A Beginner’s Guide to Malazan Characters: Deadhouse Gates


The awesome folk at Tor.com have just published my fifth article over there! A Beginner’s Guide to Malazan Characters: Deadhouse Gates is a follow-up to last year’s guide to Gardens of the Moon.

Once again, there’s a whole bunch of fabulous artwork to accompany it, and I’d encourage you to check out all of these brilliant artists on DeviantArt!

‘Night of Knives’ by Ian C. Esslemont


Night of Knives is the first of Ian C. Esslemont’s Malazan Empire books (intended to be read alongside Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen).The Malazan Empire series by Ian C. Esslemont

Erikson and Esslemont co-created the incredible world of Malaz over thirty years ago; seeing as they’re writing about the same world and characters, I don’t think it’s at all unfair to directly compare the two.

Except that, sadly, there is no real comparison.

Set several years prior to Erikson’s series, Night of Knives tells of an event that has hitherto been only mysteriously alluded to: the night the Emperor disappeared. It’s a great idea for a novel, and the actual story itself is quite nicely self-contained, set as it is over the course of a single night. Unfortunately, there’s something about Esslemont’s writing that makes this short novella feel like a real slog. The plot is slow and clumsy when it should be fast-paced and exciting; the settings are flat and repetitive when they should be evocative; and the characters are distant and passive when they should be sympathetic and engaging.

Night of Knives by Ian Cameron Esslemont (PS cover)Esslemont conveys the events in Night of Knives through the eyes of two major POV characters. Kiska is a local-born thief, while Temper is a former bodyguard of the great Dassem Ultor (another legendary figure name-dropped throughout the main series). Though neither of these characters is dislikeable, still I felt a complete lack of connection with Kiska, and had only marginally more sympathy for Temper due to the few flashbacks granting us a little of his history. Esslemont’s characterisation is far from subtle, with Kiska coming across as an irritating, self-centred youth, and Temper’s every action seemingly completely contradicting his thoughts. I found that I had no idea what either character was going to do next, and even less idea of whether or not I cared.

I think one of the main problems regarding the characters is how little they actually do. Characters from the main series such as Tayschrenn and Temper seem to spend most of the story acting like curious bystanders rather than major players and, while it’s nice to see them given more page time here, they seem to have no real impact on the plot itself. Even Kiska spends pretty much the entirety of the book reacting to events rather than participating in them. This sense of passively witnessing proceedings, rather than actively instigating them, is perhaps one reason why Night of Knives doesn’t feel particularly engaging: though Esslemont scrapes together a nice (if somewhat feeble) air of tension, most of the real action happens off-screen; as such, the characters – and thus the reader – seem to be of little importance in the night’s events, and have even less at stake in their outcome.Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont (Bantam cover)

And it’s not just the characters I had issues with. I also felt the pacing of events to be a little ‘off’, with the much-anticipated climax occurring off-screen only to be followed by another series of events with yet another climax. These final events involve a vague subplot comprising an Azath house and a magical attack on the island, the significance of which is never made entirely clear.

In fact, the latter half of Night of Knives feels similarly bewildering – as though two separate stories have been shoehorned together. This confusion is exacerbated by the heavy presence of ‘dark figures’ and ‘men in cloaks’. In these instances, Esslemont’s use of noun phrases rather than names meant that I sometimes had difficulty keeping track of who was who and just what the hell was going on – particularly during the recurring conflict between the Claw and the shadow cultists.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

However, it’d be unfair to say that there are no positives to be found in Esslemont’s debut novel. For instance, I really enjoyed the extended flashbacks involving Temper’s time in Y’Ghatan: these segments reveal a lot about events that have so far been only cryptically alluded to in the main series, and provide a nice bit of backstory for Temper’s character. Bewilderment aside, the novel as a whole actually improves as it progresses, and the author evokes some pretty striking imagery (mystic ice-bound beings, fog, darkness and shadow, monstrous hounds, undead) to create a haunting and eerie atmosphere.

So, the premise of Night of Knives is fairly solid, and its resolution fairly satisfying.  The entire concept of the novel – set on a single night, on an ice-besieged island, during a Shadow Moon – is awesome. It’s just a shame it’s so awkwardly executed, and that the presenting of circumstances seems so painfully contrived (what are the chances an ‘unpredictable’ Shadow Moon would just happen to occur on this night of all nights?). Moreover, I find myself left with a lot of questions, such as: Why is Temper so desperate to involve himself in the night’s events when his current mission in life is to remain under the empire’s radar? What exactly is a Shadow Moon? Why are they so unpredictable, how do they work, and why are they never mentioned in the main series? Who is Agayla? Who was the old man in the fishing boat? Who was the old man in the pub? What was that vague mention of a prophecy all about?

Why couldn’t Steven Erikson have written this book instead?The Malazan Empire series by Ian C. Esslemont

2016: Top Ten of Everything!


Everyone else is doing it… if that’s not a good enough reason for me to do it too, then I don’t know what is. No, YOU’RE too impressionable. And so’s your mum.

In 2016 a massive bunch of cool things happened. Here’s ten of them! (In no particular order.)

Top 10… GOOD THINGS

  1. I had the privilege of beta reading the finished first drafts of two immensely talented friends: Kareem, and Sadir. (Thanks for making my own efforts feel so inadequate in contrast, guys…)
  2. I joined Marc Aplin & Jennie Ivins and the rest of the Fantasy-Faction team as a contributor!
  3. I released Danse Macabre in paperback on Amazon and Barnes & Noble!
  4. I’ve had the absolute pleasure of participating in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off as part of the Fantasy-Faction judging panel!
  5. I’ve made a fuckton of new friends via social media, including readers, writers, and all-round beautiful weirdos. (You know who you are…)Dyrk Ashton inspirational quote
  6. I contributed two articles to Tor.com – and got paid to do so!My First Article for Tor.com
  7. I joined Reddit, and had an epic time as Writer of the Day on r/Fantasy!
  8. Danse Macabre picked up a lot of momentum, and now has 30+ reviews on Goodreads – including write-ups from the likes of T.O. Munro, G.R. Matthews, T.L. Greylock, Booknest.eu, Hobgoblin Reviews, Observant Raven Reviews, Dyrk Ashton, Richard Ford, J.P. Ashman, and Grimdark Alliance!
  9. I finally met Marc Turner, one of my favourite modern fantasy authors, in person – as well as Joe Abercrombie, Tom Lloyd, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch!Bear-Lloyd-Hughes Subliminal Selfie
  10. I finished writing two short stories and several poems, and am finally back on track with writing my novel thanks to the encouragement of friends (not to mention the liver-shaving daredevil antics of that fellah Benedict Patrick, aka. Ben Paddy, aka. the Rogue with the Brogue).

A fuller rundown of my 2016 antics can be found here. But now…

Top Ten… BOOKS READ

Now, on to my top 10 reads of 2016! I briefly reviewed my reading year here, but here’s the Official Definitive Top Ten:

Top Ten… ARTICLES & REVIEWS

These were, according to WordPress, the ten most popular posts of the year:

10 – Janny Wurts & Raymond E. Feist, ‘Daughter of the Empire’ (review)
Daughter of the Empire cover image

9 – Mark Lawrence, ‘The Wheel of Osheim’ (review)mark-lawrence-wheel-of-osheim-cover

8 – 2016: The Worst of Times, the Best of Tomes

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong

7 – Steven Erikson, ‘Gardens of the Moon’ (review)steven-erikson-gardens-of-the-moon-cover

6 – T. Frohock, ‘Los Nefilim’ (review)t-frohock-los-nefilim-cover

5 – Review: Jeff Salyards, ‘Veil of the Deserters’veil-salyards-bloodsounder

4 – Daniel Abraham, ‘The Dagger and the Coin’ (series review)The Dagger & the Coin Quintet by Daniel Abraham

3 – Self-published authors and the SPFBO: revitalising SFF
Ragnarok Covers: The Amra Thetys series by Michael McClung

2 – Steven Erikson, ‘The Bonehunters’ (review)

'The Bonehunters' by Steven Erikson

And the most popular by far:

1 – A Beginner’s Guide to Malazan Characters: ‘Gardens of the Moon’

'Silanah vs Raest': artwork by Shadaan

‘Silanah vs Raest’: artwork by Shadaan

For what it’s worth, my personal favourites are the Self-Publishing/SPFBO article, the Los Nefilim review, and of course my interview with epic fantasy author John Gwynne (as well as my article about why his books are awesome).

Now for the final Top 10 list…

Top Ten… WANT TO READ IN 2017

In addition to the gorgeous-looking titles on my backlist, here’s a few upcoming releases I’m looking forward to:

And there it is! 2016 has been miserable in many ways, but in terms of reading it’s been ace. Bring on more of the same in 2017!

Happy new year!

‘Blood Follows’ by Steven Erikson


Blood Follows is Steven Erikson’s first Malazan novella, the first in a series detailing the nefarious exploits of necromantic duo Bauchelain and Korbal Broach.

Buchelain and Korbal Broach (vol 1) by Steven EriksonBauchelain and Broach made their Malazan debut in the third book of the main series, Memories of Ice, in which they played a minor part in a battle outside the city of Capustan. There we were also introduced to their long-suffering manservant Emancipor Reese, and made to wonder just how ‘’Mancy the Luckless’ came to work for his unnatural employers. Blood Follows answers this question in the form of a darkly humorous tale detailing the origins of Reese’s unlucky alliance with Bauchelain and Broach.

Containing all the trademark Erikson features without the weight of a 1,000+ page novel, Blood Follows is a Malazan tale in miniature, a single piece of the colossal jigsaw puzzle that the full-length novels tend to comprise. As such it’s a tightly focused, fast-paced and brilliantly self-contained story, set on an obscure island and focusing on a handful of characters and their macabre involvement in a series of grisly murders. For this the setting of Lamentable Moll is perfect: a city whose houses and streets are built around and on top of hundreds of ancient (and occasionally haunted) barrows.

The novella introduces a cast of characters which is relatively small but also nicely fleshed-out in spite of the very short page count. The main players – both of whom are amusing and likeable – are Emancipor Reese, the aforementioned down-on-his-luck worker with an exceedingly demanding wife; and Sergeant Guld, top dog amongst the city watch but currently struggling with the pressure of hunting down a serial-killing sorcerer (or two…). As usual Erikson also manages to nudge on from the sidelines several awesomely bizarre supporting characters, some of whom are much more than they first appear.

It’s these little touches of weirdness and magic and humour that, for me, really make Erikson stand out as an author . . . and, of course, his ability to weave an intriguing tale leading to an exciting convergence no matter how limited the length of the story may be.

Blood Follows is a ghoulish, hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable Malazan outing that will beckon any reader (with its fat, white, delicate hand) to read more of these Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas.

NaNovember!


October has been ever so slightly crazy. I spent countless hours working on a short story in order to meet a submission deadline (which I did manage in the end – barely!). My ‘currently reading’ list is longer than ever before. NaNo is upon us. And the SPFBO has reached stage two!

SPFBO – Final 10!

We have our finalist!!!
Fantasy-Faction's SPFBO2 Finalist: Dyrk Ashton, Paternus

That’s right: earlier last month G.R. Matthews, A.F.E. Smith and myself announced Dyrk Ashton as our pick for Fantasy-Faction’s SPFBO finalist. Dyrk’s novel, Paternus, is a well-written and exciting tale of myths and monsters in modern-day society. We gave it a collective score of 9/10, and are proud to say that it 100% deserves its place amongst the final ten.

Speaking of which… here they are!

SPFBO 2016: the Final Ten!

Gorgeous-looking bunch, aren’t they? I’ve already begun reading Larcout, and I’m also particularly excited about Path of Flames, Assassin’s ChargeFionn and of course The Grey Bastards.

Not that I don’t have enough to read and review already… like:

Nothing is Ever Simple (Corin Hayes #2) by G.R. Matthews

Corin Hayes #1 and #2 by G.R. Matthews

A couple of days ago, my fellow indie writer (and Fantasy-Factioner!) G.R. Matthews released the long-awaited second book in his underwater SF series Corin Hayes. Here’s what I said about book one, Silent City:

Reader beware: if you suffer from thalassophobia (= fear of the sea), prepare to be chilled to the bone. . . because the world of Corin Hayes is entirely underwater.
[…] Short, entertaining and exciting: Silent City is the start of a series I’ll certainly be following with interest.

Read the full review on Goodreads or Amazon.

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

A bloody, uncomfortable, fascinating read. The first in Michael R. Fletcher’s Manifest Delusions series, Beyond Redemption pulls us into a world where anything is possible . . . so long as you’re insane. Dark, brutal and highly recommended.

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. FletcherYou can read my review on Fantasy-Faction. The sequel, The Mirror’s Truth, is due out in December.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Back in my late teens I read, re-read and re-re-read Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy (Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen) more times than I could count. The recent release of Goldenhand unleashed a flood of nostalgia, so much so that I couldn’t resist revisiting the series.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and after a decade away from the series I’m thoroughly enjoying dipping in and out of this one. Sabriel sparked fond memories of late-night reading right from page 1, and I’m looking forward to reaching book two, Lirael, which was always my favourite of the three.

On Writing by Stephen King

This is another book I’ve been dipping in and out of. As such, progress is slow, but I’m picking up snippets of wisdom every time I sit down to read a few pages.

On Writing by Stephen King

Anyone who knows me is aware of my love of metaphors (or, as some would say, ‘overthinking’). In one chapter, King compares writing to archaeology: the story is always there, like a fossil beneath the ground, and writers should use whatever tools necessary to bring it to light. He goes on to say that you wouldn’t start digging with a toothpick; you’d begin with a pickaxe or even a jackhammer, only bringing out the delicate tools when you’re ready to reveal the details.

For someone like me (whose writing process generally involves obsessive plotting, second-guessing and re-writing) this is very relevant . . . as is the part where King opines that plot is “the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.”

Ouch. Point taken. Time to just get on with telling the story. Sound advice (and just in time for NaNoWriMo!)

ARC Happy Fun Times

Because I’m clearly a masochist, I’ve also taken on ARCs from a small selection of awesome authors.

The Mirror's Truth by Michael R. Fletcher (FB header)

Michael R. Fletcher’s The Mirror’s Truth and John Gwynne’s Wrath are both currently adorning my Kindle, and I’m also lucky enough to have been offered an early copy of Red Sister from one of my favourite modern fantasy authors, Mark Lawrence. Positive reviews for this one have already begun trickling in, and I’m really, really excited to delve in to Mark’s new series, The Book of the Ancestor.

Malazan Art of the Fallen

You may have noticed my re-post of the Malazan article I had published on Tor.com in September. The re-post includes even more stunning art from the talented Chisomo Phiri (Shadaan on DeviantArt) and once again I’m encouraging anyone and everyone to go and check out his work.

'Silanah vs Raest': artwork by Shadaan

‘Silanah vs Raest’: artwork by Shadaan

On Righting

In October I ran two free promotions, most recently over Halloween. Danse Macabre now has another NINE (!) 4*/5* ratings and SIX (!) more reviews – as well as a place on its first ever LIST! (Angela Burkhead’s top Halloween reads for 2016).

Danse Macabre Free Promotion Graphic

Danse Macabre‘s success over the last few months has been a real confidence boost. Reading what folks are saying about it (including a recent review by Eric Fomley at Grimdark Alliance) inspires me to write more, which I think is part of the reason I worked so keenly on my short story submission last month. As such, I’ve made the (absolutely mad) decision to sign up for NaNoWriMo once again.

NaNoWriMo 2016 Participant Banner

In January this year I spoke about my ongoing struggles with depression; about why I closed down my original blog, and why I vowed not to bother with NaNo ever again.

After last year’s absolute failure (and its consequences) I’ll admit that the prospect of trying again terrifies me. But truth be told, I need a kick up the arse. This time, NaNo is going to be a tool with which I can hold myself accountable – not a means of quantifying failure.

So this year, I’m going to beat NaNo. Because I’ve made a promise to myself that this year I’m going to do it right. (Also that if I make it past 50k words by November 30th, I’m allowed to reward myself by finally starting a(nother) new game of Dragon Age: Inquisition.)

If anyone else is participating and wants to add me, you can find me here. Good luck to all, and see you on the other side!

A Beginner’s Guide to Malazan Characters: ‘Gardens of the Moon’


This article originally appeared on Tor.com on September 19th 2016 and features original artwork by Chisomo Phiri.


'Silanah vs Raest': artwork by Shadaan

‘Silanah vs Raest’: artwork by Shadaan

I’ll be honest: I fell flat on my face the first time I tried to read Gardens of the Moon. Gods, assassins, soldiers, mages, immortals – you name it, Erikson’s debut is rife with it. The sheer amount of new characters leaves many readers thumbing through the earlier chapters again and again, muttering all the while about maybe having missed something.

But fear not, new readers! Your friendly Malazan holiday rep is here to save you from this fate. Just sit back, relax and enjoy this handy guide to Erikson’s inimitable characters and the tangled web of factions that connects them.


THE MALAZANS

 The Malazan Empire assimilates each culture it conquers. Most of the books tend to concentrate mainly on its military – but before we begin, here’s a brief overview of those at the very top of the food chain.

'Hunger': Empress Laseen by Shadaan

‘Hunger’: Empress Laseen by Shadaan

Empress Laseen

Formerly known as Surly. Once a bog-standard barmaid . . . until the night she assassinated the previous Emperor, Kellanved, along with others belonging to the Emperor’s ‘Old Guard’—including his chief adviser, Dancer.

Clawmaster Topper

Unhealthily obsessed with the colour green. Commands a faction of elite assassins known as the Claw who, loyal to Empress Laseen, played an important role in her bloody coup.

Adjunct Lorn

If the Clawmaster is Laseen’s hidden left hand, the Adjunct is undoubtedly his counterpart. Adjunct Lorn is the public face, voice, and sword arm of the Empress, and is fiercely loyal to Laseen (like, Brienne of Tarth-scale loyalty). Lorn wears the Adjunct’s traditional rust-coloured, magic-deadening sword, so there’s no danger of not being recognised (and feared) wherever she goes. But beneath the chip on her shoulder and the trappings of authority, she’s just a woman doing her job.


So that’s the capital. But Gardens of the Moon takes place in the field, so here’s a quick rundown of the imperial army’s key players:

 ONEARM’S HOST

 The Malazan army is a motley conglomeration of races, cultures, genders and skillsets. From crossbow-wielding marines and heavyweight frontline fighters to ex-assassins and necromancers, its soldiers are both the heart and the backbone of this series.

Dujek Onearm

Commander (‘High Fist’) of the Malazan campaign on Genabackis (aka. the continent where GotM takes place). Has one arm.

Toc the Younger

Soldier, optimist and son of . . . Toc the Elder! (Bet you didn’t see that one coming.) Desperately needs someone to buy him a t-shirt that reads ‘Wrong place, wrong time.’ Has one eye.

Tayschrenn

High Mage (aka, top dog). Aloof, enigmatic and uber-powerful. Bit of a worm, though . . .

Tattersail

Big heart, big magic, big body. Not so much a cougar as a cradle-snatcher…but we all have our flaws.

'First Ones In...': Bridgeburners by Shadaan

‘First Ones In…’: The Bridgeburners by Shadaan

THE BRIDGEBURNERS 

Remember the “Old Guard” I mentioned above? The ones Empress Laseen is no longer a fan of? Well, most of these guys—now fighting in Onearm’s Host—were as good as part of it. We first meet the Bridgeburners in the aftermath of a sorcery enfilade outside the city of Pale, during which most of their company were “accidentally” decimated by their own side.

Ganoes Paran

Wet-behind-the-ears nobleborn with a habit of inadvertently paving the road to hell. Reluctant buddy of Adjunct Lorn. Recently handed a commission as Captain of the Bridgeburners. Veterans one and all, the Bridgeburners don’t take kindly to highborn officers: Paran is the latest in a long line of Captains, and the grunts are busy planning his “welcome” before he’s even arrived. Poor guy.

Whiskeyjack

Whiskeyjack is The Man: a tough-but-fair, salt-of-the-earth-type soldier. The most well-known Bridgeburner Sergeant, Whiskeyjack also happens to be Dujek Onearm’s BFF and leads his own eclectic squad of Bridgeburner soldiers. Including . . .

Quick Ben

MMGA (Makes Mages Great Again). Seriously, even if you despise mages you’ll hit it off with Quick Ben: he’s smart-mouthed, highly strung, and perhaps one of the cleverest characters in the whole damn series. Goes to extreme lengths to lurk beneath the high-command radar and appear less powerful than he really is. Certified badass.

Kalam

Also a certified badass. Huge and muscled, ex-Claw Kalam seems an unlikely assassin, though it’s true he can probably crush your skull with his bare hands. But he’s light on his feet and quick with his knives . . . and always has Quick Ben watching his back.

Hedge

Sapper. Loves playing with munitions more than he loves life itself. Slightly deranged. Invents card games using the Deck of Dragons (aka Tarot cards that most people are afraid to even share a room with).

Fiddler

Hedge’s best friend. Also a sapper/explosives expert/crazy card-game swindler. Surprisingly prescient. Carries a fiddle.

Sorry

You’ll come across a nameless dark-haired fishergirl in one of the earliest chapters. Keep your eye on her, because it isn’t long before she reappears as a creepy-ass recruit named Sorry. There’s something odd about her, alright…and her presence makes even her grizzled tough-as-old-boots squadmates nervous.


As of the opening of GotM, the city of Pale has fallen to the Malazans. This leaves Darujhistan as the last remaining free city on Genabackis . . . and the location of the story’s big climax.

THE DARU

Darujhistan’s social and political factions are many and varied, but can be loosely divided into four influential groups:

THE COUNCIL

Nasty bastards. Ostensibly the rulers of Darujhistan, their political strategies consist mainly of bitching, backstabbing, and brown-nosing. Of all the fancy-arsed nobles’ names flung around here the only ones you need to pay attention to are Turban Orr, Lady Simtal and the D’Arle family (and of course, Challice. Who the f*ck is Challice?!)

THE T’ORRUD CABAL

'Baruk' by Shadaan

‘Baruk’ by Shadaan

Magic bastards. The real power within the city, these shadowy figures are more interested in peace than politics. Led by High Alchemist Baruk, their ranks also include an absent-minded old scholar…and his familiar, a flying monkey known as Moby.

THE GUILD OF ASSASSINS

A small but passionate community of banjo-playing dwarves.

No, not really.

THE PHOENIX INN CROWD

A shifty bunch of thieves, cutthroats, beggars, scroungers and miscreants. Naturally, these are the guys we spend most of our time in Darujhistan with, so here’s a quick overview of some of the standouts:

Kruppe

Beneficent Kruppe refers to himself in the third person. But Kruppe’s new (and cheerfully unaware) friends should not let Kruppe’s cherubic appearance and rambling demeanour deceive them: oh, no! For affable Kruppe is a master of sleight of hand; and Kruppe assures dear readers that he is, indeed, far more cunning than they might think.

Crokus Younghand

Thief, but by choice rather than necessity. Astoundingly naïve. (Like, seriously. The dude is oblivious. Adorable, yes. But also facepalm-provokingly oblivious. Consider yourselves warned!)

Rallick Nom

Assassin. Member of the Guild of Assassins. Hates it when other assassins rely on magic instead of assassin-y skills. Enjoys assassinations and long walks up haunted towers (to lie in wait before assassinating someone).

 Murillio

Fop. Dandy. Handsome layabout who offers his “services” as an escort to rich women. Also in cahoots with Assassin-y McAssassinface Rallick Nom in a super-secret plan involving their drunken mate, Coll.

Oh, and lastly: be sure to keep an eye out for the mysterious “Eel”. Slippery fellow, that one.


So there you have the Daru. But what about their allies? And what if the Malazans aren’t their only enemies?

THE “WILD CARDS”

Finally, let’s meet a few of the free agents. These fantastical figures are some of the most powerful – and unpredictable! – players in Erikson’s long game.

'Blacksword Visits': Anomander Rake by Shadaan

‘Blacksword Visits’: Anomander Rake by Shadaan

Anomander Rake

Rake is literally the Son of Darkness. As in, his mum is Mother Dark. This makes him sort of a cross between Ozzy Osbourne and Jesus: ageless, intelligent, and powerful beyond all measure, Rake is the brooding-but-badass leader of the Tiste Andii race.

FYI: You know how the elves in Lord of the Rings are tall and majestic and distant and cold and also just a little bit depressing? Picture them with midnight skin and moon-white hair. Now imagine that some of them are also capable of shapeshifting into dragons, while others wield primeval magic and weapons with impossible skill. And then – just for kicks – place them all on a colossal flying mountain and name it “Moon’s Spawn”.

 Are you picturing it? Good. That’s the Tiste Andii.

Caladan Brood

A.k.a. the big bastard with the hammer. (No, not Thor. Different dude; different hammer.)

'Hammer Time': Caladan Brood by Shadaan

‘Hammer Time’: Caladan Brood by Shadaan

Caladan Brood doesn’t get all that much page time. Nonetheless, he’s a huge presence throughout the…which, let’s face it, isn’t all that surprising when you take into account the fact that he’s a not-quite-human warlord carrying the only weapon capable of waking the Sleeping Goddess, Burn. Did I mention he’s been carrying that bad boy around for more than a thousand years?

FYI: Before the events of GotM, Brood and his BFF Rake started a kind of heavy-metal supergroup: Brood’s tribal armies and Rake’s Tiste Andii got together and swore to defend the Free Cities (like Pale and Darujhistan) against the Malazan Empire. They also recruited the legendary Crimson Guard mercenaries, along with other slightly more unsavoury allies. Such as . . .

High King Kallor

The third wheel in the Brood/Rake (Brake?) bromance. This grouchy old git is the naysayer of the group…and yet strangely impressive. Ancient, bitter and universally hated, yes. But Kallor is also no slouch with the enormous sword he carries, and despite his age he’s more cunning than a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford. Too bad allies and foes alike mock his self-styled title; and too bad that, despite lugging his decrepit throne along with him everywhere he goes, in actuality he is—in the words of renowned bard H’etfield James– “King Nothing.”

Speaking of lost glory and immortality . . .

'Imass: Life, Warmth, Craft' by Shadaan

‘Imass: Life, Warmth, Craft’ by Shadaan

Tool

The first T’lan Imass (undead cavemen tenuously allied with the Malazans) we meet, Onos T’oolan is without doubt the most skilled swordsman among the thousands-strong ranks of walking dead. Don’t get the wrong impression, though, because shambling zombies the Imass ain’t.

Fun fact: a friend of mine once told me he imagines the T’lan Imass to look like Iron Maiden’s skeletal mascot, Eddie. To this day I can’t decide if that makes them more or less terrifying. Either way, Tool is metal AF.


It’s all about the little guys

I could happily ramble on forever about ALL THE CHARACTERS in Gardens of the Moon, as well as the factions they represent and the profound motifs they introduce—epic motifs like power attracts power; war destroys the things you love; progress vs stagnation; and mega-shark vs giant octopus

For now, though, I hope I’ve managed to give new readers a glimpse of what (for me) makes this book so special. Erikson’s tale is essentially about the nature of humanity, and he adopts a more intimate approach to character-building than any other epic fantasy author I’ve encountered. He delights in showing us that the gods are fallible just as much as he revels in portraying the quiet heroism of lowly soldiers. He creates characters who are physically alien or barbaric, but in whom we can nonetheless recognise something of ourselves; and he puts each and every one of his little guys through the wringer. Not because he’s cruel—though some would say that’s a matter for debate!—but because he knows full well that the surest way to evoke a visceral response from readers is to simply give us characters that we care about and relate to.


Credit for all artwork featured in this article goes to digital artist Chisomo Phiri. Check out his full portfolio on DeviantArt!

This article appeared in its original form on Tor.com. You can read it here.

Hola, October!


Signed and Cactigraphed Books by Tom Lloyd, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie

Guys – it’s October already! September flew by so quickly, probably because it was even more spiffing than August.

For starters, I attended my FIRST EVER SIGNING (!!!), a Gollancz event at my local Waterstones on which I wrote up an excitable little piece earlier this week. Basically I got giddy at meeting the Bear and co., and for the rest of the evening it was subliminal selfies (copyright: Steven Poore) and happy cactigraphs all round.

The entire evening reinforced my determination to join a traditionally-published (and fun!) team such as Gollancz

… a determination which was bolstered by yet another handful of amazingly kind reviews on Goodreads! I published Danse Macabre in October 2015, and the reviews it’s acquired over the last twelve months have been unanimously positive. As you might imagine, this has done wonders for my confidence in my own writing ability; self-publishing my first ever finished piece of fiction is perhaps one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Danse Macabre by Laura M Hughes

Speaking of self-publishing: the #SPFBO is nearing the end of its first round! Four of the ten participating blogs have announced their finalists, with more soon to follow.

Over on Fantasy-Faction we eliminated another two entries. I wrote a fond review of Off Leash by Daniel Potter, which you should definitely check out along with A.F.E. Smith’s fantastic review of A Song of Blood and Stone by L. Penelope.

Our remaining three semi-finalists are Dyrk Ashton (Paternus), Amy Rose Davis (Ravenmarked) and Aderyn Wood (The Raven). We’ve actually picked our finalist… but aren’t quite ready to announce them yet. 😉

SPFBO Semi-Finalists: Fantasy-Faction's remaining three

It isn’t just SPFBO stuff I’ve been covering for Fantasy-Faction. In last month’s round-up, I shared my excitement at receiving an ARC of Red Tide by one of my favourite modern fantasy authors, Marc Turner. The book was amazing (as if that was ever in doubt), and as well as reviewing it I also had the opportunity to interview Marc as well!

And that’s not all! Earlier in the month, Tor.com published an article I wrote about The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

My First Article for Tor.com

The article – which marks my first ever piece of paid AND solicited non-fiction writing! – is essentially a rundown of the major characters introduced in Gardens of the Moon, and seems to have received a very positive response on the whole. (Better yet, I have at least four more articles for Tor.com lined up over the next six months or so. Watch this space!)

The gorgeous illustrations in the GotM article are all provided by the talented Chisomo Phiri (aka. Shadaan). You should definitely check out his spectacular portfolio on DeviantArt!

'Blacksword Visits' - Malazan Art by Shadaan

artwork by Shadaan

In other news, I’m currently working on a short story, which I intend to submit to Ragnarok’s upcoming Hath No Fury anthology.  But more on that next month . . .

Happy October!

Steven Erikson, ‘The Bonehunters’ (review)


I’ve been accused – on many occasions – of harping on about the Malazan Book of the Fallen. I hear things like, “god, do you EVER shut up about it?” And, “if I promise to read the first one, will you please, PLEASE leave me alone?” And, “oh my god, you’re in my house WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY HOUSE YOU CRAZY BITCH PUT THE BOOKS DOWN I’M CALLING THE POLICE,” etc.

And really, no one needs that kind of negativity in their life. Just like I don’t need to spend the night in a prison cell, rocking back and forth as I draw on the Warren of Mockra to convince myself that missing out on the greatest epic fantasy series of all time is punishment enough for these nay-sayers.

But since that hasn’t really got me anywhere, I finally decided to take a stand. And so: what do I say to these nay-sayers? I say NAY! And—

Prison guard: “You know what I say?”

Me: Shh. Trying to do a thing here.

Prison guard: “Right. But what I was going to say is that you’ve only got two minutes left.”

Me: Eh? Two minutes? What the hell, woman?

Prison guard: “Well, you clearly have no idea how prisons actually work. And since you seem to be picturing it as some sort of internet café I’ve decided to impose a time limit. Of which you now have one-and-a-half minutes remaining.”

Me: That’s not fair–

Prison guard: *sigh* “Just get on with it.”

Right.

So. The Bonehunters is the sixth of ten books in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. And – surprise, surprise! – it’s amazing.

'The Bonehunters' by Steven EriksonWay back in book one we were introduced to the series via the Bridgeburners: a well-regarded military faction characterised by the colourful and familiar relationships between its veteran members. Fast-forward to book four and we had something totally different, namely a hefty focus on the struggles of a different, newly-formed army in imminent danger of imploding after being robbed of the opportunity to prove itself.

We return to this army in The Bonehunters. Lost and angry, we witness as it struggles through yet another disastrous conflict and endures yet more drawn-out and difficult assignments. Best of all, we get to watch as its core companies are transformed, forged in the fires of fighting and fear.

(And olive oil.)

As always, Erikson effortlessly instills his characters with realism, humour and pathos: nobody is perfect in Erikson’s world, especially the so-called heroes. Male, female, human, Jaghut, priest, soldier, god; all races and individuals have flaws that are just as unique and varied as any other feature of their personality. Some gods are burdened beneath guilt or self-doubt, while the arrogance and pride of others practically begs for a well-timed moment of hubris. An undead warrior from a civilisation that ended thousands and thousands of years earlier demonstrates more compassion for the living than the mortals against whom he fights. And it goes without saying that there are errors in judgement by all parties: Erikson knows better than anyone where good intentions sometimes lead even the best of us.

Much as I loved the brand new cast of characters in book five, The Bonehunters‘ return to the Malazan 14th Army was like being reunited with old friends. Moranth munitions, battlefield humour, bickering marines and unpredictable warrens – Hood’s breath, it felt good to be back. I’ve always felt that the Malazan marines are not only the backbone but the lifeblood of this series, and nowhere has that been more evident in my re-read so far as it is here.

That’s not to say I don’t love the rest of the (insanely enormous) cast: no matter who we’re reading about, you can guarantee that the prose, dialogue and descriptions will be beautifully understated and subtle (for the most part). Different groups – the marines, the Tiste Edur, the Imass – each have their own distinctive way of speaking. And it’s the same for individuals, such as Karsa Orlong and Samar Dev. With inspired pairings like these Erikson hardly ever needs to use speech tags, because the reader instantly recognises which character is talking. This even goes for certain minor characters – Iskaral Pust, for example, and Kruppe too – whose clever and humorous monologues ensure that they’re some of the most memorable and easily recognisable folks, not just in The Bonehunters but in the entire series.

Yep, as far as dialogue is concerned you’ll find no infodumps here. Far from it: Erikson’s characters don’t give a flying fuck about the reader. Sure, they’ll let us listen in on their conversations… but they’d rather crawl over a bed of cussers than make it easy for us to understand. We’re encouraged to piece things together by ourselves as we read, which makes for much more authentic-sounding conversations between characters.

In fact, it never ceases to amaze me that Erikson can convey so much through just a few lines of dialogue . . . even if you don’t necessarily catch it all on the first try. This refusal to spoon-feed the reader tends to alienate many people very early on in the series, which is a real shame. Yes, it does mean that we sometimes have to work hard to make connections between events and characters. So what? Using your noggin is good for you every once in a while. And even better, the sheer scale of the expanded (and expanding!) Malazan series – which I believe currently stands at eighteen novels and six novellas – means that no matter how many times you re-read it, you’re guaranteed to pick up on something new every single time.

The— what?

Prison guard: *taps watch*

Me: Wait. Wait! One more paragraph, then I’m done. I swear.

Prison guard: *raises eyebrow, then nods reluctantly and holds up one finger*

Me: *grins, nods back maniacally*

Right. Last bit, I promise. I can’t go without mentioning that The Bonehunters boasts not one but TWO of the most epic sequences in the entire series. I can’t even begin to express how spectacularly tense and claustrophobic are the scenes spent crawling through tunnels beneath a destroyed city; and never in a million years would I be able to put into words just how much the flight through Malaz City during the finale made my heart race. Just… everything about this book is masterful. The pacing, the scale, the converging events and perspectives, the relentless action… holy shit, it’s simply breathtaking. This is the third time I’ve finished reading The Bonehunters, and yet I have absolutely no doubt that it’ll blow my mind just as much (if not more) when I inevitably read it a fourth time.

Me: *finally takes a breath* Finished!

Prison guard: “Great. Come on now. Back to your cell. From which I recently confiscated a bag of mushrooms, a pair of scissors and a condom. *sigh* Seriously, does everything you think you know about prison come from watching ‘Bad Girls’ a decade ago?”

Me: Maybe. Have you ever read the Malazan Book of the Fallen?

Prison guard: *impatient growl*

Me: (quietly) Just saying…

Steven Erikson, ‘Midnight Tides’ (review)


Midnight Tides is the third point in that most epic of triangles: the Malazan Book of the Fallen. While the first books in the series introduced and then expanded upon events occurring on the two Malazan-occupied continents of Seven Cities and Genabackis, Midnight Tides instead presents us with a brand new continent and an (almost) entirely new cast of characters – a bold risk, yet one that yields substantial reward in the form of a complex yet tightly-woven tale of dark intrigue and tragedy.

(Fun fact: Although Midnight Tides is the fifth book of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, its story actually takes place chronologically before the events of the first four books, and as such could potentially be a great starting point for newcomers to the series.)

Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson (cover)Erikson kicks off Midnight Tides in stunning fashion with yet another amazingly cinematic prologue. Outlining the huge-scale historical conflict between three ancient races, he immediately sets the scene by painting a vivid and horrifying picture: betrayal on an appalling scale and the destruction of an entire race, simultaneously foreshadowing future events and introducing with a bang several of the novel’s major motifs. A new continent, complete with two major civilisations and a plethora of oppressed subcultures, opens up new opportunities for Erikson to explore themes of expansion and greed, stagnation and tradition, power and empire – all of which are perfectly epitomised here in the conflict between the tribal Tiste Edur and the economy-centred people of Letheras.

Admittedly there are instances where the author painfully belabours the point by falling into rambling sermons about the evils of capitalism; nonetheless, Midnight Tides does an excellent job of introducing a hefty new chunk of the Malazan saga. Thus begins the story of a nation’s fateful journey into conflict and madness, poignantly symbolised by the hateful yet tragic character of its Emperor.

Despite being filled with a cast of completely new characters and locations, Midnight Tides is actually remarkably easy to follow. Unlike previous books – which zip about between numerous parallel storylines and often leave casual readers scratching their heads – here the main story boils down to the rising conflict between two factions: the Tiste Edur and the Letherii. Almost all characters fall into one camp or the other, and Erikson uses alternating POVs to show these two powerful nations’ descent into war.

Although relatively limited (at least in comparison to the rest of the series), each of the characters gives us a radically diverse perspective on each of the two warring cultures. The ‘barbaric’ Edur are alternatively shown from the point of view of a nihilistic slave, a morally-conflicted high-born warrior, and a tired Letherii ranger; while the ‘civilised’ Letherii are shown to us through the eyes of a proud kingsguard, an eccentric citizen and a cynical manservant. Each character is interesting in his or her own way, and all of them are used to weave a tapestry of smaller scenes, each as fascinating and as poignant as the main story itself.

In fact, most of the main events would have happened quite differently were it not for these smaller tales: three estranged brothers; a warrior doomed to die a thousand deaths; an entire race deceived into fighting a war on behalf of a malignant entity; a slave’s battle against possession; a merchant’s descent into despair; an abused slave with supernatural powers, and a badly-used noblewoman driven to madness.

Thankfully, Erikson’s trademark black humour saves Midnight Tides from becoming too bleak. The chuckles are largely provided by the citizens of Lether. An undead nymphomaniac thief, an absent-minded sorcerer, and a half-giant with an enormous . . . um, set of lungs are just some of the highlights; and that’s without mentioning the most entertaining aspect of the book, which is without doubt the eccentric pairing of Tehol Beddict and his trusty manservant Bugg. Exceeding even the laugh-out-loud value of previous comedic figures like Kruppe and Iskaral Pust, Tehol and Bugg are by far my favourite characters of the series to date, surpassing other spectacular Erikson pairings such as Mappo and Icarium, Gesler and Stormy . . . even Quick Ben and Kalam.

The droll humour suffusing Tehol and Bugg’s every interaction is a perfect counterpoint to the dark tragedy unfolding around them, and provides a welcome contrast to characters such as Seren, Trull and Udinaas, who are all rather more serious and isolated within their own unhappiness. Add to this a series of minor characters who, despite being given minimal page time, are just as interesting as some of the major players – Silchas Ruin and Iron Bars FTW! – and you have one of the many reasons why Midnight Tides is regarded by many as the strongest entry in the Malazan series.

Perhaps another reason is that much of the novel is set in only two main locations: the Tiste Edur village and the city of Lether. Although the story shifts back and forth between the two, the fantastically vivid settings mean that the reader is transported instantly from one world to the next with minimal disorientation: upon arriving at the Edur village we immediately smell the woodsmoke, hear the waves crash on the beach, feel the incessant rain on our skin and see the ever-present shadow of the Blackwood forest looming over everything. In sharp contrast, whenever we’re in Lether we instead hear the roaring cheers of the crowd at the Drownings, smell the rubbish-filled canal and rotting alleyways, feel the stifling heat of summer, and see corruption and oppression personified in the displaced victims of the city’s materialistic expansion.

Perhaps even more notable than the sense of place is the sense of time. Despite their differences, both societies feel like a throwback to a much earlier time: in contrast with the Malazan Empire, neither the Edur nor the Letherii are familiar with the more sophisticated forms of magic. The Letherii mages draw their power from Holds, which are the Warrens’ primal ancestors; and instead of the Tarot-esque Deck of Dragons, the Letherii use the Tiles of the Cedance. It’s obvious that this entire continent has lived in isolation from the rest of the world and that, in spite of their notions of civilisation, both the Edur and the Letherii still have a long way to go . . . and that perhaps each nations’ conviction regarding the superiority of their own empires may soon be tested by conflict with another, more advanced, empire.

This is my second re-read of Midnight Tides, and I was a bit worried about revisiting it after my slightly disappointing experience of Memories of Ice. Thankfully it managed to meet and even exceed most of my rose-tinted expectations. I’ll admit that the story took a little longer to get going than I remembered, but the rest of the book more than made up for that, particularly the last 200 pages or so.

Erikson’s talent at creating jaw-dropping convergences simply defies words, and this book is perhaps the finest example yet of his ability to seamlessly entwine numerous plot threads towards the end of the story. He uses ever-shortening segments and rapidly-changing POVs to simultaneously quicken the pace and draw out the finale, and in doing so creates a spectacularly extended denouement of adrenaline-filled action and almost unbearable tension.

Is it still my favourite book of the series? I’d say it’s currently vying with Deadhouse Gates for the top spot . . . but there are still five more books to go before I can say for sure.

(Review originally posted on halfstrungharp.com on 6th June 2015.)

Steven Erikson, ‘House of Chains’ (review)


Gardens of the Moon befuddled new readers. Deadhouse Gates made us cry. Memories of Ice left us questioning our own existence. That we’ve made it as far as House of Chains shows our commitment to this series – and WOW does it reward our persistence. 

House of Chains by Steven Erikson - cover imageHouse of Chains (the fourth chapter in Steven Erikson’s incredible Malazan Book of the Fallen) takes us back to the dangerous and rebellious desert continent of Seven Cities, which savvy readers will remember was the setting for Deadhouse Gates. There is a certain poetic symmetry in this, particularly as House of Chains’s main storyline has readers joining a new and untested Malazan army as they retrace the path of those tragic events. That they are quite literally walking in the footsteps of the legendary Coltaine is a perfect metaphor for their struggle to defy all expectations and complete the seemingly impossible task they have been assigned: to defeat the Whirlwind rebellion once and for all.

Thankfully, in spite of the return to familiar territory, House of Chains in no way feels repetitive. Lacking the second book’s undercurrent of tragic inevitability, the focus here is on taking back the control the Malazans lost during the Chain of Dogs. And though the plot is largely focused on the events of the Whirlwind, there are enough references to wider events to make House of Chains feel much more like an instalment of a sweeping epic (in contrast to Deadhouse Gates’s potential as a standalone).

Revelation after revelation increasingly creates the impression that everything within this universe is connected in some way, with Erikson delving deep into the Malazan mythology, plucking primal beings from the dawn of time – such as the Eres’al and the Deragoth – and flinging them headlong into the main events. The depth of worldbuilding shown here is astounding, as is the seamless way in which Erikson interlaces multiple storylines. And although events are not on quite as grand a scale as previous books, House of Chains still conveys an atmosphere of epic grandeur: through the setting, through embedded references to history and ancient mythology, and through the unique and captivating voice that wends its way through this entire series. 

Perhaps even more impressive than his staggeringly ambitious storytelling is the fact that Erikson never loses sight of what really brings this series to life: the enormous cast of diverse and unforgettable characters. In addition to revisiting a few old favourites – cynical Sergeant Strings, deadly assassin Kalam Mekhar, and of course that diabolical and insane High Priest of Shadow Iskaral Pust – House of Chains also introduces several staple characters of future books, such as Tavore’s Fourteenth Army, the exiled yet noble warrior Trull Sengar, and the undead outcast Onrack the Broken, not to mention one of the best characters of the entire series: the mighty Karsa Orlong.

Erikson’s characters are, as always, fantastically well-written, incredibly varied but also believable. I personally really enjoyed the developing relationship between Lostara Yil and Pearl: Erikson is adept at creating unconventional chemistry and realistic relationships within a relatively small amount of page time, and I felt personally invested in everything that was happening to these two characters in particular.

The structure of House of Chains is slightly unconventional. The first quarter or so of the book focuses entirely on one character, before reverting to the more familiar shifting POV narratives used in previous books. This particular tale – of Karsa Orlong’s rise and fall prior to the main events of the series – is so enjoyable that I feel it could easily have been extended to fill the entire 1,040-page novel by itself. Instead, we have a spectacularly condensed account of Karsa’s origins, spanning several months and numerous continents and concluding in a way that leads perfectly into the main events of the story.

The events that follow are rarely less than thrilling. While there are a few less-than-exciting sections (particularly those centred around Gamet, as well as a few repetitive exposition scenes regarding the nature of light, dark and shadow magic) readers will find that the occasional slowing of pace gives us chance to take a welcome step back from what is an otherwise exciting series of events. Erikson’s awe-inspiring talent for creating breathlessly climactic convergences continues to manifest in House of Chains; and the way he manipulates rapidly-shifting POVs to build tension and maximise momentum is, as always, nothing short of masterful.

Once again, I’m in awe of Erikson’s storytelling. The combination of clever pacing and intense narrative, along with a complex web of events and unique characters truly earns House of Chains the title of ‘epic’, and continues to reinforce The Malazan Book of the Fallen as the best and most ambitious epic fantasy series I’ve ever encountered.

(Review originally appeared on halfstrungharp.com on 15th February 2015.)