Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Toll the Hounds - Steven Erikson

It's the eighth book in the Malazan series, and we're heading for another convergence, this time in Darujhistan, six years after the events of Memories of Ice. The city of blue fire is already home to various forces, magical and military, and plenty more are on their way, driven or drawn to the coming conflagration. K'rul's Bar is still being run by the few remaining Bridgeburners; Kruppe still holds court at the Phoenix Inn, and a couple of old friends emerge from the Finnest house. Meanwhile, Cutter is back, along with his boatload of companions from Seven Cities, and plenty of other factions are closing in from the South. Rake broods and plots in Black Coral, while a terrible new cult springs up around Itkovian's barrow; the gang of young Tiste Andii are returning from Lether, as is a certain Toblakai and his witch; inside Dragnipur, the flight from Chaos is failing and desperate plans are made. Throw into the mix a bunch of dragons (undead and otherwise), warlords, Hounds, and gods and you know something pretty damn big is coming.

The problem with any big build-up to a grand conclusion is that the build-up can often be pretty slow, and unfortunately Toll the Hounds does suffer from that somewhat. There is certainly plenty of action in the earlier chapters, as (for example) assassins try to take out the Malazans, or the Andii encounter the cult of the Dying God, but it's still just build-up and it knows it. I found the Black Coral chapters particularly slow, as they seem to consist largely of Rake and his cronies brooding a lot; the ones set in Darujhistan are a bit sparkier, but also suffer in that they are written as if narrated by the verbose Kruppe, a character who is better in small doses. Still, by halfway through, once you've got a handle on all the (many) viewpoint characters and some idea of where all the plots are leading, the whole thing becomes much more interesting. We also get to see a Trygalle Trade Guild journey in action, as Mappo Runt buys urgent passage to Lether (several years late?), which is a lot of fun but seems a bit irrelevant.

The conclusion, of course, is everything you could hope for in an Erikson setpiece, with all the elements he does best - the clash of overpowered rivals, immovable objects meet irresistable forces, new gods rise and old gods die - and overall I'd say it's worth all the buildup. I do rather wish I'd had time to do a quick series reread before getting to this one though, as with some characters (particularly among the Andii) it was hard to remember their backstories from previous books, and I've always had trouble remembering how all the elder gods and dragons are related to each other. However, with the better-established characters there was none of this confusion, and we even got some interesting new insights into a lot of them - Kallor in particular was quite an eye-opener, though his actual contribution to the story was rather ambiguous.

As I may have said before, I'm a massive Erikson fangirl so he'd have to try really hard to get a bad review out of me - so, you may want to take my conclusions with a pinch of salt. The fairest I can say is that Toll the Hounds is a huge, epic doorstop of a novel, filled with probably more viewpoints and plot threads than the author could sensiby handle, but which still manages to deliver. Maybe it's the Darujhistan setting and cast, but the feel is closer to Gardens of the Moon than to any of the more recent Malazan novels, with many of the same advantages and disadvantages. Yes, it's dense, it's confusing, and a lot of the threads trail off or just seem irrelevant... but for imagination and scope, it's still some of the best fantasy out there.


Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Orphan's Tales duology - Catherynne M Valente

In the Night Garden
In the Cities of Coin and Spice

These books were recommended to me as some good holiday reading, and I'm very glad they were. Valente has been writing for a few years now, but seems to have been rather overlooked in favour of the Big New Names, and frankly that's a damn shame. With this duology, she has reworked the Scheherezade concept of nested and intertwining stories, and used this to weave together a whole load of other fairytale tropes into a great and glorious tapestry.

The Scheherezade character is a nameless orphan girl who dwells in the gardens of the Sultan's palace, and by night is visited by a young prince who longs to hear her stories, despite the threats of his elder sister Dinarzad. The stories she tells are full of fairytale-standard motifs from all kinds of cultures - firebirds, goose-girls, djinn, shape-shifting bears, wolf spirit guides - familiar on the surface, but all warped in dark and interesting ways. The way that the stories link together (right through both books) is very cleverly done, and the writing is absolutely gorgeous.

When it was over none of them were left; the room was empty as a prison cell. I wanted to feel sick. I wanted to delicately retch in the corner or feel faint, collapse in guilt. But I was not sick or faint, and the creatures in me exulted. Maidens stand still, they are lovely statues and all admire them. Witches do not stand still. I was neither, but better that I err on the side of witchery, witchery that unlocks towers and empties ships.
It was easy, once I had decided that, to slip into the captain's quarters and into that soft bed at last. The pillow was cool on my face, the blood of my hair dried and black against the fabric. I did not wait for him to wake, and I did not need a hidden knife. The bear opened him up like a beehive.
I sailed a ghost ship back into Muireann port.

Fairy tales have always been fairly female-centric, with their focus on princesses, stepmothers and scullery maids, and Valente has played this angle for all it's worth. Female power in all its manifestations plays a large part throughout the stories, but it's no embarrassing "men bad, women good!" Sheri S Tepper-style polemic, and no preachiness is in evidence. The character of Dinarzad was particularly interesting; even though she only got a few mentions in between the stories, as a person in the "real" world her fate seemed much more relevant than the people in the tales. I've always been a fan of twisted and updated fairy tales, so this was pretty much guaranteed to please, but I'd recommend The Orphan's Tales to anyone who likes elegantly-written fantasy, and I'll certainly be looking out for more of Valente's work.