From across the continent of Lether and far beyond, powers and armies are converging on the vast Wastelands to the east of the Letherii Empire. Adjunct Tavore, commander of the the Malazan 14th Army - the Bonehunters - plans to take her army into that wilderness, aided by the Letherii imperial legions under Brys Beddict. To the south her allies, the Perish Grey Helms and Khundryl Burned Tears, barter for passage across the Kingdom of Bolkando, only to be met with betrayal and murder. On the plains of the Ar'kryn, the Barghast White Face clans face insurrection and treachery. A ribbon of refugees flees westward from Kolanse into the Wastelands and the immense Glass Desert, whilst in the far west the Shake abandon their island homeland to seek the First Shore, unaware that their return to their ancestral warren will re-awaken ancient powers.
Human and Barghast, K'Chain Che'Malle and T'lan Imass, Shake and Jaghut, mortals and ascendants alike find themselves drawn into a convergence outstripping anything before seen in the mortal realm, for the sky is rent in flame and shadow and a long-imprisoned god returns to the mortal realm with Darkness clenched in his hand. The Bonehunters and their allies march to a war they cannot win to avenge an empire that has rejected them, whilst the K'Chain Che'Malle march to war to end an ancient conflict and find a place for themselves in the world. But under the light of what has appeared in the sky, it appears that all might be in vain...
Dust of Dreams is the penultimate novel of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson's immense ten-volume saga chronicling the story of the Malazan Empire and its legions and the peoples and tribes it comes into contact with. More accurately, Dust of Dreams is also the first half of an immense 1,800-plus-page single novel, to be completed by The Crippled God when it follows (hopefully) next year. This, then, is the beginning of the end and the start of the final act of this immense series, certainly the most ambitious work of epic fantasy ever attempted.
Reviewing the ninth of a ten-book series feels slightly redundant. By now, people know if Erikson is for them or not. As a result, this review will likely be of most interest to those readers who perhaps felt that the series' second half has been more disappointing than its initial half, with the acceleration of the expansion of the cast of characters, concepts, races and forms of magic reaching an increasingly convoluted and over-complex pace. It is hard to argue with this, and the fact is that Dust of Dreams introduces yet many more new characters, ideas, forms of magic and concepts. Whilst it is certainly the case that we get some long-standing mysteries resolved in this book - like why exactly Tavore had to break with the Malazans and bring her army to the far side of the planet - other mysteries are left unaddressed or even further complicated by events. If Erikson takes the literally hundreds of questions left dangling by the series and answers them satisfyingly in the final book of the series I will be surprised, but I have a nagging feeling that an awful lot of stuff is going to be left for the nine additional Malazan books that Erikson (and four more from his co-writer Ian Esslemont) has been contracted for.
Dust of Dreams is certainly far more proactive in plot than the largely static and introspective Toll the Hounds, and returns to the format of many of the earlier books in the series: a lot of set-up and ponderous navel-gazing punctuated by some humour followed by a convergence of forces, usually in a massive battle sequence. The humour is great (although Tehol, one of Erikson's more reliable sources of comic relief, is actually severely annoying in this novel) and the characters in the Malazan army and occupied Letheras are mostly well-drawn, but the traditional problems of having tons of pretty identical 'salt of the earth' Malazan soliders with stupid names who can debate morality and political theory at the drop of the hat remains intact. Erikson's characterisation is also suspiciously transparent here: many of these soldiers, established not just here but in The Bonehunters, Reaper's Gale and House of Chains as well, seem to have scenes just so we feel sympathy for them later on when they are killed (or at least their fates are left hanging). For some of the characters this works, but for most it doesn't.
On the prose style, Erikson's writing ability remains impressive but is often mis-aimed: a lengthy five-page debate on morality between two characters often seems to end in the stunning realisation that it's wrong to use civilian shields in warfare, or unrestrained capitalism and the exploitation of poorer nations through trade is as bad in its own way as slavery and colonialism. Stunning insights into the human condition, these are most definitely not. As a result progress through the novel can feel like wading through treacle until the story actually gets moving again.
At the same time, Erikson still has an almost-unmatched ability to bring together subplots and characters in interesting combinations, moreso in Dust of Dreams as more of the puzzle of the entire series is unveiled and we begin to get a sense that most of those annoying minor elements that played virtually no constructive roles in previous books - such as Icarium and his machine, the Eres, the Shake, a certain journey through the Imperial Warren, Stormy and Gesler's long-ago transformation and the Tiste Andii moping around - are all vital pieces of the puzzle. The sheer breadth of Erikson's imagination, the scope of his world and the ambition of his story remains staggering and genuinely impressive, although arguably the weight of that narrative is so heavy that the author struggles in places to get his vision across.
Events culminate in a battle sequence that redefines the meaning of the word 'epic'. This series has had its share of massive engagements, from the Chain of Dogs through the Siege of Capustan and the Battle of Y'Ghatan through to the Bonehunters' rampage across the Letherii Empire, but what happens at the end of Dust of Dreams and the forces brought to bear eclipse everything that has come before combined. The novel ends on a colossal cliffhanger - for the first and last time in the series - with the immediate threat apparently receding but with the tally of the survivors incomplete. The fates of literally dozens of named characters are left hanging in the balance until the final book arrives, hopefully next year.
This late injection of energy and excitement to the book really props it up (and adds another star onto the review score), as does the return of a certain individual (already known to readers of Toll the Hounds) in an impressive manner. Erikson even gets a bit meta in places, at one point dishing out some excellent comical commentary on the series' infamously tangled timeline. The book also delivers an impressive and distinctive sense of atmosphere, with a sense of distant but approaching doom permeating almost every page and Erikson's powers of landscape description (always somewhat underrated) really bring even the barren Wastelands to life. His abilities to describe combat effectively remain unimpeachable, as well.
Dust of Dreams (****) is a typical latter-period Malazan novel, by turns infuriating and impressive, turgid and lyrical, slow and immensely action-packed. It's a stronger book than The Bonehunters and Toll the Hounds, possibly Reaper's Gale as well, and leaves the reader wanting more, which in the final analysis is a good thing, but there remains the nagging feeling that if Erikson could cut to the chase a bit more, the series would not only be shorter but also considerably stronger. Still, a bit late in the day to worry about that now. The book is available now in the UK and will be published in the USA on 19 January 2010.