House of Chains by Steven Erikson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.
Series: Malazan Book of the Fallen (Book 4 of 10)
Genre: Epic fantasy, grimdark fantasy
First published: 2002 by Bantam (UK) and 2006 by Tor (US)
There will be slaughter. Yet another apocalypse on Raraku’s restless sands. It is as it should be.
Retribution is at hand for the rise of the Seven Cities rebellion as the new Adjunct to the Empress arrives to lead the Malazan army to face Sha’ik and her Army of the Apocalypse. The Holy Desert of Raraku continues to emanate despair, even more so now than ever after the Chain of Dogs left in its trails the miasma of vengeance and grief.
House of Chains weighed like a ton of bricks on my psyche, which was the main reason it is probably my least favourite of the series, albeit still a great book. Aside from the depressing setting of the Raraku, the Army of the Apocalypse was rife with treachery within as power hungry men and mages vie to make use of the madness and rage of the Whirlwind Goddess and the ensuing chaos to further their ambitious goals. As much as I tried, I also failed to fully empathise with the Sha’ik.
In stark contrast, the Malazan army, as disciplined as it can be, was fraught with uncertainty over the ability of the new Adjunct, Tavore of House Paran, and its relatively fresh recruits. Erikson did a marvellous job at empathically portraying the thoughts and emotions that such regiments had to confront, particularly focusing upon the points-of-view of two vastly different individuals; a new Fist who was never more than just a soldier who became captain of a noble house and a wearied returning veteran of Raraku. Within the story of Adjunct Tavore and her army, there were touching moments as well as pretty hilarious ones which made it more endearing by far.
The numerous subplots and POVs in this instalment initially appeared to be tenuously linked at most. However, and undoubtedly, Erikson showed how masterful he was in weaving all these threads together into a staggering pattern that initially confounds but eventually makes sense as revelations come to the fore. I also appreciated some level of continuity from the life-changing events that took place in Memories of Ice which flowed well into the narrative.
As before, there are still tonnes of new characters to familiarise with. But regardless of the sheer size of the cast, character development was always superbly done. Taking a different direction from first three books, a full quarter of this volume was largely dedicated to introducing a major character to the series. Karsa Orlong of the Teblor, a tribal giant race that thrived on the notion of glory from domination and killing, wrought from distorted histories and false gods, started off as an arrogant, bloodthirsty and violent warrior that was extremely difficult to like. Through the development of his arc, Karsa became one of the most complex characters thus far. He is in equal measures brutal and badass as hell, still arrogant, but also possesses an almost unorthodox sense of compassion and honour. Even with all what we have seen so far in this book, we have yet to fully appreciate what he is truly capable of and his role in the larger overarching plot.
Witness? Yes, you are witness. Even so, what I, Karsa Orlong, shall shape, you cannot imagine. No one can.
By this fourth instalment, it will be difficult not to come to the realisation of just how deep and steeped in sorcery and magic this world truly is. There is just so much to learn about the pantheon of gods and the ascendants, the ancient races and warrens and then.. there is light, dark and shadow.
Shadow is ever besieged, for that is its nature. Whilst darkness devours, and light steals. And so one sees shadow ever retreat to hidden places, only to return in the wake of the war between dark and light.
And this brings to one of my favourites, yet another complex and intriguing character that demonstrated a kindness and compassion that belies his ascendant stature. Cotillion, the Patron God of Assassins, otherwise also known as The Rope, is an enigma and though he appeared to be playing another mysterious game of thrones altogether, he does so with a certain sense of dignified reluctance and regret.
“Because, I like the lad, too.”
“How brave do you think I am?”
“As brave as necessary.”
“You don’t seem much like a god at all, Cotillion.”
Individual characterization aside, Erikson also excels at creating realistic and great relationships of the most unlikely pairings, which developed through chance and circumstance. Karsa Orlong and Torvald Nom. Onrack and Trull Sengar. These duos are amongst the more notable ones to date which show how love, compassion and loyalty through friendship can transcend differences in race, culture or one’s own history; the connectivity that binds and brings people together.
Given the density of these books, it really is difficult to compose a review that can cover all aspects of the story, so I aim to highlight those which had an impact on me, without going into spoiler territory. The one thing which never fails to emerge from reading the Malazan Book of the Fallen is the sense of pathos from all the tragedy, despair and horrors that being alive can entail. While there are some outright despicable and vile characters, there is never a clear bad or good side; nothing is plainly black or white, just various shades of grey. Although not as heartbreaking as the past two books, the ending in House of Chains was nonetheless thoroughly tragic; even more so considering the utter unawareness of the surviving party of what truly happened.
To grieve is a gift best shared. As a song is shared.
Review originally written in 2017
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