Reaper's Gale - Steven Erikson
With this being the 7th instalment in the series, it's well nigh impossible to review it without spoilering the earlier books, so if you're new to the Malazan universe then look away now. If you're not, then I'd strongly recommend rereading both Midnight Tides and The Bonehunters before starting on this, as it brings the two threads together, including the revival of some storylines that seemed minor but turn out to be crucial. As expected, the breadth of Erikson's imagination is staggering; there's the usual array of awesome battle setpieces, the unleashing of devastating magics, terrible sacrifice and tragedy, and at least one god getting more than they bargained for when trying to mess with humanity. Fantastical creations don't come much bigger than this.
The book starts approximately one year after the events in The Bonehunters, with the arrival of Adjunct Tavore's outlawed 14th Army at the shores of Lether. Her rather simplistic plan is to send the Marines across country, gathering local support, and eventually spark an uprising to overthrow the non-human Tiste Edur invaders. Unfortunately, Lether's human inhabitants have mostly been doing pretty well out of the Edur occupation; using the Edurs' political naivete to their advantage, various unpleasant groups have crept out of the woodwork to consolidate their own power and feather their own nests. In the capital, financial genius Tehol is still pretending poverty while secretly undermining the economy and aiming to bring down the Inquisition-like Patriotists; in the provinces, the local governor is attempting genocide on a tribe belatedly learning to fight back. All this is concealed from the pitiful Emperor Rhulad, isolated from his family and going steadily insane from his multiple resurrections and his guilt; his only interest is in the upcoming single-combat battles with the new challengers Icarium and Karsa, two of the most dangerous fighters on the planet. And this short summary doesn't even begin to touch on the side-plots with Trull and Quick Ben, or Fear's quest to find Scabandari Bloodeye, or the adventures of Hedge, or the plotting of Feather Witch and the Errant...
You can rightly conclude that this is a very long book. As with his previous offerings, some of the plot threads work very well and some rather less so, but the overall effect is stunning. Highlights include the journey by the embattled Malazan Marines from the coast to the capital through hostile countryside, pitting the sophisticated Warren magic against Lether's cruder power of the Holds; the various betrayals and backstabbing among the gods, magicians and dragons; and of course Tehol and Bugg, who are as amusing as ever, though the darker turn taken by their storyline does jar slightly. More light is shed on historical events, from the ancient infighting among the Daughters of Shadow to personal histories of some of the main characters, and despite the many meanders, the arc plot advances significantly towards the end. The (premature?) conclusion of one of the series' main storylines leaves a puzzle about which direction the final three books will take, but there are still plenty of unresolved plot strands and loose ends that will doubtless come back bigger and nastier to tie the series up.
Having said all this, this is not Erikson's best work. It was, of course, a compelling read and hard to put down, but it got quite tiresome trying to remember the names of all the new characters, and some of the storylines were overlong and bit dull. I don't mind the Identikit Marines so much, but they do annoy a lot of people, and there were about three times as many here as in previous books, all with exactly the same brand of dark soldier humour. Still, I'm an unashamed rabid fangirl for the series, and Erikson will have to do an awful lot worse than this to lose my interest. Roll on Book 8!