Holding a Grudge
By Cheryl Morgan
On getting to the end of Deadhouse Gates one of my first thoughts was, "how can Steven Erikson top that?" Of course it is theoretically possible to up the body count, and indeed the horror, and he has done so. But he knows only too well that if he only does that he is going to lose his readers. It would turn the books into a simple splatter-fest, which is not going to win him friends and admirers. So in addition he has gone for a significant increase in the level of humor. And this being Erikson, it works very well.
Peace is the time of waiting for war. A time of preparation, or a time of willful ignorance, blind, blinkered and prattling behind secure walls.
The latest novel to be released in the US (and yes, I know UK readers are still way ahead of this) is Memories of Ice. The book takes us back to the continent of Genabackis and the renegade Malazan army led by Dujek Onearm and Whiskyjack. Having been abandoned by the Empress, Dujek finds his position rather precarious, but he is persuaded into an alliance with his former foe, Caladan Brood. He is concerned about a mysterious religious cult, the Pannion Domin, whose armies have invaded southern parts of the continent. Several cities have already been overrun, and Prince Jelarkan of Capustan is desperate for help. Broodís backers in Darujhistan are prepared to pay him to join the fray, so off the combined armies go.
But of course this is a Steven Erikson novel, so nothing is anywhere near as simple as it seems. Millennia ago, in the time of the glaciers, Genabackis was ruled by inhuman creatures known as the Jaghut. They delighted in enslaving the local human tribesmen, the Imass. War was incessant, and the Jaghut were mighty sorcerers. In desperation the Imass shamen ("bonecasters") persuade their people to swear a dreadful oath. They will forego life, condemning themselves forever to undeath, until such time as the last Jaghut is killed. Unsurprisingly, a lot of these fearsome zombie warriors, the Tílann Imass, are still hanging around. It has not escaped their notice that Pannion is a Jaghut name, and it only takes one Jaghut sorcerer to plunge the world into war.
That said, regardless of anything else, the Pannion Domin are a seriously loopy bunch. Unlike the Malazan, they have no idea of how to run an empire. Far from properly subjugating the people that they conquer, they give their victims a simple choice: join our army, or become its food. When the current pile of corpses runs out, the army must move on to conquer another city. The mere fact of their hunger gives them plenty of incentive to succeed. I did warn you that Erikson had upped the body count yet again, didnít I?
Until Dujek and Brood can arrive, Capustan has only one small but competent group of defenders, the mercenary company known as the Grey Swords. Devotees of the war god, Fener, they are amongst the most professional and effective soldiers around. We, however, have read Deadhouse Gates, so we know that Fener is in serious trouble. If events in the two novels take place in a similar time frame (and both start off where Gardens of the Moon finished) then the Grey Swords are going to find that their god is way too busy to help them at around just the time they need him most.
And that isnít the only way in which divine politics influences the plot. The creature known as the Crippled God, long ago imprisoned by gods whose names are all but forgotten, has been plotting revenge. The "warrens" through which human and inhuman sorcerers ply their trade have become infected and corrupt. Even a mighty mage like Quick Ben of the Bridgeburners is having trouble casting spells. And those forgotten beings who once bound the Crippled God have been forced to take an interest once more in mortal affairs.
None of this, of course, has any meaning to the Tílann Imass. They think they may have found the last of the Jaghut, and they have an oath to fulfill. If they can kill him, their millennia-long existences can be brought to an end at last. That is one heck of a long time to bear a grudge, and the zombie army is not about to let anyone or anything stand in their way.
Put baldly like that Memories of Ice sounds very silly indeed. It is the genius of Steven Erikson that he can not only make all of this work, he can actually make us care about these bizarre gods and supernatural beings. It isnít simply a matter of calling people "Tiste Andii" rather than "dark elf were-dragons" so as to get away from the traditional fantasy stereotypes (though that certainly helps). Erikson has sufficient skill to make you forget, for most of the time, that the dark-skinned beauty amongst Broodís officers is actually an immortal being who can turn into a dragon when the going gets tough. Sheís also an ordinary woman who can fall for the honest charms of a hard-bitten veteran like Whiskyjack. And no, thereís none of the sugary nonsense and hopeless longing of Arwen and Aragorn here. Erikson doesnít do romance. In addition, Erikson somehow manages to make you believe in people who have been pursuing a vendetta for thousands of years and no longer know how to stop.
Besides, there is the comedy. As we are once more in Genabackis, Memories of Ice sees the return of the inestimable Kruppe.
"Has your master specific suggestions? Brood asked.
"Innumerable suggestions of a specific nature, sir Warlord. So many that, when combined, they can only be seen or understood in the most general terms!" He then lowered his tone. "Vague and seemingly vacuous generalities are proof of Master Barukís all-embracing endeavours, Kruppe sagely points out." He offered everyone a broad, crumb-flecked smile. "But please, let us get under way lest this meeting stretch on, forcing the delivery of a sumptuous supper replete with the driest of wines to whet the gullet and such a selection of sweets as to leave Kruppe groaning in fullest pleasure!"
"Gods forbid," Coll muttered.
Furthermore, Memories of Ice also features Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, the two sorcerers with extremely unpleasant habits who star in the novellas, Blood Follows and The Healthy Dead. Not many writers have the ability to make a comedy duo out of a demon summoner and a necromancer who are every bit as nasty as their professions suggest.
Given that it fills almost 800 pages, there is more to Memories of Ice than I have thus far described. Much more, in fact. Thus far I havenít said a word about Ganoes Paran, the young Malazan commander who any reader of Gardens of the Moon might suspect would become the hero of the series. Given that Dujek has made Whiskyjack his second, Paran finds himself in command of the Bridgeburners, who are just the sort of soldiers not to give a monkeyís arse for the orders of a young nobleman scarce out of nappies. Nor have I said anything about his lover, the mage, Tattersail, whom we last saw being reborn into the body of a young girl who is growing up at an unnatural rate. Both of them, of course, have big parts to play in the story. Then again, our heroes are now fighting on the same side as the Tiste Andii and their terrifying lord, Anomander Rake. This has its benefits.
Dujek asked, "You are offering to set your Tiste Andii against the Tenescowri, Lord?"
"Hardly," Rake replied. "I mean to scare them witless. In person."
Brood and Rake, of course, are both ascendants, demi-gods in the making. That probably puts them one step down from Lady Envy, daughter of the elder god, Draconus, who is imprisoned in Rakeís black sword. She is waging her own war against the Pannion Domin, helped only by a dog, a large wolf, and three ensorcelled warriors. Her main priorities seem to be that while on campaign she should get a hot bath, a good meal and a bottle of fine wine every evening, and that she should never be seen in public looking anything other than drop dead gorgeous. Nevertheless she and her small band are at least as effective as Brood and Dujekís army.
Iím sorry, Iím waffling. Eriksonís books are just so full of good stuff, and there are major characters I havenít even started on yet. It is, however, time to stop. Anyone who has liked the first two books in the series will enjoy Memories of Ice as well. An awful lot of readers will cry at the end, which is not at all what you might expect given the horrors that have gone before. And I should, perhaps, leave the final word to Whiskyjack.
"War has its necessities, Korlat, and I have always understood that. Always known the costÖ But, this day, by my own hand, I have realized something else. War is not a natural state. It is an imposition, and a damned unhealthy one. With its rules, we willingly yield our humanity. Speak not of just causes, worthy goals. We are takers of life. Servants of Hood, one and all."
Unfortunately for Eriksonís characters, there are several more books to come yet, and a lot of plot points to be resolved. It will be some time yet before they can lay down their swords.