Friday, December 4, 2015

House of Chains Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Military Fantasy
Series: Malazan Book of the Fallen Book Four
Pages: 1,040

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(Spoilers for the previous three Malazan books are below).

Continuing directly after the conclusion of Deadhouse Gates, House of Chains is beautifully set up to deliver an epic personal clash between the Malazans and the Army of the Apocalypse – and between Felisin and Tavore.

The emotional complications of this clash tie directly into the relationships and actions that were committed in the previous Seven Cities centered book.  Felisin who was greatly wronged leads an army that committed horrible war-time atrocities against Tavore who did great wrong to Felisin but leads an army that was greatly wronged.  Both sides are motivated for revenge, and the war between these two opposing armies is truly one of the most unique wars in fantasy put on paper.

The bar is set high with House of Chains, and for the most part Erikson delivers, but the before mentioned clash between the armies and Felisin and Tavore is underwhelming.  The outcome was amazing, but the manner in which it was told didn’t seem to take full advantage of the pathos that situation could have provided.

House of Chains has an unorthodox beginning by Erikson standards. The first quarter of the this book (about 200 plus pages) takes place a few years before all of the major events in the previous three Malazan books and it focuses almost exclusively on Karsa Orlong, a Teblor warrior living on Genabackis.

The final three parts shift back to Seven Cities and the war between the Army of Apocalypse and the Malazan Empire.  All the major plot threads are bullet pointed below.
  • Karsa Orlong, a fierce and powerful warrior, leads a small raiding party into Genabackis which sets him on a destiny to change the world forever.
  • Sha’ik, formerly Felisin of House Paran, awaits her sister and her army in Raraku, while top ranking supporters in Sha’ik’s army plan to overthrow her.
  • Tavore Paran and her untested army begin their march into Raraku to take vengeance on the Sha’ik’s army for their role in destroying the Chain of Dogs.
  • Apsalar and Crokus (now called Cutter) find themselves in a fierce battle to determine who will be sitting on the Throne of Shadow.
  • Kalam begins to carry out the task appointed to him by Shadowthrone.
  • Pearl and Lostara are tasked by Tavore to find out what happened to Felisin in the Otataral mines.
  • Trull Sengar, an exiled Tiste Edur, is saved from certain death only to discover a new powerful enemy is on the horizon.
As the books that primarily take place on Genabackis (Gardens of the Moon and Memories of Ice) seem to be more plot driven, the books taking place on Seven Cities (Deadhouse Gates and House of Chains) appear to be more character driven.  Nothing establishes this position like the first quarter of this book which focuses on Karsa Orlong, and ironically begins in Genabackis.

Karsa may be Erikson’s greatest character creation yet.  This young warrior is a fierce fighter, a flawed leader, and he has a very arrogant personality that will make him difficult to like, especially in the early going.  To top it all off he is incredibly stubborn; often times its Karsa’s way or the highway.  He has a tendency to be strong minded but he can be incredibly single minded and thus come across as stupid.  All of the personality flaws create a myriad of conflicts for the character, and ultimately make his portions of the story riled with conflict and tension.

(For those who are wondering, despite being a continent away, Karsa’s actions do relate to the plot that will unfold in Seven Cities).

Trull Sengar is another new character with a dark past that isn’t explored in depth in this story.  He is also the first Tiste Edur narrator and thus it can be expected more about their culture will be learned from his entry into the story.  Apsalar, Crokus, and Kalam are mostly designated to the sidelines in this book.  When they do make appearances though, they do make it count.  Not only is the romantic tension between Crokus and Apsalar increasing, but all three of these characters keep providing more insight and back-story into the Throne of Shadow, Shadowthrone, and Cotillion – three aspects that represent some of Erikson’s best enigmatic characters and constructs.

Sha’ik unfortunately turns out to be the disappointing character in this story.  After developing into a flawed but likeable character in Deadhouse Gates (as Felisin), in House of Chains, Erikson really doesn’t seem to know what to do with her.  Sha’ik is never proactive or even active for that matter.  She simply saunters around and worries about being overthrown and about confronting her sister who forced her into the Otataral mines.

Tavore on the other hand is incredibly proactive.  She is figuring out how to prepare her unseasoned army.  She marches her army through the desert to confront Sha’ik and avenge the Chain of Dogs, and she deals with the military politics in her camp.

In Deadhouse Gates readers are presented with a situation that clearly demonstrates Tavore’s ruthless ambitious side, and she is made out to be utterly unlikeable.  Felisin on the other hand is victimized and her quest for vengeance and the reader desire to see her confront her sister get revenge makes her more likeable.  In House of Chains, Erikson does a lot of work to balance the likeability of Felisin and Tavore’s characters. Felisin will make a lot of controversial decisions, while Tavore is put in situations to garner sympathy.

The greying of these characters personalities along with the greying of each respective army’s morals makes it nearly impossible for a reader to simply pick one side and hope they win.  No Malazan book up until this point has been this equal sided or had this much emotional build up behind it.  With that in mind, I came into this book expecting perfection because the setup is just so engaging, unfortunately the book fell short of my expectations.

Score: 8.9

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