Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Reaper's Gale

by Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson's absurdly overwrought epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is now on its seventh entry out of an intended ten. Surprisingly he has continued to crank these out at a rate a little slower than one book a year, at a time when his contemporaries have been letting deadlines slip for years, and even flat out dropping dead before finishing their stories.

For those playing along at home the action in Reaper's Gale takes place in the Letherii empire, the same setting as that of book five (Midnight Tides), where a few stray plot threads from the almost completely unrelated sixth book (The Bonehunters) are about to wash up onshore and cause all sorts of havoc. The last two books were heavy with political allegory and real world commentary and Reaper's Gale is no different. Barbarians have conquered the Letherii empire (imagine a hyper capitalistic version of ancient Rome), yet have effected very little change to the lives of their new subjects (save the large proportion of their army that was slaughtered). It hasn't taken long for the Tiste Edur (said barbarians) to be seduced by the wealth and luxury that is theirs for the taking as the rulers of the empire, and opportunistic collaborators amongst the ruling class of the conquered are only to eager to keep the apparatus of their system working. A symbiotic pair of sinister organisations, the Patriotists (a particularly horrifying gang of fascist secret police) and the Liberty Consign (a consortium of powerful business interests) are consolidating their power by imprisoning, torturing and executing anyone who disagrees with them, and justifying the extension of their authority by engineering punitive wars against smaller, weaker neighbouring countries. The conversion of the Tiste Edur to the ways of the civilisation they conquered is fairly analogous to the real world barbarian conquests of Ancient Rome and Ancient China. The observant reader may notice that other plot elements bear striking similarities to those of that other popular epic fantasy series, the daily news.

All the same I find it hard to think of any real life analogue to the Tiste Edur's emperor Rhulad, gifted with a magic sword that renders him unkillable, secretly in thrall to the series' overall villian (The Crippled God, an intriguing character who we don't get to see enough of in this instalment) and driven mad by the deliberate machinations of those who would control him and his power (oh yeah and by the sword's terrible curse). Lets just say he represents big government. Rhulad not so secretly longs for the release of death so he has sent emissaries to every corner of the world searching for warriors who may be powerful enough to finally defeat him. At the end of The Bonehunters two of the series' recurring extreme badasses were recruited into this contest, and Reaper's Gale as a whole is weighted with the portentous promise of the cataclysmic confrontation between the three most absurdly powerful characters in a series known for ridiculously overblown, continent shattering battles.

But we still have to wade through eight hundred pages or so to actually get there, and perhaps Erikson's setup is a little too juicy because while the three characters in question stand around brooding for the better part of the book there are many other plotlines in motion, some of which are more interesting than others but all of which test the reader's patience at times, as we mutter with frustration under our breath “When are we going to get to the fireworks factory!”

It must be said that while Erikson still obviously has the overall arc of the story well set out in his head, the plotting of individual books is starting to get a little befuddled. The Bonehunters started to feel a little like a Robert Jordan book, with characters being shuffled around the map in a desperate bid to hit all of the plot point required of them in that volume. Reaper's Gale is an improvement on this, but is still a step down from the quality of the earlier books. It's hard to not be a little annoyed when Erikson introduces a whole cast of new characters and dedicates a quarter of the book to them only to have the end result of it be that 'X dies, Y mystery is introduced, Z plot thread is dispatched with suddenly and offscreen'. Fortunately when the climax finally arrives it doesn't disappoint, but neither is it any Deadhouse Gates (the series' second entry and the widely agreed high point so far, especially in terms of its stunning resolution). I still have high hopes for the remaining three books in the series, but it is a little disappointing to see a bit of 'middle book syndrome' creeping in for the most recent two.

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