Marc Turner, ‘When the Heavens Fall’ (review)


It was obvious from the very first page that Marc Turner’s Chronicles of the Exile was yet another epic fantasy series I’d end up eagerly following. After seeing When the Heavens Fall reviewed by a number of bloggers I follow, I was completely pulled in by the overwhelmingly positive comments as well as numerous comparisons to Steven Erikson (my favourite author) and Glen Cook. And I can totally see where these comparisons are coming from.

'When the Heavens Fall' by Marc Turner (cover image)For a start, there’s a whole host of crazy-powerful supernatural beings, the understated yet chilling descriptions of which strongly reminded me of the Taken in Cook’s Black Company. Then there are the sort of quirky, rock-hard, darkly humorous characters you’d expect to find dwelling in Erikson’s Malazan series, not to mention long-lost ancient races and interfering gods using the world as their own personal chess board. And there’s also a dark, gritty undertone – the sort of ‘grimdark’ sensation that none of the characters are ever going to catch a break – that put me in mind of Joe Abercrombie’s excellent First Law trilogy.

But, as easy as it is to say “fans of Cook/Erikson/Abercrombie will love this book,” When the Heavens Fall is not as easily pigeonholed as that. Turner takes much-loved aspects of the above authors’ writing, but has used them to embellish rather than define his own work, a homage as opposed to a blueprint.

I’ll freely admit that it was these comparisons that first drew me in. But what actually kept me reading was Turner’s careful build-up to a final convergence which, while not quite as climactic as I’d hoped, was nonetheless well executed and satisfying. The climax itself and the form it takes is deliberately signposted right from the beginning, but the routes by which our characters arrive there are sufficiently twisted that, while we can guess what will happen, we’re entirely unable to predict how it will happen.

Having the entire plot of a novel building up to one single moment can be risky – especially with sequels on the horizon – but in this case I found it refreshing, a bold change from the many sprawling fantasy epics I usually read. The author uses the alternating viewpoints of a small handful of characters to great effect, switching between them at varying points within each chapter to build momentum and create tension. I personally found all four POV characters to be likable, but unpredictable; and while this meant that I didn’t quite connect with the characters as much as I would have liked, it did keep me constantly guessing what they would do next . . . with many pleasant (and nasty!) surprises as a result.

Yes, When the Heavens Fall is somewhat slow to begin with. But once it gets going there’s no stopping it; and it really gets going once it hits the halfway point. There’s a notable change of pace at around the two-fifty page mark, and the story shifts up several gears from the moment the characters’ stories first begin to overlap. The characters themselves are compelling if not always sympathetic: a particular favourite of mine is Romany, the self-indulgent-yet-badass high priestess whose witty and irreverent verbal exchanges are a constant source of entertainment. The big climax is enjoyable if slightly drawn out, and for every problem resolved there are another ten questions still needing answers. Marc Turner  is certainly one to watch, and he does an admirable job of making his readers clamour for the next book without leaving us on a cliffhanger.

With book three, Red Tide, due out next month (September 2016) I’d say that now would be a very good time for those unfamiliar with Turner’s series to start making its acquaintance . . .

(Note: review originally posted on 10th August 2015 on halfstrungharp.com).

Steven Erikson, ‘Deadhouse Gates’ (review)


Set on the fictional continent of Seven Cities, Deadhouse Gates – the second novel in Steven Erikson’s epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen – introduces a plethora of new characters to join those returning from the events of book one. Everything taking place in Deadhouse Gates is influenced by the continent-wide rebellion that was heavily foreshadowed in Gardens of the Moon, and conflict and bloodshed feature on a thus far unprecedented scale.

Concentrated as it is on just a handful of major characters, the plot of Deadhouse Gates is much more tightly woven and focused than that of Gardens of the Moon; yet it’s also far more ambitious. Each storyline is worthy of its own novel, yet Erikson chooses instead to artfully weave them together, creating a cohesive pattern of events that lead gradually but inevitably towards a catastrophic conclusion. The grand scale of the main plotline – Deadhouse Gates by Steven Eriksonthe ‘Chain of Dogs’ – is the first true example of what Erikson is capable of, and the incredible storytelling is just a hint of what the rest of the series has in store.

Deadhouse Gates gives us our first real look at Seven Cities: a culturally diverse desert continent made up largely of warring tribes and religious cities; a continent in the midst of a violent rebellion against the control of the Malazan Empire. Led by a Seeress known as Sha’ik, this rebellion – the Whirlwind Apocalypse – threatens to return the land to its pre-Imperial state of ignorance and tradition, blood feuds and senseless violence, with the soldiers of the Apocalypse having driven their Malazan conquerors out of all but one of the Holy Cities. The Malazans’ panicked flight is the story that lies at the heart of Deadhouse Gates.

The Chain of Dogs, a.k.a. fifty thousand Malazan refugees, escorted across a hostile desert continent by what remains of the Malazan Seventh army and its commander, Coltaine. The Chain of Dogs, stumbling just ahead of a renegade army that vastly outnumbers them all. We witness their plight through the eyes of Duiker, who, as Imperial Historian, is obliged to record every detail of this fraught and seemingly impossible journey.

And what a journey! Not just for the characters, but for us as readers. For the first time in the series – but certainly not the last – Erikson throws us into an emotional blender, and then spends the better part of a thousand pages gradually cranking the setting higher and higher before finally letting us crawl our way back out again, shredded and shaken. As the characters experience shock, fear, determination, fury, pathos, hope, despair, and finally wordless outrage, so do we. I spent most of the last 150 pages of Deadhouse Gates on the brink of tears, partly because I knew what was coming and partly because Erikson has the rare and incredible talent of being able to stir his readers’ emotions with his words, even on a third re-read of the book.

Of course, the other storylines are also brilliant and worthy of mention. And though I don’t think anyone will deny that Coltaine’s Chain of Dogs takes centre stage, let’s not forget the tale of Felisin, yanked from the comforts of her rich lifestyle during the Cull of the Nobility and forced to extreme measures to survive the slave pits with the help of two unlikely companions; and Fiddler, former soldier of the Bridgeburners, seeking an ancient legend in the holy desert of Raraku and completely out of his depth. Then there’s Mappo, a Trell warrior endlessly trapped between his loyalty to a sacred vow and his friendship with the man whom he is sworn to destroy; and the assassin Kalam, returned to his home continent and bent on pursuing vengeance against the Empress who wronged him.

Furthermore, Erikson continues to reveal a limitless capacity for creating unique and memorable characters such as the devious High Priest of Shadow, Iskaral Pust. But no matter how minor the plot thread, each and every one is skilfully interwoven and sets the stage for the rest of the series.

Gardens of the Moon is brilliant, true. But Deadhouse Gates is simply astounding in its storytelling, and left me a gibbering, goosebump-laden wreck – even though I’d already read the thing three times before. I seriously envy those reading it for the first time, and can’t wait to get re-acquainted with the rest of this incredible series, myself.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 31st August 2014)


Blurb

In the Holy Desert Raraku, the seer Sha’ik and her followers prepare for the long-prophesied uprising named the Whirlwind. Enslaved in the Otataral mines, Felisin, youngest scion of the disgraced House of Paran, dreams of freedom and vows revenge, while the outlawed Bridgeburners Fiddler and Kalam conspire to rid the world of Empress Laseen (although it seems the gods would, as always, have it otherwise). And as two ancient warriors – bearers of a devastating secret – enter this blighted land, so an untried commander of the Malaz 7th Army leads his war-weary troops in a last, valiant running battle to save the lives of thirty thousand refugees.

Steven Erikson, ‘Gardens of the Moon’ (review)


Genre giant Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon is the first in a ten-book series that you will inevitably love and worship. (Or hate and resent.) (Or maybe just give up on before reaching the end of book one.)

The first chapter in the truly epic Malazan Book of the Fallen introduces a hugely diverse and seemingly endless cast of characters: mages and soldiers; humans and not-quite-humans; demon lords and talking ravens; gods and nobodies; heroes and villains and others occupying the grey space in between. There are a great many overlapping storylines – huge-scale campaigns, deadly assassin wars, magical battles, political manoeuvring, covert missions – and not all of them appear to fit together very well (at least at first).steven-erikson-gardens-of-the-moon-cover

Yes, Gardens of the Moon gives us a LOT to take in, and the first three hundred pages or so are enough to leave any first-time readers as lost and helpless as a puppet with its strings cut. In the prologue to the newer editions Erikson himself states that he refuses to spoon-feed his readers, and finds it insulting and patronising when other writers do the same. His decision to withhold important backstory and omit dreary exposition is a conscious and tactical choice, and he is fully aware that Gardens of the Moon is likely to leave readers floundering.

However, Erikson assumes that those of us who choose to read his work don’t mind floundering a little; don’t mind having to work things out for ourselves, and don’t mind waiting many hours and thousands of pages before the pieces finally begin to fit together. As someone who has read all ten books in this series I can unequivocally state that finally reaching the moment(s) when everything starts to make sense . . . makes ploughing through the confusion at the beginning so worthwhile.

The Malazan series as a whole contains enough ‘ohhhh, so that’s what that was about!’ moments that the rewards of reading well outweigh the challenges. That said, it’s only upon re-reading Gardens of the Moon and the rest that you really begin to appreciate the amount of planning and detail that Erikson has put into this series. There are so many tiny nuances that take on a double meaning, so much of the dialogue that becomes multi-layered, and so many little things that you didn’t notice the first time but are steeped in pathos now that you’re fully aware of the events to follow.

As a debut novel, Gardens of the Moon is insanely dense and ambitious. It’s also incredibly clever and well-executed; and while I’m not claiming that Gardens of the Moon is the best book I’ve ever read, it is the first book in the best series I’ve ever read. In my opinion Gardens of the Moon is actually the weakest instalment of the entire Malazan Book of the Fallen, yet it’s still spectacular (and far superior to much of what’s on the shelves today).

If you haven’t read Gardens of the Moon, my advice to you is ‘read it, but have patience, and be prepared to read more in the series in order to fully appreciate it’. If you have already read it, then go ahead and re-read it right now. 

Either way, you can thank me later.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on August 10th 2014)


Blurb

The vast Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, its subject states bled dry by interminable warfare and clashes with Anomander Rake, Lord of Moon’s Spawn, and the mysterious Tiste Andii. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet the Empress’ rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.

For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his cynical squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, sole surviving sorceress of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to heal the still living and mourn the many dead. The Empress has other ideas.

However, it would appear the Empire is not the only player in this great game. A more sinister, shadowbound force is poised to make its first move . . .