Monday, February 14, 2011

Dust of Dreams

It used to be that high (or epic) fantasy always had an air of optimism about it: no matter how horrible the evil forces threatening the realm/line of succession to the throne/world, there was always a feeling that the good guys would win. This implies that there was a demarcation between good and evil in these books, and if we look back to perhaps the progenitor of the genre, The Lord of the Rings, it really is pretty clear who the myriad bad guys are versus the forces for good. I can't say for sure when this all changed, but I think one of the first to break apart this near-ubiquitous trope was Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books. I've written earlier about his Mordant's Need books, where Donaldson upsets the trope of the virile male hero fighting a straightforward series of battles, by having a non-descript and confused heroine fighting for reasons she doesn't truly understand. Donaldson's Covenant books do a similar thing to the idea of good versus evil, because the titular hero, Thomas Covenant, is among the most unlikable protagonists in all of speculative fiction. Donaldson spends a lot of time making Covenant distasteful, and while there are some interesting ideas in the plot of the books, a lot of the originality in them comes in the idea of a hero that the reader does not (or even cannot) like.

In some recent conversation with other fans of speculative fiction, I talked about (and discovered as I was saying it) that I've either grown past or grown tired of the recycled tropes of fantasy. This in turn has led me to the crop of fantasy writers I am enjoying now, like Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, and Joe Abercrombie, who just turn the genre on its head. I also realized that writers with larger portfolios, like Steven Brust and Guy Gavriel Kay, have been doing this all along, which explains in some part why I enjoy their work so much as well. This is not to say that similar trope-busting isn't taking place with other authors, but I have begun to recognize it in the things that I really like.

Which brings me in turn to Steven Erikson, author of the Malazan Books of the Fallen. I've written about some of his books in the past, about his tapestry-like structure of several stories going on all at once brought together in a conclusion with unexpected twists that still satisfy the reader. I've written about how he excels at characterization and dialog, and that while there may be some common characters and history between the books, there is not very much to link them. As it turns out, either I am not a very close reader—and with each volume weighing in at around 800 pages, it's easy to get lost in the plotlines—or he is exceptionally crafty, because Dust of Dreams is the first half of the novel that is going to attempt to tee everything up. This book and the just-out-in-hardback The Crippled God together form a single story that brings all the disparate plotlines and characters from the first right novels into another, though larger, neat bundle. And with this tying up, it has become clear to me just how cynical are the underpinnings of the series.

Unlike Abercrombie, who wears his distaste for the body politic on his sleeve, Erikson is a lot more subtle in his unflattering portraits. While Abercrombie's characters are just ambiguously moral—neither good or bad, or perhaps both good and bad—Erikson's characters act in ways that convince the reader to trust them and their opinion. And instead of that opinion turning out to be wrong, it is almost always excruciatingly right, casting the idea of culture and civilization as not evil, but unendingly arrogant and ignorant. The lesson seems to be that in general individuals are trustworthy, but their morality becomes shiftier as they group—which I would argue is a disturbingly accurate description of the American political process, if Erikson wanted to make that kind of observation. To be sure, there are evil and stupid individuals in Erikson's novels, but they are not common and they are sometimes played for laughs. But the heroes of his novels are given to introspection and observation, and nearly every one of them turns away from his vision of the contemporary world they inhabit with disgust.

This turning away from the old ways is a driving theme in Dust of Dreams, as it becomes explicit that the previous books have been leading up to a war between the old gods of this world and the new ones. Ironically, all the gods appear to want to use the human races of the world to their own ends, as pawns in a global chess game the complexity of which blows past such better known political games as the ones found in the Dune books. But it also becomes clear that the pawns have wills of their own, and armies begin to come together for some sort of great last battle without being sure on which side they will fight. There are probably more plot threads in this novel than in any of the other Malazan books, and the reader can see them beginning to twist into a single strand by the end of this book, remembering that this really is only the halfway point for the entirety that Erikson wanted to publish.

The result is perhaps the most difficult read in the first nine books of the series. Erikson's author's note at the beginning of Dust of Dreams offers apologies for how unlike the rest of the series this book is. Never before has one of his novels ended in a cliffhanger fashion, but Dust of Dreams lurches upon about the biggest precipice one can imagine for a series of books (unfortunately, revealing the nature of the cliff would constitute a far bigger spoiler than I dare commit to the Internet). Erikson's note also apologizes for the ungainly size of the novel, coming in at around 1300 pages. But Erikson's note also hits the right chords in its request for forbearance—he has a story he wants to tell, to bring the events of the previous books into a thoughtful and satisfying conclusion. He also jokes that trying to publish the volume as a single book would break the bookbinding process. And while the ending is different than we've come to expect, I find that the story is just as wittily written, the characters just as delightful, and the dialog just as provocative as what has gone before. But no longer can I entertain the possibility that the book can be read on its own; Erikson dredges up characters and circumstances from all of the earlier books in the process of pulling together the threads of his tapestry.

Nonetheless the series, and especially Dust of Dreams, remains a fascinating example of world-building and a magnificent act of storytelling. I've literally no idea how things are going to end up. And for all its power and craft, it's very difficult to recommend Dust of Dreams, just because it is the huge ninth volume of a ten-volume series. If one has not been reading until now, it marks a huge investment to get to this point. I honestly feel it's worth the investment, and I envy anyone taking up the gauntlet to discover these characters and Erikson's vision for the first time.

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