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.