Reaper's Gale is the seventh volume of Canadian author Steven Erikson's epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Since the publication of the first volume, Gardens of the Moon (1999), this series has come to be one of the pre-dominant epic fantasy series of modern times, exceeded only by George RR Martin's superlative A Song of Ice and Fire and rivalled by Scott Bakker's excellent Prince of Nothing Trilogy. With 'only' three more books to come, Reaper's Gale continues the process of tying together a lot of long-standing plotlines from previous volumes and taking us towards the grand finale of the series.
It is a year since the events of The Bonehunters, two or more years since the events of Midnight Tides. The Kingdom of Lether has been conquered by the Tiste Edur tribes of the north and a grand new empire has been forged under the crazed eye of Rhulad Sengar, the insane Emperor of a Thousand Deaths. However, some among the Edur fear that rather than conquer Lether, they have been subsumed by it, as the day-to-day running of the empire continues under the stewardship of the corrupt Chancellor Gnol and the Edur have been infected by Lether's ultra-capitalist ideology.
In the lands to the east of Lether, the Awl'dan tribes are massing for war under a new leader, forcing the commander of the frontier garrison of Drene to fight a desperate series of battles. In the province of Bluerose a party of strangers arrive searching for the soul of a long-lost demigod. In the capital of Letheras an economic genius and a disguised god plot the ruin of the empire. A great fleet has returned from the far side of the world, sent there on a quest to find warriors capable of challenging Rhulad in battle, and with them come Icarium Lifestealer and Karsa Orlong, warriors without compare. But in that task the Letherii inflicted great harm and loss of life on outlying outposts of a distant nation, and on the heels of the great fleet a formidable force is descending on Lether. The Malazan Empire has come to seek redress...
Reaper's Gale picks up the dangling plotlines from the previous two volumes and ties them together in a most satisfying manner. I felt that the previous three volumes had seen a noticeable decline in the quality of the series since the superb Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice, but Reaper's Gale is a real return to form. Characterisation is much better than before (particularly among the Bonehunters themselves) and storylines are expanded and resolved in a much more efficient manner than in previous volumes. Reaper's Gale shares the problem with The Bonehunters of not being a stand-alone novel, which all of the previous Malazan books could be read as, but this late in the day it's not a problem. Most readers would probably not start reading an author with Book 7 of a ten-volume series anyway.
It's not a perfect book. Many of Erikson's underlying problems remain. His inability to give characters their own distinctive voice beyond a few exceptions (Beak, Karsa and Tehol in this volume) is now to be expected, as is the tendency for even the meanest character, barman or lowest-common-denominator soldier or peasent, to suddenly break into a lengthy philosophical monologue on the meaning of reality or something. However, this problem occurs somewhat less frequently than in prior books. Again, Erikson's rather relaxed attitude to the timeline also causes some confusion in working out what events happen when (Fear Sengar and Silchas Ruin's party seems to have taken a pretty ludicrous amount of time to cross a few hundred miles from Letheras to Bluerose), but given that most people gave up trying to keep this straight three or four books back, it's not a major problem either. Another, potentially more serious, problem is in the Tehol/Bugg storyline, which involves them helping a female victim of torture and rape. The dichotomy between Tehol and Bugg's normally humourous storylines and this darker plotline is something Erikson doesn't entirely pull off.
Erikson does do a lot of things better this time around. The combat scenes are more visceral and gritty than they have been since Memories of Ice. The constant use of Moranth munitions to get out of every jam is mildly tedious, but seeing the Malazan army doing what it's supposed to be doing and doing it well is thoroughly entertaining. Icarium, who can be a somewhat tedious character at times, is surprisingly and refreshingly kept in the background for much of the book, whilst most of the protagonists, old and new, are intriguing. There is good humour in the book (the drunken Sergeant Hellian, who was tedious in the previous volume, is much funnier this time around) and a particularly amusing side-swipe at Another Bestselling Fantasy Author (involving allegedly evil chickens). The normal 400-page clearing-the-throat thing that Erikson does at the start of each novel is mercifully reduced to about 200 pages or so in this volume, meaning that whilst this is still an overlong book, it's nowhere near as bad as other volumes in the series. Finally, just when it appears that Erikson is in danger of shutting down the entire series, with perhaps nothing but irrelevant filler to appear in the final three novels, he opens a number of interesting tangents and storylines to be explored further whilst still satisfactorily concluding a large number of stories from the earlier novels in the sequence.
Reaper's Gale (****) is available now in the United Kingdom from Bantam in hardcover and trade paperback. An American edition from Tor will be published in April or May 2008. Nethspace, Pat's Fantasy Hotlist and SFFWorld all have reviews of the book as well. The eighth volume in the series, Toll the Hounds, is expected from Bantam in May 2008.