Steven Erikson continues to confound conventional wisdom. Four books into any long-running series, and it's usually starting to run on fumes. Erikson's, however, is purring more smoothly and getting better mileage than when it began. Naturally, the only readers still around at this point will be the converted, so it's no use providing the common caveat that he is not for all tastes. When I gave his first volume, Gardens of the Moon, which I had initially dismissed, a second read, my tastes were broadened as a result. That doesn't happen often. I'm like most readers, reluctant to crawl out of my box, though compared to a lot of my friends I think I have a pretty big box. All I can say is that the effort and risk were rewarded, and I think my experience as a lover of fantasy and imaginative fiction in general is richer for having welcomed Erikson's work into it.
Having said that, I gotta admit that House of Chains made for another admixture of awe and aggravation for me. Comparisons — not of content or style, but of an overall approach to structure and craft — to George R. R. Martin inevitably invite themselves. And the fact remains that Erikson still has a very real problem managing the sheer size of this mythical monstrosity he has unleashed.
Both Erikson's and Martin's series have casts of thousands and a narrative whose scope is simply not adequately served by such shopworn old adjectives like "epic." But Erikson's novels are constructed quite often in a sprawling, haphazard way that lends itself to a great deal of confusion when subplot after subplot is introduced and expected to be followed. I mean, it's great that a writer can build a fan base so dedicated that they'll launch a wiki in the interests of "putting together the great puzzles, bringing light into the delicious mysteries and helping fellow fans to understand the intricacies of this great work." But then, if your fans are having to go to that kind of trouble, doesn't that imply some shortcomings on the writer's part in the first place? Okay, to be fair there's a Westeros wiki, too — but that series doesn't really need one just to follow its story. After a five year gap between Martin's A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows, I had no trouble sliding back into Westeros, remembering who was who and what was going on.
One element that could still stand to be improved in this series, and one whose improvement would elevate the whole, is character. I'm not suggesting for a minute that Erikson is bad at character — okay, he used to be, but he's improved immeasurably over four gargantuan novels. But it often seems either as if character takes a backseat to world-building, or that Erikson simply has too many players on the board at any one time. The trick with big ensemble casts is to have strong viewpoint characters who drive the overall story and to whom readers connect on an emotional level.
Now, here's the irony in House of Chains. This is the first novel in which Erikson actually does do this, and the part of the book I found the strongest is the part many of Erikson's fans dislike the most. As are all this series' volumes, House of Chains is broken into four parts, each of which is book-length on its own. The first part of House of Chains is the story of Karsa Orlong, a barbarian from the Teblor tribes of the far north of Genabackis, the continent so disastrously invaded by the Malazan Empire in Gardens. Here Erikson owns up to a little Robert E. Howard influence, as Karsa, despite his brutality and single-minded pursuit of fame and glory on the battlefield (a lot of which seems to involve hacking up the entirely defenseless), is put right into a protagonist role out of which we are led to expect a character arc. And the awesome thing is that he gets one. Up until now, even Erikson's most well-drawn characters have mostly felt as if they exist merely to play out their roles in the vast, epoch-making history he is envisioning. Karsa Orlong is as unabashedly archetypal as fantasy characters come. Yet he's the first upon whom Erikson focuses and allows to grow as a person.
Karsa is literally the viewpoint character for the whole first quarter of the novel. So when we get into part two, and it's back to business as usual with enough folks to fill the Superdome playing out the fate of nations, you have to do some serious mental gear-shifting. This is maybe what those aforementioned fans dislike. However, as the first part is set in the series' continuity concurrent with events in Gardens, and the remainder of the book takes place right after Memories of Ice, I don't see how Erikson could have done much different structurally. Erikson might have improved matters had he followed Martin's narrative strategies more closely, and given us shorter chapters, each with its own viewpoint character. (I'm not talking mimicry here, just a similar approach.) Instead, Erikson lets his chapters run long — typically 30 pages or more — with numerous story threads interwoven. The result is like the reading equivalent of channel surfing. And inevitably some shows will be more interesting than others.
The rest of the story involves the culmination of the war between the Apocalypse of Sha'ik and the Malazan Empire introduced in Deadhouse Gates. That book was largely taken up by a nightmarish, Bataan-to-the-nth-power death march called the Chain of Dogs, and reading that book often makes you feel like you're part of it. In House of Chains, the story, to Erikson's credit, is much more fluid. The work he has poured into building Karsa Orlong's character, who has taken the name Toblakai and is now part of Sha'ik's camp, means we get better work on many of the other characters as well. Adjunct Tavore has come to the Seven Cities subcontinent with a mandate to take the war directly to Sha'ik, holed up in the desert of Raraku behind the Whirlwind, a swirling, sorcerous wall of sand. Not only are Tavore's armies a bunch of pitiful, inexperienced raw recruits, she also still doesn't know that Sha'ik is none other than her sister, Felisin, whom she arranged to be banished to a bleak and wretched penal mining colony. (Felisin's escape from said colony was a major thread in Deadhouse.)
It turns out Tavore was acting, not out of cruelty or betrayal, but a desire to protect Felisin from the violent culling of the nobility taking place in Malaz City. This says something for how bad things must have been there, if Felisin's banishment to hell on earth was the lesser of two evils. Meanwhile, Sha'ik, the former Felisin, knows full well her sister is coming, and eagerly awaits her shot at vengeance. But she in turn has to deal with potential treachery on the part of some in her armies, as well as the fact that the Whirlwind Goddess whose powers are responsible for Sha'ik's transformation is simply using the woman for ends that are all the Goddess's own. (Not to get spoilerific, but I thought that led to a fairly anticlimactic reveal.)
House of Chains could have snagged another entire star from me with ease had Erikson let the book focus with ruthless precision on this conflict, and reduced or cut from the book entirely all the subplots that bog down the middle. Arcane doings galore among the Elder races Erikson has created, their magical warrens (which I had to keep looking up), a battle between the Ascendent gods over the Throne of one of these warrens (Shadow). While there's no doubt that the resolution to all of these conflicts will figure in the series' overall climax — the tenth novel is titled The Crippled God, so it's pretty clear he'll be the final boss battle — I think it would have been better overall to give these story threads their own book. Played out on the sidelines the way they are, with Erikson's often infuriating fondness for caginess and keeping too much information close to the vest, the scenes feel like a weak story interfering with a strong story. I mean, when Erikson is on message, his stories are strong. The last hundred pages are riveting and at times quite emotionally gratifying, and Erikson isn't above some button-mashing when the occasion calls for it. (The book is violent throughout — too much so for some readers — but nothing compares to the fate-worse-than-death one villainous mage suffers at Karsa's hands.)
Maybe a later volume will let House of Chains' subplots take center stage and coalesce into a tight narrative all their own, as opposed to what they are now: padding that turns what could have been a long but rock-solid military fantasy adventure into an overlong and overwritten case of literary gigantism that's too easily distracted by its own detours and tributaries. While Steven Erikson remains one of fantasy's most formidable creative minds, I still can't call him one of its greatest novelists, and I won't until he figures out that, however monumental your vision, sometimes as a writer you have to learn when and how to get out of the way of your own story.