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.)

Steven Erikson, ‘Memories of Ice’ (review)


Memories of Ice (the third book in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen) returns us to the continent of Genabackis (where Gardens of the Moon took place). Many characters from the first book re-appear here, such as notable favourites Anomander Rake, Quick Ben, Kruppe, Tool, Toc the Younger, and Whiskeyjack and the rest of the Bridgeburners.

Mixed in with these are several new additions: there’s Hetan the randy Barghast, Gruntle the grumpy caravan guard captain, Kallor the immortal grudge-holding warrior, Itkovian the tragic servant of a lost god, the mysterious and unflappable Lady Envy, and of course the sinister pair of necromancers known as Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. All of these characters are thrown together as a result of a dubious alliance against a malign empire known as the Pannion Domin.Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson (cover image)

The characters, both new and old, are incredible, and many of the novel’s best moments are character-centred rather than action-driven. Quick Ben’s casual confrontation with the necromancers; Rake’s late-night conversations with Whiskeyjack; Lady Envy’s continual attempts to exact obedience from her companions; and just about anything involving Kruppe – all contribute to make Memories of Ice feel like a living, breathing part of the Malazan world, rather than just the next step of the story.

That’s not to say that the action falls flat, of course: Erikson gives us a plentiful share of the usual fast-paced battles, awesome warrens, explosive weaponry and bickering gods. He also introduces many new elements: some of these are simply brilliant, while others are downright terrifying (we now have K’Chain Che’Malle stalking the world, lightning-fast dinosaur-like undead beings with blades for arms. Yikes!).

But Memories of Ice isn’t all action and horror. Erikson’s capacity for beautiful tragedy, honed to a fine art in Deadhouse Gates, is also deftly applied here: he has a real knack for twisting the knife in your heart before you even realise you’ve been stabbed with it. There are so many small moments that left me blurry-eyed – even though I was expecting them. Then there’s the dark and irreverent humour, deftly placed and serving as a welcome complement to the pathos seeping through the whole tale. The segments following Lady Envy and her motley companions are a delight to read, as are Kruppe’s befuddling monologues and Picker’s interactions with her disparate squad of soldiers (particularly Antsy).

However, a lot of the book is spent following an army on the march, and as such many of the locations (campfires, command tents, hilltops) become quite repetitive. Erikson also seems to have suddenly acquired the desire to explain things in detail, and to recap or clarify things that have already happened. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, Gardens of the Moon would probably have benefited from this in places. But it does occasionally feel as though a huge chunk of the book is taken up with conversations between characters regarding something that we’ve just read, and it sometimes feels as though we’re having to experience some events several times before moving on. It’s as though, upon proof-reading the book, the author slotted in an “exposition inside a command tent” scene wherever he thought his characters’ motives weren’t 100% clear.

I think it’s this repetition that contributes to the relatively slow pace of the novel. Despite the fact that Memories of Ice contains two major – no, epic – battles, along with several exciting skirmishes and powerful displays of magic, I think it suffers from being just a little bit too long. Erikson takes almost 1200 pages to do what he could probably have accomplished in 900, and while I would usually disagree with the concept of “too much” Malazan, I have to say that this is the first time so far during my re-read of the series that I’ve felt a tiny bit disappointed. I always recalled Memories of Ice as being my favourite of the series, full of undead monsters, creepy necromancers, gritty warriors and epic conflict. What I didn’t remember was the sheer volume of command tents, hilltop parleys, and Paran’s stomach pain.

It really says something about Erikson’s writing that, in spite of my griping, Memories of Ice still remains one of the best books I’ve (re-)read this year. The last 200 pages or so more than make up for the slow patches scattered throughout, and I doubt anyone familiar with the series would be able to read them without blurry eyes and a wobbly bottom lip. Contrary to my own recollection, Memories of Ice is not quite as enthralling as Deadhouse Gates . . . but, as with the other books in the series, it touched me in a way no other story has ever quite managed.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 13 October 2014).

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.

Review: John Gwynne, ‘Ruin’


As I’ve already talked about here, the Gemmell Award longlists are up and I’m reposting my reviews of the nominees I’ve read. (I’ve already done Joe Abercrombie (here) and Mark Lawrence (here).) Next up is yet another deserving title from my five star club: ‘Ruin’ .
gwynne-ruin-cover-image

It’s not often that I care enough about a book to feel physically sick with nerves as I turn the pages, waiting to see what will happen to a beloved character. It’s also not often that a book makes me cry like a baby. Ruin drove me to both of these, leaving me a sobbing wreck after reading the final line. But I won’t hold that against it, seeing as it’s also an awesomely epic and ambitious tale that delivered everything it promised and more.

Ruin is the third book in John Gwynne’s fantastic The Faithful and the Fallen fantasy quartet, a series which has so far woven an incredibly dense, complex and engaging story. Although the books appear to be getting longer and longer they are also becoming easier and easier to read, a testament to the author’s flowing style and continually improving writing skills. Ruin boasts a cast of no less than fourteen point-of-view characters – FOURTEEN!! – reflecting the epic scale of the series. Far from being confusing, this actually enables us to see the events of the story from conflicting perspectives; and while it’s clear who the true ‘baddies’ are, many characters are formed in shades of grey and it’s fascinating to see their internal conflicts and motivations. Ruin is also notably populated with strong female characters – such as Cywen, Coralen, Fidele, Laith, Brina, and Kulla – who serve important roles even when relegated to the background. Although there are so many characters to keep track of, and although it’s been over a year since reading Valour, I found that I immediately remembered most characters from previous books, which just goes to show how much I’ve become invested in them during the many hundreds of pages of their story so far.

While I’m still not overly-fond of the A Song of Ice and Fire-style ‘named chapters’ in general, I have to admit that Gwynne really, really makes it work here. Many chapters are fairly short and rapidly alternating, creating a sense of adrenaline and setting a breathless pace that had me fumbling to turn the pages faster and mumbling to myself, “just one more chapter”. Other chapters are longer and more detailed explorations of individual characters’ motives and emotions, providing intriguing insights into nearly every aspect of the overarching conflict. With so many disparate groups of characters to keep track of, each chapter becomes a keyhole through which we glean hints of what might happen, and through which we gain numerous perspectives on events. Viewing a battle – along with its associated victories, losses and deaths – from different sides of the conflict brings humanity to each and every character, whether ‘good’, ‘evil’, or in-between.

I said in my review of Malice that I’d like to see future battle scenes to be more personal and character-driven, and wow has that wish been granted. The prophesied God-War has finally begun in earnest, but Ruin shows the true face of what this kind of war would entail. Gwynne tells an incredible story of unlikely heroes, well-meaning villains and tired refugees; a story packed with messy skirmishes and small-scale ambushes; a story of confusing conflicts, with people on both sides getting lost and making mistakes, with losses slowly adding up and constant fighting taking its toll both physically and mentally. The action comes thick and fast and it feels as though the reader is there in the midst of it all, sweating and bleeding and dodging attacks from every quarter. The character-driven narratives and their focus on the immediacy of each situation makes it feel a lot less glorious, but a lot more real.

Needless to say Ruin is much grimmer and gorier than its predecessors. The Banished Lands are at war: no longer charmingly rural, the Celtic settings have become wild and threatening, with large parts of the novel set in uncharted forests, treacherous marshes and daunting giant ruins. This makes for some weird and wonderful imagery, and creates a tangible atmosphere of threat and tension. In fact there’s a real gritty feel to the entire story, and I think the point the author is making here with Ruin is: shit just got real. Despite this, Gwynne manages to create a sense of grimness and overwhelming odds without resorting to the George R R Martin method of mass-murdering every character in sight. Ruin’s underlying tone is, surprisingly, one of optimism: its characters are strong and determined, working together to cope with their losses and continue their attempts to achieve the impossible. Although bleak in places and sickeningly violent in others, grimdark this ain’t. And I like that.

It’s dark, thrilling and bloody. But Ruin’s strongest point is, for me, its characters. Gwynne takes character relationships crafted throughout the first two novels – between friends, family, loved ones and, especially, animals – and brings them beautifully to the fore without overstating them, whilst also forging new ones along the way. He never lets us forget that this entire series is a sprawling net comprised of a thousand little strands of humanity, and that’s what makes it such an engaging and sometimes emotional read. Gwynne has really, really upped his writing game with Ruin, and I have every confidence that the final instalment of The Faithful and the Fallen will continue to thrill, continue to astound . . . and, of course, continue to make me cry like a baby.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 1st August 2015.)


Blurb

The Banished Lands are engulfed in war and chaos. The cunning Queen Rhin has conquered the west and High King Nathair has the cauldron, most powerful of the seven treasures. At his back stands the scheming Calidus and a warband of the Kadoshim, dread demons of the Otherworld. They plan to bring Asroth and his host of the Fallen into the world of flesh, but to do so they need the seven treasures. Nathair has been deceived but now he knows the truth. He has choices to make, choices that will determine the fate of the Banished Lands.

Elsewhere the flame of resistance is growing – Queen Edana finds allies in the swamps of Ardan. Maquin is loose in Tenebral, hunted by Lykos and his corsairs. Here he will witness the birth of a rebellion in Nathair’s own realm.

Corban has been swept along by the tide of war. He has suffered, lost loved ones, sought only safety from the darkness. But he will run no more. He has seen the face of evil and he has set his will to fight it. The question is, how? With a disparate band gathered about him – his family, friends, giants, fanatical warriors, an angel and a talking crow he begins the journey to Drassil, the fabled fortress hidden deep in the heart of Forn Forest. For in Drassil lies the spear of Skald, one of the seven treasures, and here it is prophesied that the Bright Star will stand against the Black Sun.