get - thankfully - a vast over-representation of the skilled and intelligent in our POVs of the books) and to me, them having such thoughts when faced with this much pain and destruction seems logical or even inevitable.

I kind of liked Bottle, though I tired a little of him by the end. Ganoes Paran kept growing more interesting in this one, though, which is very good, and we got more insight into Tavore and Laseen both, which is also awesome. Fiddler really shone in this one, and while Quick Ben has had better books, he's always a welcome addition. Finally, as you mention, Shadowthrone and Cotillion really come to the foreground now, clearing up a lot of things, and generally being fun.

I do agree on the exponential pathos undermining itself. Heboric's pain, for instance, felt a little bit like it rehashed the fate of the Shield Anvil of "Memories of Ice", only bigger and worse. Still, the tendency is still one that's infrequent enough that it doesn't bother me thoroughly.

Nice review, though, despite my disagreeing with some of the strenght of your criticism. Especially the philosophy-bit I'm happy to have pointed out for me.

ThRiNiDiR said...

Thanks for the comment Loki.

I agree, long buildups leading towards an convergence are expected from Malazan books, but I disagree that they have to be or were always tedious. There was a quality to the earlier books that made those buildups from being bearable to being pure awesome. With the first book, the sheer novelty had bore the brunt of the downsides of Erikson's; the sheer pathos of DG and MoI had the same role (I would also call House of Chains on par with those books; Karsa Orlong's introduction and the laconic Onrack The Broken made up for everything in my eyes); in MT and tBH though...the negative aspects prevailed imho.

The assault on Y'Ghatan itself was one of the best moments in the book and it reflected a bit of brilliance that Erikson is capable of creating; I felt very little of this towards the end of the book where the big finale was supposed to happen. Erikson's endings are a hit and miss for me (superb ending in book #2 and #3, good ending in book #5; and sub-par endings with the book #4 and now with the Bone Hunters).

Bottle is by no means unlikable, but with our fill of awesome characters (QB,Laseen,Tavore,...the list goes on and on) we know scarcely anything about it seems a bit unfair to me that Erikson brought another "major" player to the dance. Heboric, as you pointed out, feels more than a little rehashed and jaded; the plague that kills of more people that all the battles combined is only slightly touched upon and leaves no marks on the reader - as if it didn't happen at all (since it couldn't affect the big players, they being protected by their gods and all).

Thanks for pointing out the points we disagree on and for liking the review on overall. Be seeing you around :)

Loki said...

I followed your nick-link here from Amras' weblog, and since your recentmost post then was on a book I'd finished reading two days before, I couldn't help myself from blabbering on... you have my apologies for the excessive wordyness. ;)

Following that up with more wordyness, I absolutely agree on the plague. He should have taken more time to show us the suffering. Granted, Dujek died, but he died off-stage and didn't have any scenes in the book to refresh the ties to him either.

As for the finales, I loved 2 and 3. I found 5 to end rather well, probably as good as 4. 6 and 1 are the weakest finale-wise so far, but unlike you I felt Y'Ghatan made up for it a good bit by having many of the qualities of the finales.

The slow build-ups have varied. I didn't particularily like 2's, but the pathos of the story as you say made up for it. 3's was better. 1 was too hard to get into, I felt, but I think I'll enjoy it more upon re-read. 4, 5 and 6 were all quite tedious for me build-up-wise, and without the pathos of 2 making up for it. (Not that huge a Karsa-fan, I find him much more fun now with a "normal" character as the straight-man reacting to him than he ever was among his own or in solitude)

And you're added in my favourites now, so hopefully you'll see me around, yeah. ;)

ThRiNiDiR said...

No apologies needed Loki, blabbering is encouraged on this blog, as long as it's at least semi-related to the topic at hand :).

I agree with what you are saying about the endings with one small digression - personally I thought the ending of book 4 pretty chaotic and unsatisfactory.

Loki said...

You might be right. It's the one I remember the least clearly, so I might be off.

Anonymous said...

Upon first reading The Bonehunters my feelings very much reflected your review, with regards to pace, however I have just completed a re-read in preparation for the release of 'Toll of the Hounds'and really enjoyed the book , more so than the first time, the same for 'Reapers Gale'. For fans of the series there is a lot info hidden away in the throw away comments by a some of the characters. Give it a re-read a year or so down the line and I am sure you will enjoy it even more

ThRiNiDiR said...

I agree, Malazan series should be reread at least once and even then you might and will miss a lot of hidden-away connections within a seemingly trite content as you mention it (malazan forum is great for digging up all the possible and the impossible theories). So I believe I will reread it and then I guess I'll have to reassess my thoughts - but for the "first time around" my review stands as it. thanks for dropping by.

 

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