Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Bonehunters

I have mentioned in previous entries to this blog my general metaphor of novels and movies as tapestries. The first book I remember reading that helped me to come to the metaphor was Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. In that novel, there are two different narratives taking place, each with its distinctive voice and narrator and only tangentially related. The crisis of the story takes place as the two narratives, or "threads" if you will, come together and the characters we have come to know so well finally interact.

I'm pretty sure that novels have used this type of story-telling in the past, but nothing leaps to mind. I'm reminded of the epics of the Renaissance, where entire stanzas would be devoted to a wide range of characters who would move in and out of each other's lives, and the point-of-view would bounce back and forth between those characters. But novels seemed to have been generally devoted to a single point-of-view for most of their existence; if other characters took primacy in the novel, it was only momentary and acted as something like an intermission from what was going on in the main character's story. That pause was far hardly more than a scene at a time and it never went so far as to become a parallel narrative. Perhaps the origin of the many threads in those epics is why I find them occurring more frequently in epic fantasy--those two genres have so very much in common beyond their names.

Steven Erikson is in the midst of writing a truly epic fantasy, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, of which the sixth novel, The Bonehunters, has recently been published in paperback. The book itself is massive, with over 1200 pages of story, but it truly only is a chapter in monumental epic. And it being near the middle of the planned ten-book saga, it provides a crux on which the series turns, for after this volume, nothing in the Malazan world will be the it was in the first five books.

How to describe a crucial but dependent novel in such a saga? Erikson's story must have close to 100 characters that are named and from whose point of view part of the story is told. Of course some of them are more important than others, but this novel shows that while the reader has a suspicion who those important characters might be, those suspicions are often incorrect. And whether or not those characters are critical to the ultimate goal of the novel or overall saga, Erikson defines each of them with care and art. Each character has a voice and a history of their own. I imagine folders with reams of paper providing long and detailed notes about each character. And the reader's reaction to each character is rarely neutral, so deft is Erikson's portrayal.

Erikson is also deft with his plot. I'm pretty sure he knows where he is going with his saga, but the ride to the end of each novel is never smooth. There are twists and turns galore, unexpected events in the face of the most certain outcome. So Erikson's tapestry is not just wide and long, it is very deep. The first five novels seem to deal with events fairly unrelated to each other but for the reoccurence of certain characters, but as this one begins, those books are tied together, presaging nothing so mundane as a continent-spanning war of empire, but a battle among the deities of the Malazan world themselves. And those deities are named and characters in the novels also, not escaping Erikson's fine attention to detail and characterization by being passed off as merely incarnations of some force; they are more Greek, having their own personalities and squabbles.

Unlike the first five novels, The Bonehunters has two set pieces--one at the middle and one at the end. The first one is daring and rather inventive in the genre of epic fantasy. Of course the books are about wars and Erikson takes a good bit of time to describe the actions of his armies, but in this specific set piece, it is not a battle but its aftermath as the soldiers attempt to escape a ravaged city that forms the central narrative. And it is in this portion, some 200 pages long by my count, that one can observe Erikson's astonishing attention to detail and story-telling arts. Trapped beneath a burning city, the soldiers find a band of children they are determined to rescue as well as saving themselves. Their subterranean escape is harrowing, and Erikson's style and language reflects the claustrophobic nightmare that they all were suffering. The later set piece, involving a battle at the docks of a city, are brutally honest but not a gore-fest, concentrating more on the thoughts of the soldiers as they fight. It is accurate, and it is sad for its verisimilitude.

If I had not promised myself to review all the books I read, I would have gladly skipped this one with a perfunctory wave. But Erikson has become one of my favorite comtemporary authors, and I eagerly await each installment of this saga. The series is not for everyone, however; it is long and dirty and sometimes hard to read. But I find it equally difficult to put down. I recommend The Bonehunters to fans of literary fiction and epic fantasy. But that recommendation comes with the warning that you really need to read the other five novels first.

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