Dust of Dreams
Bantam, 2009 [UK] (Forthcoming Jan. 2010 U.S.)
More and more I find that reviewing Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series a difficult prospect. There is a less of a problem reviewing Ian C. Esselmont’s books set in the same world, they are typically stand-alone novels, but in series as large and sprawling as this one it becomes harder and harder to review as the series has gone on. Which makes Dust of Dreams, the penultimate volume (really part 1 of a 2 part novel), a bit difficult to review. Things are even more difficult here because for some reason my heart just wasn’t in this read. 890 pages read in half hour spurts (my lunch break) since I received the book in August means things aren’t exactly fresh in my mind. Even my co-workers, frequently observant of the near roulette speed with which my lunching reads change, were quick to point out (and chide) at my glacial trek through Dust of Dreams.
As with any late series review I recommend not reading on if you’ve haven’t read earlier volumes.
For about 50% (maybe less) of the novel I really had no idea what was going. Sure following around the remnants of the Bridgeburners, Hellian, Tehol and Bug, and some others was easy enough but I found myself frequently confused by some of the characters I’m not as familiar with. Plots lines following the formation of a K’Chain Che’malle cult, the meeting of two nearly ascendant representatives of competing war gods, the march of the Shake, and the Chain of Dog reminiscent Snake marked some of the newer elements that, particularly concerning the last, deflected my desire to really invest large chunks of time with novel. Even now, the novel complete and currently straining a bookshelf to near death, I am still confused and uncertain as to where all this is going.
Confused as I was there were moments in this novel where Erikson’s prose and flair of epic action shone beyond the muddled plot. I was tortured along with Hetan and Tool during their trials and neared sickened at the very thought of the Barghest practice of “hobbling” (don’t ask) and the battle (or battles) at the novel’s climax is as visually stunning as anything Erikson has previously written leaving several well-known characters’ fates uncertain. Erikson’s trademark, often dry humor was in full effect. I shuddered along with other soldiers at the very notion of “squad full of Hedges”, found myself agreeing over a Letherii recruit’s musings on Malazan use of the word “aye” (to paraphrase: it isn’t just a word, it’s a whole attitude), and chuckling over this brief exchange about dieties:
“Are you a god?”
“More or less, Toblakai. Does that frighten you?”
Ublala Pung shook his head. “I’ve met gods before. They collect chickens.”
“We possess mysterious ways indeed.”
But, with perhaps one or two exceptions, many of the narrative threads in Dust of Dreams don’t come together. Which, I suppose, is likely because the novel was technically split in two. I frightening thought given the size of this tome. I’m equally excited and nervous about the next and final book given it apparently needs 890 pages of setup.
There are number of things that changed as this series has progressed. First and foremost is the apparent stand-alone nature of, at least, the first two novels. Erikson has taken on a more alternating pattern with most of the novels typically revealing new plots/characters/narratives/ideas in one book and tying them to older ones in a second. This has worked well in previous volumes but late in the series I’ve found that the multilayered narrative web that Erikson has built has become extraordinarily difficult to follow. In earlier volumes a lot of the confusion when it comes to characters was mitigated by a fairly well-structured Dramitis Personae that, in addition to being separated by faction, often included a simple explanation of who a character was (a soldier, an ascendant, etc.); a trend that disappeared in later volumes. This is a series that desperately needs a glossary and I certainly look forward to the oft-rumored “Enyclopedia Malazica” that likely won’t see publication until everything is over and done with.
All complaints asside Dust of Dreams and the Malazan series at large is a work that is staggering in scope and still worth the read; though it occaisonally falters in execution. Erikson is chronicling the fall of a people and an empire while simultaneously examining the ancient foundations that empire was built on not to mention the machinations of powers both ancient and newborn who, to put it mildly, might not always have the best interests of humanity at heart. Dust of Dreams is, in my opinion, a stronger novel then the previously volume Toll the Hounds. For all it’s horror, or perhaps because of the horror, I found the saga of Barghest chronicled here to be particularly moving; the story of Hetan is important to the way humanity is viewed by many powers in Erikson’s world and it is tragic and heart-breaking. In fact all the sections with the Barghest, and Tool, are some of the best things I’ve read in this series touching upon the nature of humanity, history, and change. Of course, I’m still in the dark as to where this is going but if the climax and the final cliffhanger line are anything to go by it is going to be huge.