Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews

5Jul/160

“Blackout”/”All Clear” by Connie Willis

blackout

I’m only going to write a single review for “Blackout” and “All Clear” since Connie Willis intended them to be a single novel and they are only in two volumes because of the length.

I found that I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with these books, there were many bits that I really enjoyed and found compelling but there were also persistent flaws that kept reoccurring. Towards the end of “All Clear” I found that the more irritating flaws had reduced in number so I was left with an overall positive impression of the books but I think potentially there could have been a much stronger story here.

I found the basic premise quite appealing; in the mid-21st Century time travel has been invented and is being used as a tool by historians who now have the opportunity to directly experience major historical events rather than just writing about them. Willis has previously written other stories (which I haven’t read) following historians to other historical periods but in this case the main focus is on a trio of characters experiencing various aspect of life in England in the early years of World War 2 but who find themselves unable to return back to their own time. I do wonder a bit whether reading Willis’ previous time-travel stories might have answered a few of the questions I had about the background to this. The Oxford of 2060 seems oddly anachronistic, it feels more like the background to an Inspector Morse episode rather than a futuristic society and I don’t know whether it was a deliberate plot point that England in forty-five years time will feel a lot like England forty-five years ago or if it was just lazy world-building.

Fortunately, the books don’t spend much time in the future and I found the world-building to be much more convincing when it was showing the 1940s. Although the story visits a few time periods (from Dunkirk to VE Day) it spends most of its time during the Blitz in London and it gives a very evocative portrayal of how horrific and disorienting that constant air-raids must have been, the scenes set around St Paul’s as much of the surrounding area becomes an inferno during one of the fiercest raids were particularly effective at showing how hellish that time could be. The books also do a good job of showing the population of London trying to somehow live their lives in the midst of the chaos. Willis has obviously done a huge amount of research into the time period, I think this has both good and bad points since it does help making the setting feel real but at the same time also contributes to the excessive length of the story.

The plot is also very cleverly constructed with lots of hints and clues about what is going to happen later in the story (and I’m sure there are probably more there than I noticed). A lot of the fun of reading the story was trying to piece together those clues. Willis uses a structure where each chapter follows one of the characters before switching to another character for the next chapter, usually with some sort of mini-cliffhanger at the end of the chapter. I think this does help in making the reader want to find out what happens next and I found I went through the book relatively fast, on the other hand the cliffhangers do often feel a bit manipulative and there are so many fake disasters that turn out not to be disasters that when things really do go wrong I found myself initially unsure whether to believe them or not. I think perhaps the most frustrating thing about the story was how slow the plot progression could be and how some of the plotlines got very repetitive. There are a lot of instances characters almost but not quite meeting up with each other or finding a way back to their own time, but are prevented by bad timing or bad communication or bad luck. Admittedly, much of this does become an actual plot point in the story but that doesn’t really make it any less irritating. Unfortunately, it’s one of those books where it feels a lot of trouble could be solved if the characters just sat down and had a lengthy and honest conversation with each other but they either decide not to do that or are prevented from doing that. In the first book there’s also a lot of repetition between the three main plotlines as the central characters (who haven’t yet met up) are all separately trying to figure out why they’re unable to return to 2060.

I think with some ruthless editing it would probably have been possible to cut maybe a third of the length of the story without losing anything too significant. Some of the subplots take up a lot of space without ever really going anywhere. For example, I find Bletchley Park as fascinating a topic as any other Computer Science graduate but a character’s visit to there is ultimately inconsequential and should probably have been cut.

Usually I found the supporting characters to be more interesting than the three main protagonists with an interesting and varied cast (the infamous Hodbin children were particularly memorable). Out of the three main characters I found Eileen to be the most interesting and likeable, while she might initially seem the most out-of-her-depth (as the other two protagonists seem to think) in the long run she turns out to be perhaps the most resilient and perceptive of them and she has the most interesting interactions with the other 1940s characters as well as the most character development. I also thought Mike had some interesting character development after having been fairly bland initially but Polly felt like she didn’t really change much over the course of the story. One minor irritation is that for people who are supposedly historians they don’t seem to know much history beyond the details of how to blend into the era (it feels like I shouldn’t know more about things that happened in World War 2 than they do), and their assessment of historical events sometimes seems a bit dubious.

Overall I’d have to say my reaction to the two books was a bit mixed. I did enjoy many aspects of the story and I found them compelling enough to read hundreds of pages in a day, on the other hand the story is far longer than it needs to be and it felt like the books weren’t quite as good as they had the potential to be.

Rating : 7.5 / 10

3Jun/160

“Children of Earth and Sky” by Guy Gavriel Kay

children of earth and sky

I’ve read all of Guy Gavriel Kay’s previous novels and enjoyed them all (even if some are better than others) so bought this soon after it was released.

Like a lot of his previous books Kay has decided to set the story in what is ostensibly a fantasy world but one that maps very closely to real history (to the extent that individual characters and places are often identifiable even if under slightly different names) with some minor supernatural elements added. This book is in many ways a follow-up to his Sarantine Mosaic duology (which I think is one of Kay’s best works) which was set at the height of Kay’s world’s equivalent of the Byzantine Empire. Children of Earth and Sky is set many centuries after the Sarantine books, shortly after the great city of Sarantium has fallen to his world’s equivalent of the Ottoman Empire who now threaten neighbouring nations with much of the story taking place in the mercantile republics of Seressa (Venice) and Dubrava (Dubrovnik) as they try to trade with both sides in the conflict. I don’t really know much about the period of European history Kay’s book is based on, so this is an unusual fantasy book where I’ve feel like I’ve learned more about actual history from reading something not technically set in our world. While it’s not really necessary to have read the Sarantine books to follow the plot in this there are some nice references to the previous series scattered throughout the book and it does revisit some familiar locations.

I’ve always liked Kay’s characterisation and this time around he does seem to have avoided some of his past excesses about having characters who are supremely talented at everything they turn their hand to. I thought there was some really good character development here. The idea of heroism seems to be one of the main themes here and Kay does a good job of showing characters who may in some respects be genuinely heroic and morally ambiguous at the same time. There is a good variety of characters here as well, while the two main female protagonists may be very different they both find their own ways of making an impact on the world.

I did think this book took a while to really get going, the first hundred or so pages seem largely devoted to introducing a large cast of characters in a variety of settings and they can initially feel a bit disconnected. One thing Kay does well is showing how suddenly violence could break out in such a world, and it’s after one of those abrupt outbreaks of violence that I thought the book started to become compelling. Overall the book is more focused on character interactions and political intrigue than action but when required it does deliver some compelling action scenes with a forest ambush and a desperate rearguard action against an invading army being particularly memorable. Although this isn’t a book with a single straightforward plotline I think Kay did a good job of weaving the different plotlines together so it feels like a coherent novel and although the ending, like real history, doesn’t tie everything up too neatly it does offer enough of a conclusion to be satisfying.

Overall, I’d probably rank this not far behind Kay’s best books, other than taking a while to get going I don’t have any major criticisms of it.

Rating : 8.5 / 10

3Jun/160

“The Tiger and the Wolf” by Adrian Tchaikovsy

tigerandthewolf

Adrian Tchaikovsky seems to be one of the more prolific authors writing at the moment, it's only been a couple of years since he finished his ten-volume Shadows of the Apt series and this book is the third novel he's published since then (and they haven't been short books). After last year's two standalones this is a return to the series format, although this isn't intended to be as lengthy a series as the Apt books.

The setting this time is a bit different to his previous fantasy books, whereas they had relatively advanced societies this book feels like it is set in its world's equivalent of the Bronze Age with most people living in small warring tribes. Because of this the world-building feels a bit simplistic compared to the Apt books, but it does a reasonable job of making it feel convincing and mostly avoids the potential trap of having the characters have too modern a mindset for their surroundings. Tchaikovsky does usually like to have a high-concept premise; in this case it's that all humans have the ability to shapeshift into the form of their tribe's animal. There are a variety of different tribes shown from the relatively mundane wolves, tigers and bears through to the more exotic Komodo dragons and one character who is able to change into the form of an unnamed animal reminiscent of a Jurassic Park-style velociraptor. If nothing else, this does make for some distinctive and entertaining action scenes, I feel like I’ve read a lot of fantasy books where all the fights could have come straight from medieval Europe so it’s nice to have a bit of variety.

Although Tchaikovsky can always be relied upon to have some inventive ideas I find it’s often his characterisation that I like best about the books. I did like the characters in this, the protagonist Maniye is very likeable and gets some good character development, to a large extent the book is structured as her coming-of-age story so it can occasionally feel a little bit clichéd. I thought there were also some good characters among the supporting cast, and there is some subtle character development where the reader’s initial impression may be biased by Maniye’s opinion of them but it gradually becomes apparent that she’s not always the best judge of character.

I think maybe my biggest criticism of the book might be that while this is clearly meant to only show the beginning of a conflict against a potentially world-threatening threat, that more epic part of the storyline is perhaps a bit too much in the background for it to really be interesting. The book can also sometimes be a bit predictable in its plot developments; it’s not too hard to anticipate some of the plot twists although there were also quite a few things which did take me by surprise.

Overall, I wouldn’t say this is Tchaikovsky’s best book (I think last year’s “Guns of the Dawn” is still my favourite) but it was a consistently enjoyable read with some unique and memorable scenes.

Rating : 7.5 / 10

23Apr/160

“The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

long way to a small angry planet

The starship Wayfarer does something that would seem extraordinary to us, but commonplace to its crew. Their job is to build wormholes to make it easier for other starships to travel between the many planets of a galaxy-spanning alliance of alien races. Half of the crew are humans, who are one of the junior members of that civilisation. Rosemary Harper is the crew's newest recruit, a seemingly ordinary recent graduate fleeing a secret in her past who has the unenviable task of trying to bring some organisation to the ship. She has to adjust to the new crew, including some alien races she'd never even heard of, while at the same time preparing for the ship's biggest commission to construct a wormhole to a planet in the middle of what was recently a war-zone.

I don't think the book was exactly what I expected it to be, but I did like it. The initial setup (new recruit joins the crew of a small spaceship) immediately made me think of the likes of Firefly, the Paradox trilogy or The Tales of the Ketty Jay, but I think this was a bit misleading because it's got a lot less action than any of those other series and while the crew may have their own secrets and eccentricities they're much more law-abiding than the rogues that make up most of the other crews. I wouldn't count this as being space opera, instead it is more of an interstellar travelogue with a big focus on the characterisation and in particular how different species of humans and aliens interact with each other.

I liked the characters, and I liked the way they interacted with each other and how they had to all adjust the way they behaved to take into account they were sharing the ship with three other alien races (and even the humans have big cultural differences, some of them being from a culture of committed pacifists who won't accept the use of weapons even when heading into a potential warzone). The aliens had a convincing mix of behaviour that is comprehensible and some ways of thinking that are different for us to understand (some of the other crewmembers find it difficult to adjust to a crewmember of a reptilian race who only count their children as people once they start to become adults). It takes a while to really get to know them but I thought there were some great scenes in the second half of the book. If I had a criticism I'd say the plot maybe takes a bit too long to get going, but by the time of the finale it has becomes a compelling story. I'm definitely interested in seeing how the story develops in the sequel.

Rating : 8 / 10

23Apr/160

“Slade House” by David Mitchell

slade house

Slade House if a difficult place to find, seemingly only accessible by a small black door off an alleyway in a nondescript suburban housing estate. This book tells the story of some of the unlucky people who manage to find the house and encounter its inhabitants.

This short novel is a companion-piece to Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks" which I read last year, unlike that book which mixed a number of different genres this sticks to a single genre, in this case a haunted house story told through the tales of five people who encounter the house and its malevolent inhabitants over the course of four decades. I thought "The Bone Clocks" biggest weakness was that the supernatural fantasy elements of the story felt a bit out-of-place compared to some of the other plotlines and the more mundane plotlines tended to be better. In this book I thought the supernatural elements of the story worked a lot better, probably due to being more integral to the whole story.

It's a fairly short novel but I think it's about the right length, any longer and it might have risked getting repetitive. I think Mitchell's characterisation is one of his strengths and I think it works very well here, he does have a knack for making characters seem interesting and well-rounded in a short space of time.

I think this would work well as a stand-alone but the little references to Mitchell's previous work do add something, particularly in the final section where there's probably a completely different reading experience if you recognise the name of one of the characters.

Rating : 8 / 10

23Apr/160

“The Best of Ian McDonald” by Ian McDonald

The Best of Ian McDonald

In this book, there are many varied stories. Kenya gets invaded by alien lifeforms, an Irish music-hall star tours a post-War of the Worlds Mars, a family find a supernatural secret in the gardens of an Irish stately home, corrupt Nigerian politicians are harangued from the afterlife and an eccentric traveller promises he can make it rain in a drought-hit Arizona town.

I was interested in this because I've really liked several of Ian McDonald's novels that I've read, but hadn't read much of his short fiction (other than the "Cyberabad Days" collection which I thought was very good).

I thought it was a really good collection and the writing was of a consistently high quality all the way from the late 80s up to the present day. My favourites were probably the high-concept space opera of The Tear and the two stories set after alien artefacts land in Kenya and start reshaping the landscape, Towards Kilimanjaro and Tendeleo's Story. I know he's written some novels set in the same setting as the last two, I might have to read them sometime. A couple of stories didn't really work for me, "Verthandi's Ring" felt like a weak counterpart to "The Tear" and I feel like I haven't seen enough Hitchcock films to get all the references in "The Blue Motel", but other than that I liked them.

One of the things I liked about his novels was the varied settings, there aren't many Science Fiction novels primarily set in India or Turkey or Brazil (or Ian McDonald's native Northern Ireland). The short stories are similarly diverse, while there are a few in the typical settings of Britain or the US there are also plenty from various places around the world (and sometimes out of the world). There's a lot of diversity in the stories, from the dark (the Holocaust-set "Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria" or the dysfunctional family of "After Kerry") to the comical ("A Small Well-Mannered Uprising of the Dead") to the surreal ("Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Goch").

Rating : 9 / 10

23Apr/160

“Medusa’s Web” by Tim Powers

medusas web

Scott and Madeline Madden have been trying to ignore their strange childhood as much as possible, but after their aunt commits suicide by grenade they are drawn back to their childhood home to meet with their estranged cousins. They are unable to resist the temptation to investigate some of the mysteries of their childhood, including their parents' disappearance, and the bizarre legacy their aunt left for them.

I really like Tim Powers' books, I think he has some fantastically imaginative stories and a real knack for making bizarre plotlines seem strangely plausible. Unlike most of the Tim Powers books I've read which tend to be historical fantasy this is (mostly) set in the modern day. I think this is maybe a bit of a problem because it makes it more glaring how how odd some of the characters' behaviours and motivations is, admittedly that may be somewhat explained by some of the traumatic events the characters have in their past but I think it's easier to accept the eccentricities that Powers' characters tend to have when they are (for example) 19th Century Romantic Poets rather than young adults in modern-day Los Angeles.

Occasional problems with characterisation aside, I did find this an entertaining book to read and Powers does his usual trick of taking surreal and magical events and make them seem like they have their own skewed logic to them. In this case, the key plot decide is the so-called 'spiders', drawings of mysterious eight-legged figures which when viewed give the person who looked at it a vision of the past or future. The viewing into the past element leads to a lot of overlap with Golden-Age Hollywood, and Powers is maybe more comfortable with the scenes set there rather than in contemporary LA.

Overall, I wouldn't rank this among Powers' best books, but even an average Tim Powers book is still worth reading.

Rating : 7 / 10

12Sep/150

“Deadhouse Gates” by Steven Erikson

Deadhouse Gates

If Gardens of the Moon was an intriguing but imperfect introduction to the Malazan world then the second book, Deadhouse Gates is where the series really hits its stride. It is not really a direct sequel to the first book, although it does take place shortly after the events described in Gardens of the Moon it is set on a separate continent, the land known as Seven Cities which was conquered by the Malazan Empire a generation ago. The Malazans see themselves as having given the Seven Cities peace and prosperity after years of endless tribal warfare and suffering under the rule of despotic religious cults, but the people of the Seven Cities still see the Malazans as foreign invaders and they seize the opportunity of the Empire’s declining strength to launch a rebellion lead by Sha’ik, the prophetess of an apocalyptic cult devoted to destruction.

The rebellion is widely supported by the local populace and the Malazans quickly find themselves besieged in their strongholds, principally Aren, the largest of the Seven Cities. Aren’s mighty fortifications are sufficient to hold off the ragtag armies of the rebellion but the Malazan forces in the rest of the continent have more of a problem. The main plot threat follows the Malazan 7th Army who, surrounded by enemy forces with superior numbers, face an overland march of 1500 miles through hostile lands to get to the safety of Aren. The bulk of the 7th Army’s strength is made up of Wickan cavalry, expert horsemen from a tribe on the Malazan’s home continent who have long fought for the Empire. Individually their soldiers are more than a match for any of their enemies but the 7th Army’s leader, the Wickan warlord Coltaine, also has the problem of protecting the lives of fifty thousand Malazan settlers who face certain death at the hands of the rebels if they are not protected by his army. The story of the march and the series of battles the 7th army faces along the way is probably the most compelling plotline in the entire Malazan series featuring many memorable scenes and multiple varied, convincing and well thought-out battles. Gardens of the Moon occasionally suffered from the fact that it was hard to really care whether the Malazans succeeded, but here they are more clearly the good guys in the story as they seek to protect innocent civilians from the vicious tortures of the rebels (of course, the Malazans also possibly deserve criticism for their war of conquest that lead to them controlling Seven Cities, but few of the Malazan characters in this novel were involved with that). The climax to the plotline is also one of the most powerful moments in the entire series.

Although the 7th Army’s march (the so-called ‘Chain of Dogs’) is the biggest plotline in the book there are also a number of other plotlines taking place, all of them occurring during the Seven Cities rebellion. One focuses on the character of Felisin Paran, a teenage daughter of a senior noble family exiled to the harsh Malazan prison camp of Otaratal Island after the Empress launches a cull of the noble families. To survive in the harsh prison she finds herself doing some unsavoury things to survive but eventually escapes in the company of Heboric, a former senior priest of the God of War has lost his faith and former soldier Baudin. Their escape takes them on an eventful journey, including a frankly bizarre encounter with a giant jade statue buried in the desert which sets in motion a series of mystical events which leave them trapped on a ship filled with mysterious corpses in the flooded alternate dimension of an unknown Warren. Meanwhile, several characters from Gardens of the Moon have chosen a poor time to come to the Seven Cities, as the former Bridgeburners, assassin Kalam and sapper Fiddler pass through on their way to try to take revenge on the Empress they believe betrayed them. Kalam finds his loyalties torn, between his mission of revenge and his almost-forgotten loyalties to his homeland, before joining the Bridgeburners he had been a native of Seven Cities and feels compelled to try to aid Sha’ik’s rebellion. Along the way they will encounter a number of other characters with their own agendas such as Iskaral Pust, the seemingly mad High Priest of Shadow and Icarium and his companion Mappo. Icarium is one of the series’ more interesting characters, a seemingly amiable half-human half-Jaghut warrior with great power but no memory of his past who is constantly driven to journey and to try to remember where he came from. Mappo is his friend and constant companion, but is also charged with making sure Icarium remains ignorant, since he knows that his friend is potentially very dangerous and has in the past brought down whole civilisations in made rages. Other encounters deal with the mystical Path of Hands, an ancient ritual followed by the Soletaken, people who have the ability to change into animal forms, often losing their humanity and sanity in the process.

The supporting plotlines vary in quality. Some elements of them are well-executed, Icarium and Mappo’s storylines is one of the more interesting in the series (although the events in this book are just the first instalment of it) and Felisin is in some ways one of the series’ best bits of characterisation – in a series filled with powerful warriors and mages it is an interesting contrast to spend so much time on a character who is in many ways very weak and suffers through some terrible and unjust ordeals. Felisin is not really a very likeable character due to her understandable bitterness at what she sees as her abandonment, but she is a believable character even when sometimes does some fairly stupid things. Other parts of the story are less satisfying; the plotline concerning the Jade Statue that Heboric and Felisin encounter is frankly incomprehensible and despite being revisited several times in later books has yet to really make any sense. The Path of Hands subplot is a bit more comprehensible and does have some interesting bits in it but it is difficult to really see the point of including it in the novel as it doesn’t add much to the story.

The overall quality of the writing has improved since Gardens of the Moon and most of the time the characterisation is better as well, although there are still some moments where character motivations are a bit difficult to follow – Kalam’s decision to take time out of his mission to help Sha’ik get a critical religious relic seems a bit out of character given his characterisation in the rest of the series.

In summary, Deadhouse Gates competes with the third book Memories of Ice for the title of the best book in the series. The central Chain of Dogs plotlines is probably one of the most entertaining, compelling and memorable Epic Fantasy storylines and many of the supporting plotlines are also interesting, although the quality does dip at times (the bizarre Jade Statue plot being one example that detracts from the overall quality of the book). It is not a perfect book, but is still an excellent piece of Epic Fantasy.

Rating : 9 / 10

12Sep/156

“Gardens of the Moon” by Steven Erikson

gardens of the moon

Gardens of the Moon is the first of ten (or 17 depending how you want to count them) books in the Malazan Empire series.

The world the Malazan series is set in has a slightly more advanced setting than the typical medieval setting of many fantasy novels. The main focus of the series is on the Malazan Empire, an aggressive and expansionist Empire which in the space of a few decades expanded from an obscure island city mainly famous as a base for pirates to conquer several continents under the influence of its powerful and ruthless Emperor Kellanved. At times in the series the Malazans seem like imperialist villains, at other times they seem like the good guys (especially in comparison to some of their rival powers). The Malazans are in many ways quite enlightened by the standards of the world with a relatively egalitarian culture usually hostile to the feudal aristocracies or fanatical religious cults that held sway in many of the lands they conquered. At the same time, they are undeniably aggressive, starting many wars and can be uncompromisingly brutal when they think it is necessary. This is a common theme of Erikson’s work, it is very rare for any civilisation or individual in his books to be regarded as being entirely good, and equally many (although not all) of his major villains have some redeeming qualities. Throughout the series it is often ambiguous as to whether the Malazans should be supported in what they are trying to do, or opposed.

Although the Malazans are one of the most powerful of the current-day powers in the world, past civilisations and powers also play an important role in the series. Erikson trained as an archaeologist and has constructed a long history of his world filled with many Gods and civilisations and dozens of races, some of which still exist, some of which are extinct and some of which aren’t as extinct as they appear to be. The history takes in important events that happened millennia or even hundreds of millennia ago and in some cases the participants in those events are still alive (or at least, still animate). The variety of races are one of the most fascinating elements of Erikson’s world-building since he eschews the typical clichéd fantasy races with such inventive creations such as the four so-called ‘Elder Races’ - K’Chain Che’Malle (reptilian creatures with hive minds and highly advanced technology), Jaghut (tusked, strong, powerful sorcerers with vast power but whose stubborn individualism prevented them from working together), Forkrul Assail (tall humanoids with a fanatical hatred of other races) and the T’lan Imass (undead Neanderthals whose hatred of their Jaghut oppressors caused them to enact a magical ritual which gave them eternal existence as undead warriors).

In the first novel, Gardens of the Moon, the Malazans tend towards being the bad guys of the story, even if many of the Malazan protagonists are more sympathetic characters than their Empire is. It is several years after the assassination of the Malazan Empire’s founder Kellanved by his protégé and rival, the assassin Laseen who has now crowned herself Empress. Laseen kept up the pace of the Malazans’ wars of conquest while at the same time manoeuvring against many of those who were once loyal to Kellanved. The novel is set on the continent of Genabackis, one of the more recently-invaded lands of the Empire, and it begins as the Malazan forces are about to attack the city of Pale, one of the last of the Free Cities that once controlled most of the continent. The Malazans assemble a large army to besiege the city, but the main battle takes place above them in the form of a sorcerous duel between the Malazan’s Mage Cadre and the Free Cities’ ally Anomander Rake, an ancient sorcerer and leader of the Tiste Andii (a race from another dimension, exiled from their home many millennia ago). Despite heavy casualties (including most of the mage cadre being killed in an apparent act of treachery by its High Mage, Tayschrenn) the Malazans are victorious, Rake is forced to flee and the Malazans eyes start to turn towards the last, and richest, of the Free Cities, Darujhstan.

The Malazan books tend not to have a single protagonist. Perhaps the closest to a main character is Sergeant Whiskeyjack, a veteran soldier in charge of a squad of the Bridgeburners – previously an elite unit in the time of Emperor Kellanved but now regarded with suspicion by the new Empress. After the capture of Pale the Bridgeburners are despatched as an advanced party to infiltrate Darujhstan and leave it open for invasion by sabotaging its infrastructure. They take on the role despite misgivings about the casualties they took in the battle of Pale and suspicion that they may have deliberately have been placed in danger as part of an attempt to kill of loyalists to the old Empreror. They also have misgivings about one of their own, a young woman name Sorry who was a recent recruit but has a great capacity for violence and who may be much more than she appears. The Bridgeburners also have a new Captain in the form of Ganoes Paran, a well-intentioned young officer regarded with suspicion by the other soldiers because of Paran’s noble birth and background in a family that was very powerful in Unta (the Malazan capital) before the old Emperor began his pogroms against the nobility. He faces the risk of a knife in the back from one of his own subordinates if he can’t persuade them he is a worthy leader. Another major Malazan character is Tattersail, one of the few survivors of the Malazan mages, who is bitter against the apparent attack on her colleagues by Tayschrenn (the Empire’s most senior mage) whilst also guilty about some of her past acts for the Malazan Empire. Meanwhile the Empress’ senior aide Adjunct Lorne also travels to Darujhstan on a secret mission to unleash an ancient evil which once ruled the city in a reign of terror, accompanied by Tool, a T’lan Imass warrior who is the only member of the undead army that once served Kellanved still working for the Empire.

Meanwhile, in Darujhstan the plot centres on a group of young friends plotting to restore one of their number to his rightful place as head of a noble house, after he was deposed by his ambitious ex-wife and a rival councillor. They are also aware of the coming Malazan threat and their plotline interacts with that of the city’s powerful Assassin’s Guild as it contends with the Malazan’s elite assassins and the machination of a mysterious spymaster who uses the pseudonym of The Eel who is trying to rally the city’s defences.

It is common throughout the Malazan series for the plot to take place on more than one level. The most obvious plotlines involve the soldiers, battles, intrigues and ordinary people of the story. There are also more subtle plotlines as Gods and ancient powers manipulate events to further their own plans. One of the main plotlines throughout the series involves two of the newest Gods to gain power, the beings known as Shadowthrone and Cotillion, who have recently taken control of the long-abandoned realm of Shadow and who have far greater ambitions than just being two ordinary members of the Malazan world’s pantheon. In this case their plans are focused on Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and particularly on their young recruit, Sorry.

The plot of the series is undeniably complex and Erikson took a deliberate decision to start his first book in what was, in many ways, the middle of the story. It is initially quite confusing as within a few chapters the reader is launched into the battle of Pale and introduced to a dizzying array of characters and races, many with long and complex histories which will not be fully explained for several books to come. Erikson’s often inventive world-building can also add to the confusion, his magic system is based on the control of the powers of alternate dimensions known as Warrens (different Warrens having different properties such as being associated with darkness, illusions, fire, water etc.) and it takes a long time for even the most rudimentary explanation of how the Warrens work (and even after ten books it is still not entirely clear). As the book goes on it does gradually make more sense but some persistence is required to get through the initial confusion. Although it can make the series sometimes difficult to understand, the complexity and imaginativeness of the setting and plot are one of the Malazan series strengths and overall it is probably more Epic than just about any other Epic fantasy series.

Gardens of the Moon was Erikson’s first full-length fantasy novel and it does have some flaws that debut novels often have. The quality of the writing, prose and dialogue can be a bit variable, at times Erikson has some very good writing but at other times the prose can end up seeming a bit clunky and awkward and the dialogue stilted and unconvincing. The quality of the characterisation is also variable, Erikson does have some memorable and interesting characters but the cast of characters is so large than some of them have fairly shallow characterisation. The characterisation can also sometimes be unconvincing and sometimes character’s motivations for their actions do not seem satisfactorily explained. To take one example, at one point in the book Captain Paran takes immense risks that could imperil not just his life but also his immortal soul in an attempt to save from captivity two creatures which shortly beforehand were trying to kill him and it does not really seem believable that he would take such a huge risk.

It is far from the being the best book in the series, Erikson’s writing would improve in later volumes and although there are plenty of interesting moments in the plot the overall storyline often fails to be really compelling – one of the main problems being that it is hard to really be invested in caring about whether the Malazans succeed or fail in their war against Darujhstan. When considered alongside the rest of the series there are also quite a few things that contradict later books, Erikson would revise quite a few elements of the setting in later novels.

Overall, this is an entertaining fantasy novel with plenty of interesting ideas and concepts which large make up for the sometimes variable quality of the writing.

Rating : 7 / 10

12Sep/150

“Assail” by Ian C. Essslemont

Assail

I've found Esslemont's previous Malazan books to be a bit mixed, at their best they have had some fascinating world-building and compelling plots but they have a tendency to be let down by often bland characterisation and some of his plots have been a bit underwhelming. I thought Assail was a reasonably entertaining book but I think it's one of the Esslemont's weaker efforts. One problem is that the continent of Assail where the book is set is probably one of the less interesting settings in the Malazan world and it feels a bit underwhelming compared to how it has been built up by mentions in previous books by Erikson and Esslemont. In previous books Assail was referred to with dread by many characters but while it is an inhospitable land I would say there have been more forbidding settings in previous Malazan books (including the jungle setting of Esslemont’s last book, “Blood and Bone”). Many Malazan books are based on a diverse group of different factions journeying towards a convergence at the end of the novel and this is no exception. Most of the characters seem to spend most of the novel travelling to the same destination and while the pacing is reasonable (it isn't as tedious as some of the journeying in Erikson's later Malazan books) this part of the story isn't all that compelling. Once the journeying has ended the pace does pick up and the plot does become more compelling, the book does have a good ending and offers some conclusion to long-running plotlines first brought up in Erikson's books over a decade ago, although some bits do seem a bit rushed and a key part of the final confrontation seems to centre on a character I can barely remember from a previous Esslemont book. It's also a bit irritating that although it's nice to finally have a conclusion a plotline left hanging at the end of Erikson's "Memories of Ice" (which I read over a decade ago) virtually the first thing that happens in this book regarding the plotline is an explanation about why what the ending of Memories of Ice implied about the future was inaccurate, and the actual plotline seems less interesting than what I was expecting.

I think the biggest problem is that while the characterisation isn't exactly bad (there are a decent variety of characters and there is some reasonable character development), there is a lack of really memorable characters. This is perhaps not helped by a sprawling cast that means most characters don't get a huge amount of time spent on them, even important characters like Silverfox. Comparing the two Malazan authors I'd say this is one area where Erikson does have a real advantage, while his characterisation was always a bit hit-and-miss he does have some fascinating and compelling characters.

Overall, this is a moderately entertaining epic fantasy novel but I suspect it won’t turn out to be a particularly memorable one and it feels a bit underwhelming for something described on the cover as the ‘Final Novel of the Malazan Empire’.

Rating : 6 / 10