Posted by: markfender | January 27, 2015

House of Chains

Lead us, Warleader.

HoCHouse of Chains is the fourth book in the Malazan series and returns us to Raraku and the rebellion against the Malazan Empire. But first, it goes on a digression.

The first quarter of the book is a flashback to a character we’ve briefly met before in Deadhouse Gates (even though he was never identified by the name he goes by in House of Chains). It’s kind of a weird break and leaves many readers floundering – who? why should I care? where’s the bridgeburners? It’s also a break from the multiple viewpoints we get in the rest of the books as it focuses on one character’s viewpoint for hundreds of pages – it’s a huge stylistic difference that makes this part feel very different from the rest of the series.

Luckily, it’s completely successful. Because Karsa Orlong is awesome.

He shouldn’t be awesome. He’s a barbarian from a culturally-isolated culture. He’s eight feet tall with four lungs. He’s immune to infection and magic. His description makes him sound like a Mary Sue character of the worst variety. Even his opening chapters don’t paint him as a great guy – he kills lots of people with impunity and rapes an entire village.

The barbarian who “corrects” the problems of civilization is a common character in fantasy fiction. Everything was obviously better in the past (which could be argued is the entire point of fantasy escapist literature) and so we must return to those halycon days of old. But Erickson isn’t playing that game. Instead, Karsa’s journey plays with cultural relativism a great deal. His own society (he discovers) is corrupt and based on lies. Civilization has advanced and changed the world. Some of it is good and some of it is bad. Likewise, Karsa changes from a person who thinks only of slaughter into a character who can see the shades of grey surrounding him. He keeps his “barbarian” attitude of cutting through the bullshit, but at least he can see subtleties. Karsa’s character growth is some of the best in the entire series. Plus, he gets great lines (My favorite line from him, which isn’t in this book, is “I am through talking. Witness.”).

The rest of the book isn’t that great, honestly. The main storyline is about Tavore, new Adjunct to the Empress and the sister of Paran and Felisin, and how she forges a new army out of the remnants of the Chain of Dogs (from Deadhouse Gates). This is contrasted with Sha’ik’s Army of the Apocalypse and how it falls apart. Tavore never gets a POV in these books and she’s another stoic character – so she sucks. I think we see two whole emotions from her the entire book, one of which is leaning against a table. I’m all for subtle, but c’mon. (I assume I will complain about Tavore in more detail later, since she’s in the majority of the rest of the books).

There are, of course, hundreds of subplots as well and they didn’t work for me. We’ve got Kalam traveling around, Cutter and Apsalar fighting off some Tiste Edur threatening the Throne of Shadow, Onrack and Trull exploring a shattered warren, and an utterly bizarre section with a giant underground (Plus, more dogs. Because Erickson loves dogs). It all comes across as incredibly random. Now, it’s not – these are all plot points for later stuff, but they never cohere into a fully-realized story. At least, not yet. And while I enjoyed Lostara Yil’s and Pearl’s banter (to pick one particular plotline that doesn’t seem to go anywhere), I didn’t find the random things they come across to propel any sense of narrative. It’s a problem these books have struggled with at times, but usually the writing is presenting some common themes across the disparate plot elements that at least give a throughline. Not so much with this one.

I honestly didn’t remember this book being so incoherent. It actually makes me dread some upcoming books, which I remember struggled with this issue as well.

One of the things people complain about with this book is the final battle – or the lack of it. The newly formed Malazan army and Sha’ik’s army never actually fight, even though 25% of the book was about them moving towards conflict. The final battle between Tavore and Sha’ik has been built up as a big moment, and then…nothing. It confounds our expectations as purveyors of literature where a family clash becomes the driving element of the plot. And yet, it works completely in the Greek tragedy sense. The ending is not satisfying and deliberately so. We’re steeped in the inherent drama of these sorts of conflicts and expect them to move towards a suitably dramatic clash. But, Erickson is playing this as a Greek tragedy, which has different rules. So, while my ingrained sense of Western thought does find the ending a letdown, I did actually find it moving in its pathos.

So, yeah, I’m not a fan of House of Chains. The Karsa stuff is awesome and the finale of the book works as a Greek tragedy, but the rest of it felt like it emphasized the bad parts of Erickson’s style.

Luckily, the next book is my favorite. So I hope it lives up to the hype I’ve created in my own mind.


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