Epic fantasy. No. EPIC fantasy. Really big. Epic. Fantasy. Look, it’s 1180 pages long. You get the idea…
Reviewing a Steven Erikson novel is, I’d imagine, a bit like trying to sum up climbing an exceptionally high mountain. On some level, the experience has been arduous, but nothing can quite beat that sense of achievement and, oh, the memories, the moments of heart-pounding excitement and unexpected beauty… And that view!
Memories of Ice is third in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, but comparing it to either of its two predecessors is a futile task. Despite the fact that they’re all huge slabs of second world fantasy and there are some tonal and thematic similarities, they are all very much their own gigantic, quivering beasts. Memories of Ice takes place more or less directly after the events of the first novel Gardens of the Moon, in which the Malazan army led by Dujek Onearm is tasked with capturing the city of Darujhistan, the culmination of a long and bloody campaign on the continent of Genebackis. At the start of the third novel, Dujek has apparently gone rogue, forging an alliance with former enemies Kallor, Caladan Brood and Anamander Rake, the enigmatic ancient ruler of Moon’s Spawn. The alliance is necessary because a new power has appeared in the south of the continent, a fanatic cult led by a powerful Seer, who is himself a front for an older, malevolent power. In the face of this evil, old enmities must be set aside and a desperate race to relieve the siege of Capustan, an independent city halfway between Darujhistan and the Seer’s capital city of Coral, forms much of the matter of the first third of the novel. It’s absorbing and entertaining stuff. A novel of this size has plenty of scope for sub-plots and diversions and Erikson is in no great hurry to present us with the novel’s first big action set piece. It’s a good job that his world building and characterisation is so exceptionally good, then.
The appearance of recurring characters like Rake, Dujek and his cadre of elite engineers, the Bridgeburners, led by the nobleborn, god-touched Captain Paran and the taciturn but eminently likeable Whiskeyjack is reassuring, but Erikson has plenty of new characters to throw into the mix, too. The caravan guard, Gruntle, and his comrades Stonny and Buke; the very creepy Broach and Bauchelain, along with their longsuffering manservant Emancipor Reese; the officers of the Grey Swords mercenary company; Lady Envy and her enigmatic Seguleh companions; the Mhybe and Silverfox, tribal messiah-girl and the reincarnation of four separate spirits: all of these have significant roles to play in the narrative and, through Erikson’s remarkable ear for believable dialogue, they live vividly in the reader’s imagination as the story unfolds.
Erikson’s training in archaeology accounts at least in part for his detailed, layered world-building. History matters in the Malazan books; it influences the actions of the characters and binds them to specific places in often uncomfortable ways. This then lends the events of the novel considerable weight. When certain places are destroyed or changed, when certain characters emerge in answer to ancient needs or manipulations, the descriptions are replete with meaning. The world of the novels is being changed by the actions of the characters within them; this is not a heroic preservation of the status quo, but rather a brave attempt by our viewpoint characters to mitigate the effects of the changes taking place around them. This measured, layered approach – this making real a world of pure fantasy – is one of the most impressive achievements of the series and this novel in particular.
It is, I’m afraid, far outside the scope of this review to summarise the story in its entirety. Suffice to say that there are two major (and by ‘major’, I mean ‘massive and jaw-droppingly good’) military actions in the novel and Erikson is adept at not only describing the tactics and strategy involved but also conveying with an almost visceral intensity those moments when the allies’ plans encounter the enemy and are shredded into an incoherent full-blooded mess. Erikson adds another layer of mystery and intrigue, however, with the revelation that at least some of the participants in the combat have attracted the attention of this world’s gods and, indeed, he frequently reminds us that there is a partially hidden conflict taking place whose roots are ancient and sunk deep into a rich earth of malice and vengeance.
All of which sounds pretty dark. And it is. The Seer delights in torture and feeds his growing army with the bodies of his enemies; what happens to the Mhybe is heartbreaking, and there are some moments of genuine horror. That said, Erikson’s tone is nowhere near as nihilistic as, say, George R R Martin’s in Game of Thrones. In fact, in some senses, Erikson is the ‘anti-Martin’. His world is as layered and politically complex (although in a different way; Erikson’s gods are much more proactive than Martin’s seem to be) as Westeros, but his characters are not quite as self-serving or venal. Betrayal happens in the Malazan books, but so does heroism, although that heroism almost always carries a (sometimes unforeseen) cost. It’s here, I feel, that Erikson particularly excels. No one quite writes heroic moments like him. And I’m not talking cheesy cartoony heroics either. I’m talking… well, I’m talking about Itkovian, mostly.
Itkovian starts Memories of Ice as one of the commanding officers of the Grey Swords mercenary company who have agreed to help defend the city of Capustan. It’s a tough contract, not only because the city is facing a vastly superior force of cannibalistic religious fanatics, but also because it’s ruled by a council of squabbling priests. The Grey Swords are sworn to the service of Fener, the Boar of War, whose power is waning (and whom the reader has already encountered in the second novel, Deadhouse Gates). There is a sense of noble futility to all the Grey Swords; their religious vows mean they will see out their contract despite the seeming impossibility of the task. Itkovian, however, is the Shield Anvil, granted the power to bear the grief, sorrow and pain of the mortals around him. This gift is extended to his enemies as well as his allies and the siege of Capustan provides one of the most powerful moments in the series so far when Itkovian offers to take the pain of Anaster, First Seed, leader of the Tenescowri, the peasant army that has successfully assaulted the city. It is an understated moment of raw compassion that it is quite hard to imagine appearing in A Song of Ice and Fire; as powerful as it is, however, it is also a foreshadowing of a much more significant moment later on in the book.
It is characters like Itkovian that, just as much as the stunning action set pieces, make this novel so memorable and, yes, moving. I’ve said elsewhere that I’m a romantic, despite my occasional attempts to present a cynical front to the world. That said, I don’t want fairy tale endings or tired cliché; I appreciate moral complexity, characters finding their heroism in difficult circumstances, characters stumbling and falling. But, I also want to see redemption; I want to see the possibility of compassion triumphing over selfishness. I want, in short, for my fantasy stories to have at least some measure of hope. This is what Erikson provides here. In the middle of the devastation and loss (and at least a couple of important characters won’t be reappearing after this book – except in flashback!), in a setting that is rich in history and the tragedy that has shaped it, there remains a glimmer of hope. Characters change; characters learn. It is for this reason, along with the excellent world-building and exciting writing, that I have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending it.
 Okay. Confession time. I’ve only managed to make it through one and a half novels of Martin’s admittedly impressive A Song of Ice and Fire series, for reasons that I might go into in a later post. I am not at all questioning Martin’s considerable skills as a writer.