Memories of Ice is the third novel in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, returning the action to the continent of Genabackis, the setting of the first novel in the series, Gardens of the Moon and taking place simultaneously alongside the second, Deadhouse Gates. Memories of Ice is a direct sequel to Gardens of the Moon, so whilst is possible to start reading the Malazan series with Deadhouse Gates, it is not really possible to do so with Memories.
Like Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice consists of four major storylines proceeding in tandem. In the first, Onearm's Host has to ally with its former enemies to march against the Pannion Domin. This storyline follows the awkwardness of the former bitter enemies working alongside one another. In the second storyline, the entity Silverfox (created during the events of Gardens of the Moon) has summoned the undead T'lan Imass legions to undergo the Second Gathering, which will determine the future of the species and their endless (and increasingly pointless) war against the Jaghut, which has now spanned a quarter of a million years. In a third storyline, Toc the Younger and Onos T'oolan (both from Gardens of the Moon) find themselves on the other side of the continent, where they meet and ally with the Seguleh punitive army (all three of them) and the enigmatic sorceress Lady Envy. In the fourth, we join the Grey Swords as they strive to defend Capustan against utterly overwhelming odds. Numerous subplots - such as the fate of the Mhybe, Silverfox's mother whose lifeforce is inadvertently being consumed by her daughter; the journey of a T'lan Imass emissary with news of a desperate war on the distant continent of Assail; the misadventures of two necromancers and their long-suffering servants; and the story of Gruntle, a caravan guard who suddenly becomes something more - abound.
As with Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice is an epic and sprawling novel but which benefits from rotating its storylines on a regular basis to give the novel an impressive sense of momentum, so that it's 1,100 pages fly past at an impressive rate of knots once the story gets underway. That does take a little while, though. Memories opens slow, with the various forces gathering, and there's perhaps a couple too many intense strategy meetings near the start of the book as characters gather and discuss the plot. This is quite refreshing - the primary criticism of Gardens of the Moon is that Erikson fails to explain what's going on, whilst Memories of Ice is lot clearer on the stakes and what's happening - but it does mean that it takes a while for the story to start picking up.
The Malazan series has always excelled in sometimes avoiding or inverting epic fantasy tropes and sometimes playing them straight, but always interrogating them. There is a lot of blood-letting, duels, battles and sorcerous enfilades in the series, but the cost of such violence is always laid bare. The core themes of the Malazan series (and one that I think belies its occasionally-claimed status as grimdark) are compassion and the moral cost of whatever conflict is to be fought. Actions result in consequences, some of which can stain the soul, and Memories of Ice is the novel that most directly, painfully and tragically deals with this cost, particularly through the moving story of Itkovian, the soldier who volunteers to carry the guilt and trauma of thousands on his own shoulders. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a tragedy and Memories of Ice is perhaps the novel that most dramatically embodies that, through the awe-inspiring finale (still one of the finest in all of fantasy fiction) at the city of Coral.
There are a few minor issues. In terms of pacing, the book takes a little longer to get going, so in that sense it's not quite as tight a novel as Deadhouse Gates (which is a clear 200 pages shorter as a result). Whilst the central conflict - the battle against the Pannion Domin - is resolved in this novel, the book is also a little more plugged in to the story arcs that will span the rest of the series, most notably the saga of the Crippled God. It's highly arguable - fans have been arguing about it for seventeen years so far - but it's also debatable that a late-novel act of profound treachery was set up a bit too obviously and supposedly intelligent characters should have picked up on that earlier and stopped it, but this feels a little bit too pedantic a complaint and one reliant on hindsight.
Memories of Ice (*****) almost matches the dramatic power and intensity of Deadhouse Gates, perhaps falling a little short in structure and tightness but making up for it with the sheer scope of the tragic (and traumatic) final battle. This is a fantasy novel about compassion, forgiveness, war, peace, sacrifice and everything inbetween, related through a huge cast of interesting and sympathetic characters. (Very) arguably, the Malazan series will never quite reach these heights again, but will often come close. One of the strongest books in the series and one of the very finest fantasy novels published this century. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.