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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Steven Erikson - Midnight Tides

If you call yourself a fantasy fan, and you have yet to read anything by Steven Erikson (or George R R Martin), you ought to be ashamed of yourself. After I finished reading Storm of Swords by George R R Martin back in 2000, I had no idea that I was going to wait for more than half a decade for the next Song of Ice and Fire to come out.

I had outgrown Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms since then, and that was the period when I started devouring all kinds of other fantasy books that could assuage my hunger, satiate my thirst for some good fantasy that can fill in the void left by the last Song of Ice and Fire book.

It was the period where I managed to discover some pretty fantasy authors and series (Shannara, Sword of Truth and other rubbish like that had been put behind me), Tad Williams' Otherworld (it's debatable, but there are elements of fantasy), those Neil Gaiman books, that fanfic-hating Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders, the genre-bending China Mieville, but somehow, as good as they were, none of the series left me awed. Otherworld was somewhat shallow, Neil Gaiman's Stardust was superb, but his other books were just pretty damned good, not insanely mindblowing, Robin Hobb's promising trilogy failed because of the way she sequenced some parts towards the end etc.

Then I discovered Steven Erikson's Malazan books, and immediately, I was blown away. Never, I meant NEVER, had I ever read a fantasy book filled with such COOLNESS. The magic system (it's totally complex, not your generic Dungeons and Dragons bullshit), the characters, powerful they may be, were always pretty realistic (a character could easily kick Drizzt Do'Urden's ass, but he's, ah, afraid of his wife), the plot, the world, the culture of the world, the backstory, my god. It was mindblowing.

It helped that Steven Erikson was a anthropologist and archeologist, thus he could infuse his world with so much depth and realism. The world in these Malazan books, cruel and unforgiving it may be, is so fascinating and mysterious that a typical reader might wish that they were living in a place like that, just to experience firsthand everything described by Erikson.

The series just got better and better. The first book was the World Fantasy Awards nominee Garden of the Moon, then followed by the tragic and immensely moving Deadhouse Gates, after that, the stunningly, emotionally-draining Memories of Ice, and then a somewhat smaller-scale and simpler House of Chains.

These Malazan books are interesting because each of them tend to have a neat resolution in the end, with some loose ends picked up in later books (but they won't bother you as much as, say, those Song of Ice And Fire's cliffhanger endings). In fact, each of them are like epic blockbusters, so huge in scope that lesser writers (hellooooo, Robert Jordan!) would need an entire freaking series to finish what Erikson did with one book.

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Summary from a customer review by Mr AF Whitehead in amazon.com.uk: The Kingdom of Lether and the neighbouring Tiste Edur tribes are planning a peace conference to resolve their differences. The fearsome Tiste Edur Warlock King is actually keen on peace, having expended his strength and troops on uniting the tribes. However, one of his warriors concludes a dark pact with the Crippled God (the series' primary unifying force and the only 'person' whose presence is felt in all the novels) and is resurrected to become the new Tiste Emperor, equipped with sorcerous weapons of mass destruction, which are rapidly hurled in the direction of the Letheri capital. In the capital various political games come to a head as new characters take centre stage.

Midnight Tides is the fifth book of the series, and it is highly different from the previous as it featured an all-new settings and characters (one of the protagonists in this book appeared only a couple of times in the previous book, House of Chains).

The much loved humour in the interaction between Tehol and Bugg, master and servant, was indeed fantastic. What I liked about it was the fact that it wasn't as self-consciously funny like Pratchett, it's humour so understated that one would find it a relief than an annoyance in this grim and dark book.

What do you want in a good fantasy book? Gripping characters? Well, you have it, you'll probably be so emotionally attached to some of these characters that their deaths will devastate you (the body count in this book is pretty high). Good fighting scenes? Battle scenes? I don't think I've ever read anything better than the Malazan books in this aspect. Political intrigue? Though not as into it as those George R R Martin books, this one has plenty too. Good pacing? Romance? Humour? Check (I'd wished that it didn't end that early), check (it's somewhat subtle) and check (refer to previous paragraph).

Erikson is highly productive, almost a book a year, and to see him churning out books of such quality and scope is pretty freaking insane. After not reading fantasy for quite a while throughout 2005, I was glad that he reminded me how good fantasy stories can still be.

I can't go more into it, but I'll just quote the last two paragraphs of SFsite.com's review.

Erikson's productivity remains prodigious, and unlike other authors that have reached a similar point in protracted series, there is no evidence that either his imagination or energy has flagged; if anything, each new novel moves from strength to strength, improving on what has gone before. Granted, there is a sense near the end of abbreviation, of resolutions that might have been better fleshed out. But in a serial world where others have stalled or are engaged in reiterative narratives, Erikson's accomplishment is no mean feat, and this series has already clearly established itself as the most significant work of epic fantasy since Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, published twenty-some years back. The same and more might be claimed for heroic fantasy.

Those of you that have yet to read Erikson don't know what you're missing, though this is not work for readers seeking romance or unadulterated escape. Fans that have discovered the imaginative and percipient vision which inspires this author's work, always propelled by vigorous action, will not be disappointed here -- Erikson can accomplish more in a few pages what it takes others dozens to realize. And he does so better and with far greater style.

How to go back to Eddings, really.