If there is anything uglier than humans at war, it's when the Gods get involved and try to manipulate events. Or even worse, the Gods at war amongst themselves, making use of whatever and whoever comes to hand, can make human Machiavellian manoeuvrings look as simple as playground hi-jinx.
Triple-double crosses are standard as old rivalries are remembered and new hatreds are kindled. What can mere mortals do in the face of such intricacies? Is it wisest just to keep your head down and try not to attract attention, or do you get in the game and try to out wit them? They're only Gods after all whose existence actually depends on whether or not somebody believes in them.
Of course either course is easier said then done. You may want to stay out of the way and still end up holding the fate of the world literally in your hands; or you can plan and plot with the best of them and end up being a spectator with no say in the final matter. It all, of course, ends up being in the hands of the Gods, and unfortunately there are times you just can't trust them any further than you can throw them.
This is the scenario that the characters of Steven Erikson's astounding Tales From The Malazan Book Of The Fallen find themselves facing in book six The Bonehunters. Plots swirl around them, catching them up and tossing them around like a farm house caught in an Oklahoma twister, while they desperately try to keep themselves pointed in the right direction and carry on with what they assume are their own destinies and lives.
Mortal wars centring on the expansion and internal strife of the Malazan Empire have flowed back and forth over two continents. On the surface it seems like the 14th army is simply tying to finish putting down a horrible rebellion on the Seven Cities continent but there are currents running beneath this war, that can be felt throughout the Malazan Empire and beyond.
The Crippled God, a malignant presence pulled from another domain thousands of years ago and chained by the other Gods, has begun an attack on the rest of the pantheon. His twisted fingers have inched their way around the world and have been pulling strings behind the scenes for a while.
His marionettes are just now starting to come into the open; whether the Goddess of disease Poliel spreading plague throughout the Seven Cities continent in order to supply the God with properly deformed acolytes, (and in the process destroying the Malazan armies) or the Empire of the Tiste Edur, rising from a long forgotten past and the shadows that they worship, to serve as his means of conquering both the mortal and immortal realms on the fields of battle.
Fort those who have read books one through five of Tales From The Malazan Book Of The Fallen you will be pleased to see that most of the characters from all the previous books make an appearance; Fiddler, Kalam, Quick Ben, Ganoses Paran, Apsalar, and Crokus (now Cutter) from the Bridgeburners and their associates. The usual assorted mixture of Gods and Goddesses but in particular Cotillion, Patron of Assassins and his associate Shadowthrone (who as the first Malazan Emperor had arranged for his and Cotillion's ascension to Godhood under the guise of being assassinated by his successor.) play leading roles, as they are the ones directly under assault by the Crippled God and the Tiste Edur.
We also pick up the trail of other old friends; Karsa Orlong, the giant warrior exploring the strange world of civilization; Icarium, the cursed warrior and his companion Mappo; Trull Sengar, the renegade brother of the Emperor of the Tiste Edur and his un-dead, T'lan Imass warrior friend Onrack the Broken; and Heboric, the former priest of Fener God of War.
Each of them have been drawn into the conflict between the Gods whether they like it or not, and each of them have choices to make that could affect the outcome of the entire battle. As in the previous books Steven Erikson proves himself masterful at handling each one of the characters and their individual story lines.
His characterizations are so masterful that each one of them are so distinct that he doesn't even need to identify them by name for us to know who the action is revolving around in a given circumstance. The nature of their thoughts, and the manner in which they process information, has become as familiar to us as any close friend.
Even amidst the turmoil that Erikson has created, his characters are more than just cutouts and stereotypes. These are three-dimensional beings that have their own ideas about what's going on in their world. From the sergeant in the army to the God on his throne they have doubts and insecurities, show amazing fortitude and strength, and flaws in judgement and weaknesses of character, that make them oh so human.
Erickson has an uncanny ability for writing battle sequences, whether one on one fights between Assassins, or armies in the thousands battling over a piece of land or the rights to a city. Soldiers piss their pants, and stumble into battle confused and terrified. Others fight with the grim determination of those who mean to stay alive no matter what. Some of them wouldn't be above sticking a knife in an officer's back if it was thought he would lead them into unnecessary danger.
There is nothing glorious about these battles, but Erickson recognises true individual heroism, and how a group of soldiers can be something more than the sum of their parts. They may cry, curse, moan, bitch and complain, but if they have been together a certain length of time in a shared experience, a bonding occurs which unites them in a way that no training ever could.
What makes these soldiers so compelling and heroic is their complete lack of heroism. They are the anti thesis of the romantic ideal of the noble warrior, which lends genuine nobility to everything they do. To create that atmosphere and those characters with out once descending into mawkish sentimentality, or clichés, requires more than just skill on the part of the author. He has to have developed almost a love for all of his characters for this to be successful.
If you've not read any of the previous books in this series than some of what I've been talking about must be a little confusing to you. If you are going to read Erickson, than you really need to start with Book One and progress forward, and begin to enter into the atmosphere of the world.
What Erickson has accomplished with hisMalazon Book Of The Fallen series is nothing short of remarkable. The world he has created is a marvel whose history is as complex and real as our own. Reading these books is not only a pleasure, but a means with which to study our own preconceived notions of societies and how they work.
The Bonehunters is a book resplendent with action, ideas, and emotion, and is a joy to read. The only problem with a Steven Erickson book is that it ends. Thankfully there are four more books yet to come from the Malazon Book Of The Fallen.
(Originally published in May 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.