So, a long-running, massive multi-volume fantasy epic is winding to a close, a close so big that the last book actually has to be split, and it’s still 800 pages long. What’s that? No, this is the other long-running massive multi-volume split-the-last-book fantasy epic. Not The Wheel of Time but Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, whose penultimate book, Dust of Dreams, moves us nearly to the close. And if I had to choose only one LRMMVSTLB fantasy epic for newbies to start? Sorry, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson fans (and I’m mostly both), but Malazan would be the one.
But really, who’m I talking to here? There aren’t any newbies reading a review of book nine in this series. You’re only reading this if you’ve already read books 1-8 (if you haven’t, then why are you reading this?). And let’s face it, if you’ve read the first 7000 pages or so, do you really care what I have to say about the most recent 800? Are you really going to stop now? Didn’t think so.
And what could I tell you anyway? Am I going to summarize the plot for you? Are you kidding me? You all know what an Erikson plot is like. Summarizing it would take up 200 pages by itself. Here are a couple of bones (pun may be intended): Readying themselves for a battle most believe will be their last, Tavore and the Bonehunters are about to march into the Wastelands and join with the Khundryl Burned Tears and the Perish Grey Helms, who are already heading there and having issues with kingdom they have to cross to get there. Meanwhile, the K’Chain Che’Malle are out recruiting for a Mortal Sword and Shield. Meanwhile, the Shake are on the move. And there are about a dozen more “meanwhile’s” — it’s Erikson after all. We’ve got gods, ascendants, Jaghut, Imass, dragons, Assail, various Tistes, and the list goes on. We’ve got the Bonehunters of course, along with Silchas Ruin and Toc and Icarium and Draconus and Mappo and Tehol and the list goes on. Let’s just say the word for the day class is “Convergence.” And it really is with a capital C. (So much so that it might not be a bad idea to think about starting a re-read, at least for the final book — there are a lot of threads from the previous books, both large and small, that are starting to weave together and it will be a richer experience having them fresh in one’s mind, I’m thinking.)
We’ve got dead, undead, nearly dead, recently dead, long-ago dead, dead-then-not-so-dead, can’t-believe-he’s (she’s)-dead, thought-he (she)-was-dead and is-he (she)-really-dead? In fact, my favorite line in the book (and one that applies to much of the series) was, “does nothing dead ever go away around here?”
We’ve got a gripping, utterly kick-ass battle scene that rivals any of his best ones yet, and nobody does battle scenes like Erikson.
We’ve got lots of the usual introspection and philosophy; we’ve got grunts waxing wise and characters musing on topics ranging from environmental despoliation to aboriginal genocide to economics to ethics to monotheism and well, the list goes on. Some people could probably do without the quieter moments, or at least without so many, but I lapped them up in this one and while some felt a bit stilted, they never really slowed the book down for me. Or actually, they do slow the pace (one of their purposes, I’d argue) but I didn’t mind — they didn’t dull the pace may be a better way of saying it. These moments deepened the book beyond a simple bang-em-up plot (nothing wrong with a little actual thoughtfulness) and deepened characters as well.
Such scenes work on several levels — they bring Erikson’s themes to the forefront (though admittedly sometimes too bluntly so). They allow for a pause between all those frantic moments. And perhaps most importantly, by spending quiet “human” time with these characters, you find yourself caring what happens to them during those frantic moments. Erikson’s battle scenes are so effective, not simply for the magics-go-boom and swords-go-hack aspect, but because the combatants in those battles are real characters, not cardboard cutouts going through the motions. This impact is multiplied by the sheer length of time we’ve spent with some of these characters, such as Fiddler or Quick Ben. They’ve become old familiar friends by now and we cringe at what they go through.
Erikson’s trademark humor is here as well; there were many times I laughed out loud and even more where I simply chuckled or smiled to myself. Sometimes he may try a bit too hard (Tehol has a few such moments), but in general Erikson knows how to use his comic relief.
And he needs it in Dust of Dreams. It is grim. Grim in overall tone through much of it, grim in the sense of impending disaster always looming, grim in its thematic connections to what is happening in our own world. Beyond the baked-in bleakness that permeates the work, there are several individual scenes that are startlingly dark and horrific, some of which involve children, intensifying the impact greatly. Yet somehow, and this is something I think show Erikson at his best in this work, there is a counterbalance not just of easy humor but of hope: not cheesy hope that rides in with a magic talisman or a suddenly-revealed birthright, etc. but a longer-range almost kind of hopeless, heartbreaking hope. I don’t know anyone who does it as well as Erikson and it’s one of the major aspects of this series that separates it from so much other fantasy.
I’d rank Dust of Dreams in the top tier of a top-tier series, and it promises a hell of a close for the Malazan series. It ends, unfortunately, with a cliffhanger, but Dust of Dreams leaves you wanting more, not because of a few pages of cliffhanger, but because of the 7000 or so pages that came before. That’s some achievement.