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House of Chains (The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 4) Mass Market Paperback – March 6, 2007
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"Children of Blood and Bone"
Tomi Adeyemi conjures a stunning world of dark magic and danger in her West African-inspired fantasy debut. Learn more
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The fourth volume of the Malazan Book of the Fallen takes place some years after the death of the famous Seventh Army commander, Coltaine. Now Tavore, adjunct to the empress, is trying to assemble the army's surviving veterans and a ragtag collection of tribes, wanderers, and recruits into a viable fighting force. Not far away, the seer Sha'ik, Tavore's sister, is trying to organize a successful rebellion out of equally disparate elements, including warlords, sorcerers, and renegades. Despite a fairly complex array of subplots that support the rather dark tone of the story, it is the duel between the sisters and the abundantly detailed world Erikson has built that really carry the book. Indeed, with the help of the glossary and cast of characters Erikson provides, this book is enjoyable even without previous acquaintance with the Malazan tales. So it will please the already acquainted, and may inspire the unacquainted to read its predecessors, Gardens of the Moon (1999), Deadhouse Gates (2000), and Memories of Ice [BKL Ap 15 02]. Roland Green
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
“Erikson has no peer when it comes to action and imagination, and joins the ranks of Tolkien and Donaldson in his mythic vision and perhaps then goes one better.” ―SF Site on House of Chains
“Unusual among fantasy writers, Erikson suceeds in making readers empathize equally with all sides involved in his world's vast, century-spanning conflict.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred reveiw) on House of Chains
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House of Chains opens in much the same way. We are opened with the story of Karsa Orlong, a character briefly acting in Deadhouse Gates only under another name. After 200 pages of his travels leading to his position in the present we finally get along with the story. Or something resembling that anyway. Tavore Paran, Felisin's sister who sold her out to prove her loyalty to Laseen, ("She's not my sister. She's Adjunct Tavore now," Felisin said at one point, in the same cheesy comic book fashion where super villains renounce their old identities in an overdone event of evil followed by a DUN DUN DUN!) has arrived at Seven Cities to help the war effort against the rebels. Despite that she's young and untested as a military commander, sorry, Adjunct (Why that title anyway, which essentially means a lowly assistant as opposed to a respectable general title?), compared to other real soldiers the Empress has, she's sent as head of the Malazan forces stop Felisin where they will doubtlessly have an epic battle in the end. Said epic battle really was the whole point of Felisin. Oh and Tavore has a hot blonde lesbian lover. That got your attention, yeah?
Tavore's les-tastic relationship alone should make her more of a Fist than anyone but I digress.
Meanwhile Fiddler's back too to fight against the Seven Cities, all old enmities forgiven with Laseen in the blink of an eye meaning that all his old enmities with Laseen contained as much bile as the spit in your sink. Apsalar and Crokus are also back in town searching for, what else is there in this world, but magic power.
There is something disturbing in how despite all the world building of these books, every different culture and character personalities remain constant with each other. Everyone talks the same such in these ghastly dialogue cliches: "Here you could use a little...comfort." Or, "We will slaughter them...quickly." These are used so often even by hardened murderers who live and breathe blood and guts that the sheer silliness of its attempt at emphasis masks the other dichotomy of character stereotypes. Namely normal people filled with miserable soliloquies and zany characters talking in fashions that would render them psychos without a purpose if they didn't have super magic powers or they were hiding something. Close male friends actually refer to each other as friend like we need to be reminded or told. It's the fantasy equivalent of frat boys talking to each other with, "Sup brah! Wanna go hit some brewskis?" but since they're warriors who kill giant sharks, most people don't notice how shallow they are.
None of these characters have any normal convictions like trying to get a prestigious job or seducing the hottest girl in town, they're all miserable aphorisms because of long ago betrayals or tragedy like murder and rape (betrayals and murder and rape hardly being mutually exclusive) where everyone is sure to remind you about their angst. Everyone is joyless because if they're depressed enough, you won't notice how dull they are. Or if they do have normal convictions like Crokus's misguided infatuation in Gardens of the Moon, it's swept aside for more magic nonsense or tragedy because joy is nonexistent in Malazan. And zany people are zany because zany is fun, especially when they might have super duper magic powers behind them. It's all the depth of a cackling madman villain or cliché old witch characters without having the awareness or honesty to admit what it is. Cliché old witch characters also compose all of the female characters save main female characters and main female characters exist solely to be victimized, titillate the male audience, or both. The rare female strong independent characters are cold-hearted lesbians like Tavore. In spite of all this there are no screaming madmen who behead for fun except in the case of the cannibal army from book 3. But even those characters lacked dialect and had a rational leader even though we're dealing with the fantasy equivalent of Deliverance. Normal people become deified or watch their closest friends become deified with little to no reaction. This isn't realistic characterization, this is the odor of nerds arguing on message boards about how cool or strong Character X is where everyone important is or becomes a Character X (and that its X and not a boring letter like A or B makes all the difference in Malazan).
But you actually can't call the enterprise joyless because joyless requires the acknowledgment of joy at all. I can't not hate characters like Iskaral Pust who being solely defined by his quirks, talks like a gabby old woman screaming as loudly and obnoxiously as possible about other things happening while secretly planning things out related to Gods. What matters is not what he's planning but that he's planning something at all and that he screams like a gabby old woman while doing it! Same goes for other "charming" characters like Pearl (and what kind of name is Pearl for a friggin' guy anyway?) who when greeted by superior officers, take the time to showcase their fine tastes in wine and dick around, then get to the point to give the illusion they're not one-dimensional like the rest. I can't not hate Apsalar and Fiddler, two characters both deeply beset by personal demons who instead of grappling with their issues and showing that if they can't break free they can at least try to loosen their nooses and make progress in ordinary society or they return to their fates from misguided folly and pressure more than anything else. Instead they do the equivalent of running from a pack of bloodthirsty wolves and give up soon after. But that's not all, they go one step farther, throwing their weapons down, stripping naked, and running headfirst at the wolves only to become heads of the wolf pack out of nowhere. I can't not hate the internal dialogue that serve no purpose other than to reinforce character traits that we as readers in the hands of a good author should not need to be reminded of or situations where character traits are introduced via said monologues in the first place where instead of any real events showing that Bob is miserable we learn that Bob is miserable because he tells us he's miserable. Or the internal dialogue is purely for snark and everyone is snarky. I can't not hate the narrator devoting paragraphs to the characters' pasts or their feelings where their actions should show the latter and if the former is necessary, they'll come be announced via the story as opposed to the narrator screwing around. I can't not hate the rampant Deus ex machina's that admit the foolishness of this venture yet he treats the whole story seriously from top to bottom without any real humor or self awareness at the long monologues of angst or the inconsistent character archetypes. As a result those last childishly convenient events mentioned happening in the midst of a serious story come off as exceptionally surreal and the return to normalcy is no less jarring. The long serious monologues, the dark elves and ogres who aren't called dark elves and ogres, come off as faux and that becomes the whole gist of these books. A joke that's told too much and loses its effect where you start hate hating the one-trick pony comedian parroting it.
After all, the Malazan books are essentially con games relying on things like briefly mentioning things readers will forget while they read the book, like a wolf on page 3 who we later learn was not just a wolf but a wolf GOD and it was because he was there that all the zany stuff on page 3 happened. Nobody actually goes back and remembers these things because that would require the penning of every obscure detail such as someone's red shoes which we learn are magic if you clack them thrice and make a wish! Not that the pitiful attempt at complexity matters since it's all revealed anyway, just too late for you to care and if it's not revealed, you still don't care. Or characters like Iskaral Pust and Kruppe who are all persuasion but no content, where their "unique" personalities have the effect of a screaming infomercial salesman in a land of depressed old fogies which instead of livening things up has the effect of being in an insane asylum while hopped up on Valium. We continue listening to that infomercial guy because holy crap that snake oil might just cure my depression, in the same fashion that maybe, just maybe, we'll finally know what their game is if we dissect their dialogue hard enough despite no interesting personalities present to play the game. But conmen must give the idea they believe their con and Erikson refuses to commit.
Karsa's tale is particularly notable in this level of nonsense. He starts out as a tribal raider with a party of savages. There is no level of insight or science provided save exposition about their past for the sake of world building, some of it involving characters like Icarium and the Tellann Imass to cater reader interest. Certainly noble savages are just as vile a stereotype as plain out and out savages but there has been no sense of culture or real mythology in the societies shown. Rather cultures are either good or bad. As a result when coupled with the above complaint about the silly character stereotypes thrown throughout there is no real individuality or flair to anyone or anything. Horrible actions like murder and rape are given criminal treatments, particularly when Karsa conquers another town and decides to bed every single woman. What should be shown as rape instead comes off as misogyny, suggesting that women love any and all men even though the context paints it otherwise and the dialogue to the marauding men of their village is tame. There's no hint of any trauma involved save the narrator telling us that Karsa, "brought grief to her soul," or something like that, instead of showing her in pain. Even though she was making witticisms about Karsa's erect genitalia two sentences before and showed no fear, now she's in pain. What should come off as horrific has no effect at all. And of course none of this is relevant to the actual story except for brief mentions of other characters and events for world building purposes or for giving background to a character that in the hands of this inept author, needs 200 pages to accomplish such a trifling task.
Speaking of incapable writing, I read Karsa's opening story and the opening chapter of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury side-by-side. The former concerns a tribal raider attacking villages and beheading sharks where the latter involves the first-person perspective of a retarded man simply making observations around him of, among other things, his pseudo-incestual feelings for his sister and seeing his mother go insane. Surprise, surprise, The Sound and the Fury was more fun to read.
It's simply just random nations and people doing random actions. The Gods are one-dimensional cliches without personalities whose competition for power is all they care about and every God has a beef to pick with the other but you don't know what or why. You don't ever see Gods actually competing with each other or showing how petty they really are which would be helpful given the series' contempt for the Gods. There are no distortions of what the Gods traditionally represent, like how a God of wisdom might make laughably stupid mistakes in contrast to his otherwise brilliant nature. As a result they're as memorable as squabbling kids who you don't pay attention to and as a result, all you hear is their crying to themselves but nothing else.
I noticed that much of this critique applies equally to the other books and that I've had similar qualms with the last three. That's the problem. Once you've read one of these books you've read them all. There's no reason to read anymore because everyone is a sweltering pot of angst or a loon for no reasons other than stuff happened. It doesn't matter what stuff happened or why stuff happened, no, what matters is that stuff happened. And stuff continues happening because stuff happened and if you learn why stuff happened, then that's no oasis, it's just more stuff happening. Like Deadhouse Gates in its entirety and the majority of these mammoth sized books, it's a waste of time. Funnily enough there is nothing you'll miss out on by skipping any "important" details that happen along like how So-and-So in Book 2 died and went on to be reincarnated as a GOD in this book (Wow cool! the fan things say to themselves even if they don't know it.), because, it's just stuff happening and even expected. Didn't know the character? Don't worry, Erikson will make sure the other characters whine enough and talk about the new character and their times with the old iteration, the latter reminiscing constituting everything there was to the emotional depth of the character's time in Book 2, so much that you'll realize bonding and friendships in Malazan is the Big Lie: If you tell something to somebody enough, they'll start believing it.
Some critics of the latest book Toll the Hounds accuse of it artistic excess like hundreds of pages devoted to the thoughts of an ox. If so, then I can only imagine people are upset because Erikson has finally conceded that this is a jest with the gentleness of your wife emailing you videos of her cheating on you while laughing that she only married you for your money. That scenario isn't far from the author's real motivations I imagine.
The Mott Irregulars got their table back. Jib Bole and his brothers announced that they would be visiting Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. Gruntle suggested to Anaster that he relax and go with the flow. Anaster met Tool again, but did not recognize him in his restored body. Dujek Onearm released the company's back pay to the Bridgeburner survivors and they opened K'rul's Bar in Darujhistan. Duiker told the story of the Chain of Dogs on opening day.
In this novel, Karsa Orlong is a young warrior in the Uryd Tribe of the Teblor. He has grown up listening to his grandfather Pahlk's stories and relishes their glories. Of course, he is ashamed of his own father Synyg's unexceptionable actions. Karsa would follow the path of Pahlk, leading his followers on a raid against the "children" of Silver Lake.
Karsa pledges himself to the Faces in the Rock, then joins Delum Thord and Bairoth Gild. He expects Dayliss to see him off, but she blesses Bairoth instead. His father gives his prized destrier Havok to Karsa, but refuses to bless him. After Karsa leaves, Synyg orders Pahlk out of his tent and never to return.
The path to Silver Lake passes through the territories of the Rathyd and Sunyd Tribes. Karsa leads Delum and Bairoth to the Rathyd lands and wreaks havoc as they go. Yet they find puzzling signs of older raids and abandoned villages in the Rathyd area and then only evidence of death and destruction in the Sunyd lands.
In this story, Karsa discovers that his grandfather is known to the other Teblor tribes and even to the folk of Silver Lake, but not as a raider. Pahlk has embellished his tales with deeds of prowess and violence that never occurred. Karsa also discovers that the Teblor are much larger than the inhabitants of Silver Lake, but loses both Delum and Bairoth to these "children".
Moreover, Silver Lake is now the location of a large town rather than just a farmstead. The Silver Lake inhabitants have raided the Sunyd and Rathyd tribes, taking the survivors as slaves. Moreover, the town is now within the Malazan Empire and is occupied by Malazan troops.
At Silver Lake, Karsa is captured and enslaved, becoming the property of Slavemaster Silgar. Karsa escapes, but is fated to have more encounters with Silgar. Eventually, the two find themselves in the Holy Desert of Raraku in the Army of the Apocalypse under Sha'ik, the Chosen One.
This first part of this tale is the backstory of Karsa prior to becoming a bodyguard of Sha'ik. The tale then merges with the story of Felisin Paran from Deadhouse Gates and her assumption of the role of The Chosen One. It then continues on to Felisin's encounter with her sister Tavore, Adjunct of the Malazan Empire.
This story expands the mythology and history of this world and advances the tale of the Malazan Empire on Genabackis. It includes various characters from the previous books, including the Claw assassin Pearl, Lostara Yil of the Red Blades, and some survivors of the Bridgeburners. It also introduces Onrack, the Broken One of the Logros T'lan Imass, and Trull Sengar of the Triste Edur.
Highly recommended for Erikson fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales of imperial politics, rebel conspiracies and ambitious godlings.
-Arthur W. Jordin