Wednesday, 20 February 2019

The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

The rebellion known as the Whirlwind has been defeated and now its last army is fleeing to the storied city of Y'Ghatan. The Malazan 14th Army, the Bonehunters, is in hot pursuit, keen to eradicate the last vestiges of rebellion on Seven Cities. But fate, the gods and the crafty general known as Leoman of the Flails have other ideas. Elsewhere, black ships from beyond the western oceans have set events are in motion that will engulf the greatest warriors in the world, Karsa Orlong of the Teblor and Icarium Lifestealer among them, and will see the Master of the Deck, Ganoes Paran, reluctantly take a direct hand in events.

Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series is initially made up of three interlocking story arcs: events on Genabackis, events on Seven Cities and events on the continent of Lether. For the first five books these story arcs have been broadly kept separate, but the sixth volume is when they decisively collide with one another. To put it another way, if Malazan was the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is the first Avengers movie where you get to see characters from all the previous sub-series meet up and rub shoulders with one another.

There is undeniably a visceral thrill to this, as it represents the shape of the over-arcing Malazan storyline starting to come into focus. We start getting a better idea of what the series overall is going to be about and where the final battles will take place, although much remains murky. The feeling that the series is - at last! - starting to coalesce into one coherent, cohesive narrative is satisfying.

That said, it is also not handled entirely well. Previous Malazan books have been relatively smooth and consistent in their tone. This book feels a lot more inconsistent, a side-effect of mashing together characters from rather different previous books and storylines. There's also a slight air of contrivance to the book. Characters meet up in unlikely coincidences and mysterious new allies show up having spent two years pre-preparing a ritual which will come in handy at a key moment. Characters portentously declare things to one another that will leave the reader baffled. At one point, apropos of Douglas Adams, the moon actually explodes for no immediately discernible reason (which gets an explanation later on that still feels rather random).

The book is also a bit on the over-full side. Some Malazan novels are overlong and have a lot of filler in them; others (particularly the first three) are super-lean and bursting out of the page limit with incident, character developments and intriguing themes. The Bonehunters instead feels like the plots of three separate novels have been pushed into it and the focus careens between them with the grace of a pinball machine. So much is going on that major events and characters are given very short shrift indeed (the incidental death of one major, long-standing character is disappointing). In particular, the rise of two previous confirmed villains into positions of supreme power and influence comes out of left field and is fundamentally unconvincing, even moreso on a reread.

But this is still a Malazan novel written by Steven Erikson, so that means we still get excellent and brutally tragic set-piece events, wonderful moments of prose and dialogue and some effectively powerful reflections of the human condition. At one point the book threatens to turn into a disaster novel, which would have been interesting (fantasy disaster novels are pretty thin on the ground), although the book then shoots off in a different direction. There's also a series of phenomenal action sequences paced through the book, with the Malazans and Whirlwind soldiers clashing in a burning city, a naval face-off between two mighty powers and, most impressively, a long-running battle through the streets of a major city as Kalam and the Claw finally settle their debts. There's a lot of good stuff in this book, it just doesn't necessarily hang together as well as it should.

The Bonehunters (***½) is one of the more divisive books in the series - I've seen people lament it as the worst book in the series (which I don't agree with) and praise it as the best (which I also don't agree with) - but it's also one of the most action-packed and is the one that brings the focus and ultimate point of the series into sharper relief, which is a good thing. In order to get there, an (even for this series) unlikely number of plot twists and coincidences have to take place, which makes the book feel more artificial than almost any other Malazan novel released to date. That said, it's written so well that you may not even care. The book is available now in the UK and USA.


Anonymous said...

Like you said, as a novel as a whole, Bonehunters feels a little disjointed and is a mediocre Malazan book. But the Siege of Y'Ghatan and the ending climax are both VERY good.

Kind of reminds me of Toll the Hounds, which I found to be similarly mediocre and slow, but then the sudden leadup to the climax and the climax itself basically redeemed the whole book for me.

Anonymous said...

I remember flying through this one in a month (fast for a slow reader like myself where the norm for these tomes was more like 3-4 months). Not sure why as it wasn't my favourite but it definitely wasn't the worst in the series either, I agree with you there.

messy said...

ah, thank you for this review, wert. now i can read your write-ups for the entire series (which is probably as close as i'll get to actually reading the series itself, due to complexity and grit).