Friday 27, August

Literature as a consolatory device

I took the occasion of a forum discussion to delve in some ideas I was brooding for some time. It's again the ideal link between all the books I've read lately, with "Infinite Jest" as the central pillar.

The discussion about characters is the excuse to examine literature and its position in the grand scheme of things.


the soldiers are just random mouthpieces for the author, who'll switch attitude (I cannot speak of personalities: they don't actually have personalities) with every scene. It's not really hard to be more powerful than that :)

Take Gardens of the Moon. On my first read I could hardly match a Bridgeburner name with the corresponding character, if I did the description of the personality of that character would still be rather limited.

I'm following Tor re-read of the same book now. With the struggle to memorize names and context out of the way I'm discovering a whole new layer in characterization that was almost entirely missing on my first read. Dialogue that was before just between anonymous masks is now consistent with the character and unexpectedly rich in nuances. I feel like I'm reading a wholly different book. Not just consistent but filled to the brim with cross-references that required the insight I didn't have before. Things to glide over or just producing a big question mark to then move on with the reading. The last two pages I've read about Rallick Nom gave an introspection and depth to the character that I didn't remember was there, written really well. The tension of Kalam and Quick Ben when they are found by Sorry, and the realization that what they thought was correct, and that it meant they would be dead. Or when they leave for their mission, knowingly reciting a number of delusions as to exorcise them. Then the scene with Whiskeyjack waiting for them with the rest of the squad, a scene where every line adds something to the characterization and true friendship of the whole squad, the dialogue between them, and then the arrival of Quick Ben who cringes in front of WJ, and WJ losing his patience. An undeniable feel that these characters have been together for a really long time, and not just since the beginning of the written page. Characters that come out of the page, with natural dialogue between them and drawn from they are, and not directed to the reader.

That scene is as great as any Black Company scene written by Glen Cook, and it's from a book that is far from the best Erikson delivered when it comes to characterization.

The confusion and inconsistency isn't of the characters, it is of the reader. The books pretend a reader to memorize and familiarize way more than it is possible, way more than what it is reasonable to ask, and that's why re-reads are so revelatory in this series about both characters and plot. The confusion of the reader is undeniable because the series represents the far opposite of "accessibility". It's actually a big flaw the series has. It is inimical, too dense and unwieldy. But the characterization is there in that ink and it is consistent. It requires more patience than usual because you only get quick glimpses at a great number of characters, and they only become "real" characters with an adequate amount of pages and time, time that is definitely not easily available among readers who are already having an hard time getting through a so dense book and digesting Erikson parsimonious writing style.

Erikson's characterization can be compared to an impressionist painter who only delicately dabs and sketches. It will take time to familiarize and recognize a character for what it actually is, and to appreciate the panting that at a first glance appeared as just a confusion of random colors. The forms are in the painting, but it takes time to make the eye used to them and recognize them for their value.

This opposed to a traditional type of characterization (neither better nor worse, just different) where you stay in the mind of a character for the long haul. Full-on introspection that begins giving you the context of where and how that person is living, what he feels, what he loves, his fears, his desires. A thoroughly rationalized character. That makes a reader familiarize and understand it. Identify himself and so "caring" for the personal story and feel emotional attachment and empathy.

The heritage of "modern" fantasy was not in delivering characters that are "gray". But in forcing the reader into their PoV. We often have warring factions, but we zoom into both of them, taking both sides. All of the recent fantasy with gray characters could be turned into solid black and white by just removing the corresponding PoVs. Without motivations and alternative observation points, every story becomes polarized.

The thing Erikson successfully or unsuccessfully tries to realize with his characterization is about starting to show that "stories" exist with the characters, but also in spite of them. The real world chews characters and spits them out, is disdainful of personal stories. A book can usually follow the life of a character through an ideal arc, whose premises define its conclusion. But that's the nice trick and deceit that traditional literature does to the real world. The illusion that there is "sense" and "meaning". Beginnings and ends. Justice. Retribution. Payoff. We create "meaning" out of a meaningless, unjust world. Lives are cut short and no one actually dies only once he solved his issues. Flaws, imperfection, lack of meaning and especially the lack of understanding of others are the things that are always true. Humanity is about the damnation of the deceit of seeing "meaning" where there is none. It's a tragedy, and the Malazan series is written as a tragedy. It's not "fantasy", it's a 1:1 copy of this world, a reflection on a only slightly misshapen mirror.

To grieve is a gift best shared. As a song is shared.
Deep in the caves, the drums beat. Glorious echo to the herds whose thundering hoofs celebrate what it is to be alive, to run as one, to roll in life's rhythm. This is how, in the cadence of our voice, we serve nature's greatest need.
Facing nature, we are the balance.
Ever the balance to chaos.

"in the cadence of our voice" means a written page. Language. Or what only separates humanity from the rest of life forms. (I am a man. I stand apart from these things.) Nature is the chaos from where we desperately scrape meaning.

With that lacerating truth in mind, Erikson realizes characters whose story (and characterization) is shred and tattered. Suspicion and opaqueness are traits that are true in our world. And if a foe suddenly turns into a possible ally it's not "inconsistency", it's understanding. Full-on introspection doesn't work like that even for ourselves. (Foster Wallace attempts "true" full-on introspection with the result that it generates a tremendous annihilating whirlpool that either sucks you in or hurls you away) We don't have the privilege of a personal writer who overlooks what we do every day and inscribes meaning and finality into our lives. We are opaque and uncertain even to ourselves, even less to one that merely observes. Meaning is not "found" outside, it is created within. The story of the Malazan series is unmindful of characters, it's up to the characters to find their path, only to see it end abruptly. And up to the reader to decide what to do with them.

The only journey that lay ahead of him was a short one, and he must walk it alone.
He was blind, but in this no more blind than anyone else. Death's precipice, whether first
glimpsed from afar or discovered with the next step, was ever a surprise. A promise of
the sudden cessation of questions, yet there were no answers waiting beyond. Cessation
would have to be enough. And so it must be for every mortal. Even as we hunger for
resolution. Or, even more delusional: redemption.

Now, after all this time, he was able to realize that every path eventually, inevitably
dwindled into a single line of footsteps. There, leading to the very edge. Then… gone.
And so, he faced only what every mortal faced. The solitude of death, and oblivion's final
gift that was indifference.

The Malazan series is not consolatory, it is about compassion and reconciliation.

Tuesday 10, August

The Malazan Book of the Fallen closes at 3 Million 310 thousand words

While on other blogs the cover blurb for The Crippled God is being posted, I asked Hetan if she could provide the wordcount for this last novel in the series, and she did.

Being myself at the 5th book yet to start, the internet is now filled with spoilery perils, including that synopsis. Hopefully I won't stumble on something that ruins my own reading in the next months and years. I have to hone my dodging and skimming skills.

So, this wordcount that Hetan provided is still tentative since the book is currently in the editing phase, but it should give a decent approximation of what to expect, and then sum up with the rest for the final count of this staggering (on all levels) achievement.

We'll now wait for the cover and official release date. The tentative one is 20 January 2011

Here's the summary:

Malazan Book of the Fallen - Steven Erikson

Gardens of the Moon: 209k
Deadhouse Gates: 270k
Memories of Ice: 351k
House of Chains: 306k
Midnight Tides: 271k
The Bonehunters: 365k
Reaper's Gale: 386k
Toll the Hounds: 392k
Dust of Dreams: 382k
The Crippled God: 378k (tentative)

Total: 3M 310k

other wordcounts

Monday 2, August

GotM quote

I'm re-reading some parts of Gardens of the Moon to follow the Tor official re-read and I'm amazed/dismayed to realize that most of the flaws I had noticed in the book, some of which even pointed out in my review, were only due to my lack of attention and familiarity with this series. The book is really incredibly dense with details I couldn't pick up, so leading to call for apparent mistakes when it was just this reader who wasn't being smart enough to catch the nuances ;)

Anyway, I just opened the book on a random page and found a nice Kruppe quote:

That one's own skull is too worthy a chamber for deception to reign - and yet Kruppe assures you from long experience that all deceit is born in the mind and there it is nurtured while virtues starve.

Thursday 22, July

The Malazan Book of the Fallen is done

I've hunted for this news for the last four months, after about two months of delay on the original deadline The Crippled God is complete and now going in the hands of the publisher.

The current estimation for the release is the 20th January, but it may as well be anticipated (it happened before) or postponed. Now it depends entirely on the publisher, hoping they'll do a great job since Erikson deserves it.

Announce that came from Erikson's Facebook page (but it is private and not open to fans):

"GASP! That would be me, coming up for air. How long was I down there? About twenty years, from conception to completion. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is done. Sure, editing and all that crap to follow. But ... done. I don't know who I am. Who am I again? What planet is this? Three months of butterflies ... maybe this double whiskey will fix that. Hmm. No. Delayed reaction going on here."

According to my wordcount list the complete series will be around 3 millions 3 thousands words.

It's a monumental achievement in literature in general. No one can realistically embark for a 10-books series and expect to be successful, because no one can realistically plan ahead 20 years of his life, even more insane if this sort of plan is artistic in nature, and so more capricious and out of control. Erikson succeeded in the only way possible: sticking to deadlines and keep delivering without losing focus. He survived his own staggering ambition.

He made it. It is done.

Here's a pertinent quote from the recent introduction to Gardens of the Moon:

The journey ahead, of words on a screen and then paper, still awaited me in the idyllic state that was the future. Yet the publication of Gardens of the Moon was, for me, a momentous event; for it permitted me to sharpen my focus, as I slowly, almost disbelievingly, comprehended that what was now coming to pass was indeed possible. These things could be reached. The import of that statement cannot be overemphasized. They can be reached.

I am now on the cusp of the tenth and final novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Almost ten thousand pages span the gulf from Gardens to The Crippled God, a detail even more numbing than the decade it took to compose them. I am often asked; how do you sustain it? A difficult question to answer. How do I not? I have a tale to tell and until it is done an inexorable momentum drives me, an impatience against which I still struggle, knowing I need to do it right, and that haste is my deadliest enemy. Especially now.

I cannot claim any prescience with that opening; perhaps, indeed, I was aware on some subconscious level that I was fighting the very thing that confounds many readers with this series. For me, it was the push to advance the story versus the pull to keep it under control, to hold tight on the reins no matter how wild the bucking beast. For the reader, the whole thing reverses: the story pulls, the details prod, claw and tug.
Prod and pull, 'this the way of the gods ...

I can only say that I'm glad I found these books, I feel like I've waited all my life just to read them :)

Thursday 8, July

The cipher of the Malazan series

Beside the subtleties of plot, the Malazan series has two different main levels that represent the foundation of the whole thing: the first is the infinitesimal small, the (under)world within a single person, his perceptions, his feeling, his thoughts, his personal yourney; the second is the impossibly huge, the human condition, what embraces all of us.

Today I discovered a non-fiction letter/article by Erikson himself. After reading few lines I thought it was interesting, after reading some more I thought it was EXTRAORDINARY. He talks about his view on the whole series, then his experiences as archaeologist, and finally the perspectives of our world and our species. In the same way these themes have built the Malazan series, I think we can deduct some aspects of where the series will go with its conclusion.

His fiction is a way to elaborate his thoughts, and this article is like a deconstruction of the series itself, and the reason why it is extraordinary. We can see the core bared of all conceits.

Sometimes my series feels like a ten thousand page requiem for our species, or a long, drawn-out howl verging on utter despair; as I search in desperation for moral gestures of humanity, no matter how small, no matter how momentary, in the midst of self-inflicted carnage.

I write novels under the name of Steven Erikson. I am nearing completion of a ten book Fantasy series entitled ‘The Malazan Book of the Fallen.’ These novels are set on a fictitious world that is Homeric in nature—magic and meddling gods—but at a technological level somewhere around late Roman Empire. Progress has stalled, as magic has supplanted technological innovation. Unfortunately, magic is also highly destructive. While these epic novels seek to portray a history in an entertaining style, the underlying themes concern the life cycles of cultures and civilizations (including those of non-humans) against the backdrop of environmental degradation.

In the fourth novel in my series I introduced, rather brutally, a character emerging from an isolated tribal culture, who finds himself first a slave, then an escaped slave, within the far larger world of civilization of which he previously knew nothing. He ultimately concludes, after numerous travails, that civilization is an abomination, and so he vows to destroy it.

I recall standing on a pyramid in the Guatemalan jungle (back in ‘83), during the modern civil war (that had everything to do with land), and perversely feeling a strange optimism. After all, when the Mayan Priest-King stood where I was standing, only a few centuries ago, he could see the vast expanse of his demesne—planted fields out to every horizon. I’m sure he believed it would last forever (just as we believe our civilization will last forever, that we are somehow exempt from the rise and fall cycle that afflicted every previous civilization). He didn’t realize that his culture was unsustainable. That it was destined to collapse even before European contact. He believed as did the pre-Inca civilizations in Peru and Chile. Why did I feel optimistic? Because I was surrounded in jungle. The natural world had reclaimed everything. It had healed, and in a very short time.

Read on.

Wednesday 30, June

Stonewielder - Ian C. Esslemont - Cover + Prologue

Official release is: 25th November 2010

The prologue is at Malazan forums.

Whoever picks the cover for Esslemont books must be fond of boats. The cover is "ok" but otherwise unimpressive (reads as: generic, relatively anonymous).

EDIT: I read the prologue even if I'm far from the position of the book in the series. Safely, since there's not spoilery stuff. I liked it enough but I still see the shadows of what I criticized in my review of "Night of Knives". The first potential problem is that the characters do too many flourishes and exaggeration (the portrayal of just standard-types), and when you try to draw from real themes exaggeration is the worst enemy of truth. The other problem is that again the story is built solely by what surfaces. Lacking subtlety and real depth. For example the arrival of the priest, the description of the occupation, the plan for recruiting. All ideas ripe for development, yet they seem to be played plainly and obviously. Too much polish, lack of conflict, lack of complexity. Characters playing their roles instead of coming out as real persons. Same for the second scene, that seems so biblical that one wonders why it should deserve to be remade (people climb the sacred mountain to go speak with their goddess). Goddess donates magically-heated chest to the population that keeps cold Stormriders away. We've seen this already in the first book and it was a concept that lead nowhere and meant basically nothing. Hopefully this time things play more unpredictably. Seems like a soup of stories I already know but without a novelty perspective, nothing new added or cleverly played.

Also, nitpicking, before the tsunami shouldn't the boat get sucked seaward as water recedes before rising and rushing in? The process is described, the water level goes down, yet there seem no currents affecting the boat.

Sunday 20, June

Night of Knives - Ian C. Esslemont

"Night of Knives" is the first novel(-la) written by Ian Cameron Esslemont set in the Malazan world co-created with Steven Erikson. It's a much leaner book, 300 pages in the american Tor edition, compared to Malazan standard, and chronologically set between the prologue and first chapter of "Gardens of the Moon", the first book in the series. Yet, the fans recommend to read the book only before the sixth because of some connections, while I decided to anticipate it right after the fourth, since "House of Chains" deals more directly with the matters of the Malazan empire and I wanted to approach "Night of Knives" when that strand of story was still fresh in my memory.

The content and purpose of the book fit as a retrospective: from one side we get to see what happened in the particular night Surly/Laseen claimed the throne of the Malazan empire while declaring the death of the previous ruler, Kellanved, who had been missing for quite some time giving Surly the opportunity to solidify her position. From the other, through flashbacks, we get a close-up of "The Sword", the six bodyguards/champions around Dassem Ultor, champion of the Malazan empire, and particularly Dassem's betrayal that was vaguely commented between Paran and Wiskeyjack in that GotM prologue.

Here comparisons between writers are impossible to avoid since we have two of them writing the same material and aiming for complementarity. So the big question is if Esslemont can match Erikson or at least stay relevant and add something worthwhile, with expectations being very high and not playing in Esslemont's favor since it's complicate to debut when the main series is already established and halfway through. That was also my main concern: trying to weigh Esslemont potential not just for this book, but also for the upcoming contributions. The first 50 pages were quite revelatory for me. Esslemont is a rather competent writer, the beginning of the book is well handled, solid prose, written and paced perfectly. There wasn't anything suggesting it was a debut instead of the work of an established writer. I also thought the style was distinctive and not clashing or conforming to Erikson. Especially, I think Esslemont did a wonderful work on Malaz itself, the city. The place comes to life, the shadowy atmosphere rendered perfectly with its narrow, twisted alleys, the very quiet and suspicious people on the brink of insanity. From Mock's Hold perched on the cliff (and the inevitable wink to Mock's Vane), down to the sprawling ramshackle houses. It gives a sense of real place and I still now consider this the biggest quality of the novel. The town being the true real protagonist, interpreting perfectly the understatement of the conflict it gets tangled in. The true heart of the empire, yet far from the celebration of triumph or glory of a capital. It's a haunted town everyone would get away from, sullying and miserable. So weak and vulnerable, yet caught in the eye of the storm and holding desperately. Reminds me of a place that would fit perfectly in a Lovecraft story, madness stalking behind every corner.

Speaking of tones and atmosphere, I think that, more than Erikson, Esslemont draws plenty and openly from Glen Cook. The whole novel echoes with the first chapter of The Black Company and even more with the whole second book, "Shadows Linger". Lots of elements in common, the first chapter of The Black Company was similar to an horror story, with the company caught in an unusual situation and slowly drifting toward dread, discovering corpses everywhere while the town they were stuck in descended into chaos, the Hounds of Shadow in "Night of Knives" filling perfectly the role of the "forvalaka". Same for "Shadows Linger", also set in a gloomy small town, inside filthy inns and nearby mysterious places. Townsfolk involved in ominous practices that slowly escalate to a disaster. Inspiration here is not a flaw, since Esslemont uses all this competently and functional to the story he writes, without giving the impression of a diminished copy.

There are problems, though. Everything is set perfectly in those initial pages, but as the story progresses it also loses its strength. Instead of escalating it kind of folds without delivering its potential. From my point of view the problem is that Esslemont fails to switch gear when needed. There's a moment in the story when the spooky "fairy tales" and legends descend, truly, on the real world. Kiska fits well as a POV there, because we have a naive perspective on a situation that is quickly transforming. But when hell breaks loose the story is stuck in the preceding naive tone and the dramatic intensity is underachieved or lost. Esslemont stays too much on one fantastic, dreamy level that is excused when the story is still in the build-up phase and what is to come has to feel distant, the menace being remote. But when it closes it lacks realism and the characters are still lulled by the writer, never at risk, never exposed outside their own cliche. They stay put, characters as devices, their perimeter containing them, and them carefully stepping to never dare becoming real characters. This is the kind of babysitting that never lets the story run wild and deliver. Somewhat like a cheat.

Kiska fails to become a real character, ideally she should be hammered out of her fancy fantasies (echoing Paran's own "I want to be a soldier. A hero.") and crushing on reality. She starts wishing to be the heroine, admirably skilled in her dreamy land, but she stays there even after. She glides over everything, undamaged, in truth, beside a few minor bruises. The kid outskills everyone else, she lives her dream in reality WITHOUT EVEN PERCEIVING THE TRANSITION. She enters and exits the novel with the exact same mindset, nothing learned. She's lulled in her dream as the world comes to coincide with it, instead of her coming to grips with reality. She starts naive, and ends up with all her dreams fulfilled without even once confronting reality. Her role, as cliche, fits perfectly, if only at some point the cliche would be used to spring her (and the escalation of the plot toward dramatic intensity) to a whole new level. Instead the whole structure folds. We have these two levels. The low-ground perception of townsfolk, with all their superstitions, and then the crushing of the convergence, the Shadow Realm that descends on the city itself, becoming very real and tangible. The townsfolk barred in their own houses, praying the dream to end soon, the storm outside. Yet, on the level of the novel, it's the "reality" that is lifted up to "fairy" level, with magic becoming magic, old wizened and long-bearded guys becoming wise wizards, the heroine being tested through riddles. Lots of blood, corpses everywhere, but it's just tomato juice on redshirts, come the morning the bad guys are dead, the roads relatively filthy as usual, some fallen bricks and crumpled walls, heroes survived heroically, the heroine got her alluring, mysterious boyfriend. When do I wake up?

Erikson's work on the series can be summarized as: "Nothing is as it seems". Here it's the opposite: everything is as it seems. No subtlety, no tricks on perceptions, no layers. Leading to another consideration. Esslemont's characterization is actually well done, at least in presenting the characters if not in their development. His overall style of prose, narration and characterization is traditional compared to Erikson, but "traditional" doesn't mean "bad". The introspection here is "full-on" and helps leading the narrative. You get into the characters' thoughts in a way that you never find in Erikson. This meaning that this book can be more readable and accessible, even enjoyable. Erikson's style, being infinitely layered, prompts you to put down the book and think about implications, Esslemont is more like the page-turner, pushing the story onward, curiosity taking the lead and the reader more involved in the destiny of characters. A more emotive/empathic approach of a character-driven story. The book can be read quickly and is quite fun but it stays on that level.

Thinking of "purpose", the story is aimed to shed some light on a crucial point of the history of the empire. The book is filled with juicy details that can please the fans of the series. Lots of "fanservice", which is a good thing. Yet, this is not a necessary read, nor a recommended one. Concretely, it adds nothing worthwhile. It uses and consumes without creating. We see lots of details about what went on, but they all seem disposable and none really clarifying. The real deep motives stay deep and unrevealed, deliberately untouched in this book. The betrayal of Dassem Ultor is a pivot of the novel, yet absolutely nothing is added to what we knew. We see it happen, but what we see explains nothing about what happened. Another instance of "everything is as it seems", or there's nothing more than what meets the eyes. Another big flaw being that the more is revealed, the weaker the story. Instead of enhancing and realizing complexity, it kills it. No surprises, no revelations that open new interpretations and scenarios. The few answers that come only close some dead-ends of the overall plot without producing anything. Lots of potential when it comes to Laseen, but the character is flat and hiding absolutely nothing. She's merely there and passive, with the lack of active presence hiding absolutely nothing: she's really doing nothing if not what is plain. Mystery that hides nothing. Same for the confrontation between Claws and Talons, reduced to a confused ninja battle between caped figures. Shadowy capes hiding nothing. Conspirators whose conspiracy is held on plain sight.

From this perspective the book is immature. Not again in the competency of Esslemont as a writer, but in failing to cross that line between adolescence and maturity and everything it represents. The falling of myths and naive dreams, the facing of failure or helplessness. The same done by some "fantasy" (as genre) trying to come out of its stereotype as "young-adult" escapist entertainment, whether it is George Martin or Erikson or whoever else, trying to open up the genre to a more mature type of narration, more complex, layered and unbound from strict conventions and types. "Maturity" or even modernity: no more absolutes, but points of view, layers, perspectives. This book fails to cross that border. The characters are caged into themselves, being plainly what they seem to be and within their narrow stereotype or functional role in the plot. In various occasions the story directly reminds of "young-adult" tropes (here straight from "Neverending Story"):

If she did succeed in returning, Kiska vowed she would head straight to Agayla's. If anyone knew what was going on - and what to do - it would be her. Never mind all this insane mumbling of the Return, the Deadhouse, and Shadow. What a tale she had for her aunt!

And ending with:

'Yes, I will. Thank you, Auntie. Thank you for everything.'
Agayla took her in her arms and hugged her, kissed her brow. 'Send word soon or I swear I will send you a curse.'
'I will.'
'Good. Now run. Don't keep Artan waiting.'

"Don't keep your boyfriend waiting". It's then hard to lift the plot to dramatic intensity when this distance of perception never closes. Brutal fights are witnessed, but so alien and detached (or described through morbid badassness) that they never come real. Threat never getting close if not in a fake way. Kiska never falters, no matter how unbelievable is that behavior even for a prodigious child. Every impossible action or behavior excused by mere exceptionality. Temper, the other POV, is not different. Even here the character is initially very solid and well presented. A paranoid veteran hiding from his past. But all plot points are fortuitous and convenient, and even the flashbacks recount battles between invulnerable champions with a lot of useless redshirts around them. Halfway through the character moves from a well realized one, to click into his functional stereotype. When he exits the story he's the hero who saved the day whose deeds remain unknown. Close your eyes and shadows become monsters crawling out from under the bed. You wake up, it was a dream. Esslemont fails to play properly with this and switch tone. Everything stays up there, suspended into adolescent mythology. The mythical story described exactly as the cleaned-up myth wants. Nothing being ever threatened or compromised.

The series is not powerful for its mythology and form, but because Erikson, as a writer, instilled meaningfulness into it. Made it relevant for what it has to say and the way it challenges perceptions. But Esslemont doesn't seem to add something of his own. He delivers the story without delivering a purpose. If Erikson writes to reach far outside mere "escapism", Esslemont stays strongly rooted into it. The story sits on the surface level, which I guess explains why the fans of Esslemont himself are often those who judge Erikson's book as overlong and slow. Erikson digs deep on the level of meaning, is concerned about the reason to say something, is tormented for reaching out to the reader and shake him. Esslemont fails to have a drive in this novel. There's no "necessity" of the narrative intent. Outside the entertainment value, being said or unsaid is the same. Why reading this book? Because it's still a good read and if you are a Malazan fan you'd want to know more and enjoy the story, but I thought that the mysteries revealed would stay better mysterious and ambiguous. Instead of being revealed so plain. It's a fun and well executed roller coaster if you enjoy Malazan mythology, but it's still a roller coaster.

Friday 11, June

House of Chains - Steven Erikson

House of Chains is the fourth in the 10-books Malazan series. These days, these hours, Erikson is intensely busy writing the last chapters of the last book and bring to a close a journey of staggering ambition. Reading this fourth felt like standing on the shoulder of a very tall (jade-colored) giant. As with similar(?) long series it's interesting to see the power-game, the ebb and flow of the single book compared to the others. When I was at page 700 or so (on a total of 1000) it dawned on me that this would become, with certainty, my favorite. 100 pages from the end the story proceeded resolute with a sense of finality and inevitability. Like the dramatic ending a movie whose sound is deafened, muted, so that the intensity of what you see comes out unadulterated and with all its power. But it is immediately past this apex, in the very slight and calmer descent that follows, the remaining 30-40 pages, that the more meaningful and stronger revelations are delivered, and the characters reached down for my soul. The book had already gauged his way as my true favorite and was set for a foreshadowed ending. I only expected closure and rest, yet the book still had PLENTY to deliver, and surprise me, and offer emotions to share.

These weeks I spent reading House of Chains were also the weeks of Lost ending season (the TV series), which lead me to draw certain parallels, both thematic and about the plot. Similarities are evident even on the superficial level, and on the forums I was explaining that I was watching Lost for some of the reasons I was reading this series of books. The staggering ambition, the exponential layering, the subversion and reversals in the plot, the continuous challenge to perceptions. The difference, as I already discussed, is that Lost always left me (and many others) unsatisfied. Even the very end left the plot unresolved. With the Malazan series instead it's a whole different deal. Reading this book, at various points, I thought that if it was to end right there, in the middle of the narrative, it would still feel completely satisfying and accomplished. Erikson as an author is far more generous and I feel that what he does is always honest. I never once felt cheated. Which also leads to the broad theme of "truthfulness", that Erikson fulfills for me. Reading this series is not an easy task for anyone, but I know that it largely rewarded my effort. It delivers all it promises, then more, far beyond expectations that continue to rise as the story goes and branches out to embrace what you don't think can be embraced. I am humbled because I know that this is one rare effort that won't likely be matched anytime soon, if ever. I'm glad that I find it so close to things that matter for me, at the core, and that I seek in a book. It completes what I think and I follow devotedly because it already proved aplenty that this journey is worth all the dedication I can give to it. This to say: Erikson, especially in this book, doesn't lull and drag you along with vane promises. He delivers, page after page. The physical shape of the book, right there, weighting far more than you think. Worlds that the written word can open, and worlds that, deep down, feed on something true.

This, for me, has nothing to do with the notion of escapism. At least if you don't consider escapism the illusion of the discovery of something meaningful, that matters. And so the thematic aspects. I guess that this couldn't be more misleading. "Themes" make me think of very boring books that have nowhere to go and preach on banalities or feast on rhetoric. Or the celebration of some sort of morale. I have a natural tendency to oppose and refuse these things because I always find them trite or partial. Erikson instead makes these aspects very real and makes surface their contradictions. The narrative is driven by purpose, a lucid intent, that doesn't lead recursively to itself, going nowhere. Turning a wheel that turns and turns but goes nowhere. Those themes, taken as abstraction, are always brought back to the ground. They don't wander on a detached level, different from the plot. They are intricately woven and matter on a concrete one. The biggest revelations can please a reader just for what they are, the fun of following an engaging story filled with unexpected twists. The last 70 pages of this book are a frenzy of plot threads that get tied and resolved one after the other. And each, if not to be carried away by this surging tide, turning the pages, would make you look back with unprecedented clarity. The thematic aspects here bind the narrative.

'The stigma of meaning ever comes later, like a brushing away of dust to reveal shapes in stone.'

The structure of this book is slightly different from the preceding ones. It starts with about 250 pages from a single point of view instead of jumping all over the place. I think this choice is perfectly placed. It's not easy to have the story move again after the ending of 'Memories of Ice'. Starting from a blank point, apparently unrelated, offers the narrative the possibility to gain momentum. Especially because all we learned through three books here becomes the cipher of what is going on behind the curtain of deception. An higher level of awareness that you have, as a reader, above the level of the narrow point of view. An second-level of observation that reveals a bigger truth, as you are yourself, as reader, deceived in turn, when you thought your position let you see clearly where the deception actually was. A clever trick indeed. But again, done to understand the story on a deeper level, and bring the reader right into it, with an active role. Not so many books do this. You may think this is some 'mental' stuff I imagined, but no. This is why I said the book is generous. It has not the esotericism and bloated pretentiousness of Pynchon, this book BEGS you to understand it. It doesn't hide for the simple pleasure of obfuscation, nor it lulls lathering in redundancy.

'In any case, to speak plainly is a true talent; to bury beneath obfuscation is a poet's calling these days.'

Now this review is coming out rather abstract and vague, yet I've pages of notes about specific aspects but I don't think I can go anywhere with them. This book offers a myriad of suggestions that you can taste and elaborate any way you want. Take for example the book of Dryjhna. It's a story that starts in book 2. This is Erikson doing his typical play on some established fantasy conventions (and in book 2 he resolves it delivering a spectacular surprise). In this case the 'book of prophecies'. We've had these plot devices dealt in every possible way in the fantasy genre. Here the running joke is that prophecies are left vague because through this very quality they can be pragmatically adapted to the changes of time. A way to keep them relevant and useful for those who actually wield that power for their own secular purposes. In the end prophecies are nothing more than excuses to exploit a population. But it's the real revelation of the truth (or better, the deceit) behind the book that makes it ultimately worth saving. The book is revealed as a fraud, but this revelation makes the book valuable for what it actually is, which consequently infuses it of the power it lost. A full circle, but, as it closes, the power of the book goes from misplaced and false, to something true and valid. It got somewhat cleansed in the process. This I've just explained is a very minor plot thread, almost invisible. Maybe two pages in total name it, yet, by ways of Erikson, what this book (of prophecies) represents echoes with everything else that goes on the major level. Everything intricately woven together at different levels.

There are certain plot threads, on a second inspection, after the tide of the last 100 pages passed, that seem somewhat spurious. Though this is typical of Erikson as the plot branches out to previous and following books. They are the most obvious links. But the reason why they are there is because they are part of larger loops. They are meaningful in the single book, have an impact and purpose, but the story arc isn't brought to conclusion right there. When I finished book 3, I thought that Erikson was at his maximum possible reach. Controlling so many characters and plot threads while delivering a so huge conclusion was absolutely spectacular. House of Chains is on a somewhat smaller scale and more personal. It continues directly from book 2 and draws from the qualities found there. Yet, this smaller scale was only apparent and Erikson shows here a stronger control of plot. He still improves. Book 3 had from my point of view a more uneven quality compared to the 2nd, even if as a whole it came out far above just because of its impact and staggering ambition. House of Chains shows a tight control and a clear intent. It is lucid in a way no previous book was. More effective and straight to the point. Every aspect I can consider is overall improved. The prose itself stays terse as is typical of Erikson, and gains efficacy. No wasted words, no lingering, yet also not as wasteful as it happened in Memories of Ice. On some of my notes I wrote how in books 1-3 we saw an expansion of the plot. An exponential multiplications of different factions and factions within factions. House of Chains instead represents a kind of contraption that doesn't reduce the reach of ambition of the plot, but that actually leads to an absorption of the various branches into an unitarian mythology. The nature and truth of many things is revealed, and this revelation draws everything together. It all makes sense and even sheds more light on previous books in a way that makes them shine even more. Following books improve the previous in retrospective, add significance. Especially in this case for book 2, that was already excellent. House of Chains is an open celebration of Deadhouse Gates, yet this doesn't put it in its shadow in any way. They just contribute to each other.

Want one flaw? Named characters lead the story. Yes, there are A LOT of them in that "named" list, but the terse style of Erikson lacks some naturalness if you care for it in a book. I've pointed this out in the past. There are no slices of life scenes here. No getting used to the characters or lingering with them for the mundane. This story has momentum and moves on. We don't get to see what isn't strictly relevant. Yet, this also means that these plots are sometimes too neatly wrapped up. Too coincidental and convenient. Everything pivots exactly where it should, and no matter how HUGE is the landmass itself, characters that travel seem to ineluctably constantly bump into each other. Sometimes it feels as if the "real world" is missing. As if the plot was eradicated from its natural place and made an example of. I doubt you could tell such story in a different way, though.

I loved this book. Not just because it has an excellent execution, but because I loved it also on a more personal level. The biggest mystery is how Erikson is able to gather the strength and will to start again from a blank page after such a huge showdown. I'm merely a reader, yet this was exhausting in a positive way. So much was brought to a satisfying closure. No idea where this will bring me next, but I have trust in the writer that it will be more than worth it.

The last few lines of the epilogue, in italics, are probably the biggest and more powerful revelation ever. Sustaining the whole series. (hopefully enough to keep Erikson himself afloat)

Thursday 10, June

Again on Ascendancy

Few more spurious quotes from the very end of House of Chains. Relatively spoiler-free.

The proportions had begun wrong. From the very start. Leading her to suspect that the proclivity for madness had already existed, dark flaws marring the soul that would one day claw its way into ascendancy.

I have walked into the Abyss.
I am as mad as that goddess. And this is why she chose me, for we are kindred souls...

This is another good example that illustrates what Ascendancy truly is and how it is regulated. Even if it's a theme of the book making the process more blurred and defying categories, since at the core "Ascendancy" is strictly linked to the ambiguous production of meaning. Dancing on a edge to keep a fine balance.

He did the best he could - with such honour as to draw, upon his sad death, the attention of Hood himself. Oh, the Lord of Death will look into a mortal's soul, given the right circumstances. The, uh, the proper incentive. Thus, that man is now the Knight of Death—'

Even here Ascendancy is the result of both convenience and kinship. A wicked sort of reward. The honor of failure. There's no salvation in Ascendancy. There's no glory.

This is why Ascendancy is symbolized by T'lan Imass. Immortality made into failure.

T'lan imass / glory & ghosts

'The glory of battle, Koryk, dwells only in the bard's voice, in the teller's woven words. Glory belongs to ghosts and poets. What you hear and dream isn't the same as what you live - blur the distinction at your own peril, lad.'

Karsa's expression soured. 'When I began this journey, I was young. I believed in one thing. I believed in glory. I know now, Siballe, that glory is nothing. Nothing. This is what I now understand.'
'What else do you now understand, Karsa Orlong?'
'Not much. Just one other thing. The same cannot be said for mercy.'

'The heart is neither given nor stolen. The heart surrenders.'
The bonecaster did not turn round. 'That is a word without power to the T'lan Imass, Onrack the Broken.'
'You are wrong, Monok Ochem. We simply changed the word to make it not only more palatable, but also to empower it. With such eminence that it devoured our souls.'

The very last few words that conclude the book, in italics, deliver not only the answer to all this, but also a huge revelation that hit with all its power. Neither of the three preceding books ended on a so high note.

Friday 28, May

Personal bias ever surfacing (Ascendancy in the Malazan series)

See my eyes rolling in consternation again.

I enjoy reading Larry's reviews, no matter what he reviews. Then he links a forum I've never seen and I check there from time to time to read other points of view on his reviews of Erikson's books. Guess who's posting also in that place? Werthead. There's no place on the internet even vaguely related to fantasy and SF where you don't see him strutting about.

Which is actually a good thing. He spends quite a bit of time everywhere evangelizing about the genre, and you can't have enough of that. We should be grateful. There's nothing negative about answering questions and making people aware of this or that less known writer or book. Nothing negative at least till what he's spreading is somewhat accurate and honest, but there are certain instances that are not, and so he goes on spreading some twisted and inaccurate interpretations that can't be in any way useful.

This is a recurring habit of him with Erikson in particular, it seems he can't write a comment without putting some venom or spite in it. It just can't be helped. I point your attention in particular to this reply he writes. Someone asks some specific questions about Malazan and he's kind enough to answer. The reply he writes is actually good and to the point, helpful. Only he had to let some of that venom of him seep through, and so we get this:

People 'Ascend' when they become unstoppably badass. That's about the only criteria that can be found. When they become powerful enough they will ascend to become Ascendants, who are effectively demigods.

That's exactly the moment when my eyes went rolling, especially because this is a recurring bad habit of those who try to diminish Erikson as a writer by drawing a parallel between his series and role-playing games. I don't need to discuss the association because I've done it already in the past, the point here is that, no matter how you see it or personal opinion about Erikson as a writer, what he says there is simply inaccurate and WRONG. Yes, there's always this argument that says I don't qualify to comment since I haven't read the whole series yet, but now I've read some 3400 pages, I guess I should have an idea about how this thing works.

In those pages I read there are plenty of cases of individuals becoming ascendants. We see the process in various instances. Yet I can't remember A SINGLE ONE that went in the way Werthead described it. Not only there's not a pattern like the one he described, but there's not even a single case that went like that.

If one has to define a pattern (and a pattern is not easy to find here for deliberate reasons), it's one that is the exact opposite of "becoming badass". In most cases people in the books "ascend" after they went through some extreme suffering, or suffering that can be interpreted in some symbolic way. Saying this would still be imprecise and limited, but THIS is the only generalized criteria that one could honestly deduct.

When I think about this I remember these words by Erikson that I quoted recently for something entirely different: "the flaw is one of sequence." Indeed. People become badass AFTER they become ascendants, as a consequence. They do not become ascendants BECAUSE they are badass. This happens because ascendancy is in general the process of creation of myth in the malazan world. This process includes different typologies because it's here that Erikson deals with the entire spectrum of myth, from pragmatic and concrete gods, to religious beliefs. What in the beginning seems to have the most disparate origin is then shown to have a shared one. And this is a rather broad and deep theme that is already expanded and explored from various perspectives in each book.

This process draws directly not from the fantasy genre and its canon (even if these are used to play some tricks), but from REALITY. The process of creation of myths and gods is, in the Malazan world as in our real one, entirely symbolic. The meaning as a sign. Or a sign that evokes meaning. This is why it's possible in the Malazan world that gods appear disguised or take the place of other gods to deceive and twist followers. This kind of "game of thrones" is a game of ambivalence of meaning. It's a disguise of power, through meaning. Take for example this revelatory part with Heboric from House of Chains:

Then another voice spoke, louder, more imperious: 'What god now owns your
hands, old man? Tell me! Even their ghosts are not here -who is holding on to you? Tell
'There are no gods,' a third voice cut in, this one female.
'So you say!' came yet another, filled with spite. 'In your empty, barren, miserable
'Gods are born of belief, and belief is dead. We murdered it, with our vast
intelligence. You were too primitive—'
'Killing gods is not hard. The easiest murder of all. Nor is it a measure of intelligence.
Not even of civilization. Indeed, the indifference with which such death-blows are
delivered is its own form of ignorance.'
'More like forgetfulness. After all, it's not the gods that are important, it is the
stepping outside of oneself that gifts a mortal with virtue—'
'Kneel before Order? You blind fool—'
'Order? I was speaking of compassion—'

The only gap between the Malazan world and ours is that Erikson makes the process concrete and tangible. In the same way, for example, in Lost the players make the rules (and make them real) as they go, here the representation of a god makes it real. "Meaning" that dresses itself as tangible power. Meaning that transforms itself into magic. Accepting and embracing meaning makes it real and part of the factual world.

'It is believed,' he said slowly, 'by the bonecasters, that to create an
icon of a spirit or a god is to capture its essence within that icon. Even the laying of
stones prescribes confinement. Just as a hut can measure out the limits of power for a
mortal, so too are spirits and gods sealed into a chosen place of earth or stone or
wood… or an object. In this way power is chained, and so becomes manageable.'

'Do your bonecasters also believe that power begins as a thing devoid of shape, and thus
beyond control? And that to carve out an icon - or make a circle of stones - actually
forces order upon that power?'

Understanding this leads to understanding how ascendancy works, and define a pattern if we really want one. In most cases, people don't become ascendants, but they get picked by a god. In most cases (all) without their consent. The relationship is not a simple one, because it's reciprocate influence, and in order to use powers, the gods are subject to influence from the outside.

How does a god choose an ascendant? Through symbols and convenience. Again I say that "combat proficiency" never came to play in the choice in all the examples I've seen. What comes to play and defines the choice is "likeness", "kinship". Gods pick their ascendants through symbolic analogies. Through some kind of reflection between themselves and those they choose. Some kind of abstract link. This is why for example the Crippled God (Chained One) picks his followers among those who suffered and were chained in ways similar to his (in the same way in Lost the black smoke tries to find allies by exploiting some affinity with them). Gods make ascendants through affinity of spirit, or in some twisted interpretation of it. And this is why Heboric himself, cripple and blind, also is chosen. A man who only felt miserable and whose only escape from suffering was through drug. Are you telling me that his transition to ascendancy happens through badassness? Come on.

I don't think Erikson would have any interest in creating a magic system or a pantheon established on arbitrary assumptions. What Erikson puts in his books is definitely "fantasy", but always grounded on something real and true. The fantastic element is purely of transformation. Metaphoric. But in the end, it needs to connect back to something true and real in order to be relevant and meaningful. Which all makes me think about Brandon Sanderson "bragging" for his The Stormlight Archive series how "there are thirty magic systems in this world, depending on how you count them". Which is cool, but just "fluff" (as Dan Abnett would define it) if these magic systems are not used as narrative devices with some purpose. Thirty magic systems, or sixty, or one, or zero. Who cares? It's what you do with them and why, to matter. What they represent, what is the message. It's a book that you're writing, not a role-playing gaming system.

Which is the point.

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