Sometime in the early eighties Steven Erikson and his friend, Ian Cameron Esselmont, having become enamored of role-playing games decided to design their own. Over the next several years they developed a world, a magic system, dozens of races and a history spanning millions of years. Unable to sell their work to a game publisher Steven Erikson wrote a movie script, then a novel. Neither would sell so he abandoned the idea and returned to his life as an anthropologist and archeologist.
Nearly fifteen years later, after he had written several books on archeology he brought the old book out and sent it off to publishers once again. The publisher responded with a request for more books.
The Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen was born. Steven Erikson’s ten book series, in conjunction with four books by Ian Cameron Esselmont, detail a certain period in the colossal history that they developed.
The number of years spent on developing this world shows. It is incredibly solid. The idea of somebody who spent twenty years developing the world just to tell one of the stories appealed to me. It struck me as being in the spirit of Tolkien. In that regard the Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen do not disappoint. The description and the history and the world are so real that at times it feels more like a historical account than a fantasy book.
Summarizing the plot – or the main plot – of a Steven Erikson novel is difficult at best. There are usually dozens of plots unfolding, things happening, and characters living that it’s hard to explain what each book is really about. I think that is because it all ties together so neatly that the entire series must be considered as a whole.
Midnight Tides is no exception.
Far away from the Malazan Empire and their rule over the continents of Seven Cities and their conquest of Genebackis lies another continent, completely unknown to the great Empire. Lether, the home of the Letherii Empire. Never defeated in battle, enslaving all races they encounter, the Letherii believe they are invincible. And they are. The Ceda, their equivalent of a high mage, wields such power that entire armies are destroyed at a wave of his hand. With that power they are unstoppable. Lesser magic is powerless against it.
Only one race has yet to be conquered. The newly united tribes of the Tiste Edur, the children of Father Shadow the third son of Mother Dark.
The story is told (mostly) from the points of view of two different sets of brothers. The Sengar family of the Edur – Fear, Trull, Binadas and Rhulad – and the Beddict family of Lether – Tehol, Hull and Brys.
The Edur, outcast from the realm of shadow when it was shattered at the betrayal of Scabandari Bloodeye thousands of years before, are newly united under the rule of the Warlock King. The King sends the Sengar brothers on a quest to the northern ice to retrieve a sword locked in a frozen obelisk. They are commanded to return it to the King without it ever touching the flesh of anyone living.
When they find the sword they are attacked by the natives of the frozen wasteland and Rhulad, the youngest brother picks up the sword to defend his brothers. He is killed and the sword apparently frozen in his dead grasp. Devastated, Trull, Fear and Binadas take the body home and prepare it for burial. In the midst of these preparations Rhulad suddenly rises up, screaming in pain.
Rhulad, having made a pact with The Crippled God, is given much power through the sword. He forces the Warlock King to bow to him and declares himself Emperor of all of Lether.
He immediately declares war on the Letherii, ready to strike preemptively. What follows is a heart-wrenching tale of a young man gradually losing his sanity as he is repeatedly killed and brought back to life. His brothers, Trull and Fear, are caught in the middle, their loyalties tested. Does their loyalty lie with their brother, the new emperor, or with the Edur people? Is there a difference?
Meanwhile the Warlock King wreaks such destruction upon the armies of Lether that even the insane Rhulad is disgusted with his casual destruction.
Hull Beddict, seeing the corruption of Lether and feeling morally opposed to the subjugation of races that Lether believes is their divinely appointed right, offers his services as adviser to Rhulad.
Brys Beddict, the champion, the greatest swordsman in the Letherii Empire, possibly the entire world, is tasked with guarding his emperor. He also witnesses the slow loss of sanity of the Ceda, Kuru Qan, their last hope of defying the immense sorceries of the Warlock King. He also takes it upon himself to watch over his oldest brother Tehol.
Several years before, Tehol Beddict made a fortune playing the Letherii equivalent of the stock market. When he lost it all at once it drove the economy into a depression of which it is finally recovering. Tehol, meanwhile, lives on the roof of a rundown building with his manservant eating whatever they can scrounge from the streets.
But there is more to Tehol than meets the eye and he sets out on a quest of his own to bring about the fall of Lether through economical means. He plans to buy up all of Lether and then let it fall. While doing this he slowly siphons off all the slaves and conquered races indentured in the city to a series of islands off shore.
In the midst of all of this turmoil the Azath house in Lether city is dying and as it dies the dead rise up and walk the streets, some of them conquered gods or demons, some of them ancient beings long forgotten.
This is a small portion of what this book is about. Erikson has a beautiful ability to describe things in great detail. It begins to feel like he has actually seen the places in the books. This book, taking place in a different part of the world does not know the same gods as the continents where the Malazan Empire holds sway. Thus the characters swear by different gods and have different technologies and think differently than the people in the previous books of this series. All of this combined with Erikson’s easy style make the book feel real.
This is definitely the most emotionally charged of Erikson’s books so far. The desperation that Trull feels when he watches his brother return from the dead, screaming in agony, controlled by some unknown being, is so intense it feels personal.
This book also has the tightest plot so far in the series. Things flow together and move in such a way that it feels organic. Perhaps the most satisfying was when events would happen that explained things from the the first, second, third, and fourth books. All along strange things have been happening in the previous books. The characters have dismissed them, unable to explain them but the reader is left wondering. Finally it all pays off – or at least some of it, the series is only half over, after all.
I have only one complaint, which wasn’t enough to make me dislike the book, just a little bit of an annoyance. Steven Erikson peppers his prose with sentences that have no subject or verb. On occasion this kind of thing can draw attention to a particular phrase and make it stand out, emphasizing a point. When it happens all over every page it feels more like a lack of editing than stylistic choice. Erikson writes beautifully, he can craft words that will make you chuckle one second and want to weep the next. Unfortunately he can’t seem to grasp basic grammar (although he is Canadian, maybe I should cut him some slack).
As I said the grammar feels like only a minor annoyance rather than a deal breaker. This is the strongest book of the series so far and I would highly recommend it to anybody who likes reading fantasy that bears no resemblance to Tolkien’s work except the complexity of the history and world in which it takes place. However, reading the four previous thousand page tomes might be too high a price to pay for people who like their fiction less epic in scope – especially considering that with five books the series is only half finished.