Wednesday 30 May 2007

Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson

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.

Monday 14 May 2007


Richard Morgan's masterful Black Man is now available in the United Kingdom. Full review here. William Lexner called this book a Stranger in a Strange Land for the 21st Century and I agree fully. If there is any justice, this will be a front-runner for the Best Novel Hugo at Denvercon 2008. The US edition of the book, entitled Thirteen, will be released on 26 June 2007.

I am currently reading Steven Erikson's Reaper's Gale, which will be my next review. However, it's very slow going. As with most Malazan books I expect the book to really kick into gear about halfway through. Nethspace has a review now though, as do Pat's Fantasy Hotlist and SFFWorld.

Paul Kearney, the skilled writer of the excellent Monarchies of God series, has had his new series, The Sea-Beggars, cancelled halfway through (and, very considerately, when he'd just about finished the third volume). More news on this here. Expect an author profile on Kearney in the near future.

In recent TV news, it has been confirmed that Lost will end after three more 16-episode seasons, conluding in May 2010. Battlestar Galactica, it is very heavily rumoured, will end with the final episode of Season 4, airing in March 2008. This has not yet been confirmed by the producers (David Eick comments on it here), but Eddie Olmos (who plays Admiral Adama) has hinted at it.

Tuesday 1 May 2007

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind is the debut novel by American author Patrick Rothfuss. It is the first volume in The Kingkiller Chronicles and has arrived on the back of an immense amount of publicity, comparable to that which accompanied the release of Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora last year. It is also an accomplished book which I greatly enjoyed reading.

The Name of the Wind
is really two stories told in parallel. In the present-day tale we meet 'Kote', an innocuous barman running a nice inn in the middle of nowhere. However, his ability to single-handedly take on an infestation of spider-like demons soon hints that he is more than he seems. The arrival of 'Chronicler', a man searching for a legend, soon reveals the truth to us: that our flame-haired innkeeper is really Kvothe, a warrior and spellcaster of powerful repute. The bulk of the novel then proceeds in flashback as Kvothe tells his life story to Chronicler.

There is nothing particularly new in this story. Kvothe is born amongst a travelling people and lives the bucolic dream until events take an unexpected turn etc. He then grows up learning various skills and eventually becomes an apprentice spellcaster at the great Commonwealth University, where things threaten to go a bit Harry Potter-shaped (although Rothfuss on his first novel is already a far more accomplished writer than Rowling after six) for a few chapters until Rothfuss takes the story in a more compelling direction.

What is unusual and somewhat refreshing about the story is its relaxed feel. There are moments of high drama, of confrontations and skirmishes and terror, and Rothfuss handles all of these with the skill of a seasoned writer, but for the most part the story is allowed to unfold at its own pace. Rothfuss' writing is quite rich and draws you into its smokey taverns, its music halls and wild windswept bluffs with ease, a far cry from the furious pace some othe recent fantasy stories have unfolded. In fact, when the novel comes to an end it's a slight surprise that it's not with a bang, but a simple pause before Kvothe unveils the second part of his life story.

The reason for this is that The Kingkiller Chronicle is actually one huge single novel that was broken in three for publication, and no attempt has really been made to make the individual parts stand alone. Those used to the 'standalone novel which is simultaneously part of a larger story' approach recently favoured by Scott Lynch or Steven Erikson may find this move slightly frustrating, as the second part of the trilogy is still a year away from publication.

Another flaw in the novel is that Rothfuss gives occasional winks to the audience letting them know that he knows about the cliches of the genre, and indeed he does a great job of subverting them on several occasions to good effect. However, on at least one occasion he oversteps this with a post-modern passage about Kvothe noting how his story sounds like a traditional campfire yarn and how his audience shouldn't get too comfortable just yet. Amusing, yes, but it took me out of the story. Not a good move.

Despite these minor problems, this is still an excellent fantasy novel, especially for a debut. The writing is very crisp and clear, with rich detail and some vivid characters. Rothfuss has done his homework and the University sections of the novel work very well, with mathmatics, metal-working, chemistry and music all forming part of the story in a very intricate manner. Rothfuss' magic system is also highly accomplished and original in conception and execution. I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of Tad Williams, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch or good, solid epic fantasy in general. Rothfuss hasn't necessarily done anything new here, but he's done it with a confidence and ability rare in a first-time novelist.

The Name of the Wind (****) is available now in the United States from DAW Publishing. A UK edition (with a frankly superior cover to the US editions) will be available on 20 September 2007 from Gollancz. Pat's Fantasy Hotlist reviews the book here. SFFWorld review the book here. Nethspace has a review here. The author has a website here. The author has also taken part in a Q&A session on which may be of some interest.