For all its innocuous sounding meaning, a place where things come together or meet, there is something inherently portentous about the word convergence. Referring to a place as a point of convergence implies a significance to the events that will incur as a result of this coming together that meeting, rendezvous, or even tryst fail to convey. Of course until one knows the nature of those converging there is no way to tell how things will fall out. One thing you can count on though is that the convergence will change not only those who involved, but the place where they meet will never be the same again.
In author Steven Erikson's epic fantasy series the Malazan Book Of The Fallen he has introduced us to seemingly unconnected characters, places, and plots that have gradually been woven together into a web that ensnares them all. In the first seven books of the projected ten part series Erikson has laid out tantalizing strands for us to follow. We have learned about the interpersonal relationships between gods and goddesses; met humans and alien races who have ascended to assume god like powers; been introduced to demons and creatures from other dimensions; warlocks, sorcerers, magicians, wizards, shaman, and other beings who control forces of frightening power; and most dangerous of all, the wide variety of mortals on whose power of belief most of the above depend for their existence.
Now as we approach the end of the series Erikson is starting to pull the strings of the web tight around his characters, and plot lines whose beginnings can be traced back as the first book begin to converge. Toll The Hounds, published by Random House Canada, the eighth book of the sequence, sees many familiar faces, and a couple of new ones, brought together at three points of convergence, where some plot lines come to a conclusion and others are propelled a few steps further along their way. One of the truisms expressed early on in the sequence, power attracts power, is proven not only accurate at this time, so does the prediction that such meetings result in an unholy mess.
If you've not read any of the books preceding this one, a plot summery will do nothing but confuse you, come to think of it even if you've read the whole series up to now, a plot summery will confuse you. That's not to say that the book is confusing, its just the strands are so many and so complicated that laying out the bare bones in a paragraph or two and expecting anyone to create anything coherent would be the equivalent of handing you a skein of wool after a kitten has reconfigured its molecular structure and asking you to knit a sweater from the resulting snarl. Over the course of nine hundred plus pages Erickson carefully and coherently leads us through the maze of interconnecting lines to produce a heartrending, joyful, celebration of life that poses thoughtful questions about the real meaning of faith, love, responsibility, justice, and sacrifice.
Does that sound unusually heavy for a fantasy story? Perhaps, but in Erikson's hands you don't even notice what he's doing as you are far too embroiled in the lives of the people involved and caught up in the sequence of events to realize he's making these points. It's not until you take a pause for breath - which I would recommend doing after each section to allow your pulse to return to normal- that the implications of what you've just read sinks in. As is the case with all of the books prior to Toll The Hounds layers of meaning are carefully stacked into almost every paragraph, and while you may think you know what's just happened based on the action described, the reality is oftentimes far more complicated.
Yet unlike previous books, Toll The Hounds starts to pull back the veils that have hidden secret motivations and real agendas. For this reason, this is also perhaps the most introspective book yet in the sequence. Where before we might have been merely observing a character's external reactions to a scene, or perhaps their immediate feelings of fear, repulsion, joy, or sadness when confronted by circumstances, we now follow them along their sometimes torturous processes of assimilating implications. Within each of us there abides a place where we can no longer avoid the mirror that reveals our true face, and while some are much more adroit at avoiding that particular confrontation, in the end the majority of us can only put it off for so long.
What good does it do if we fulfill the deepest yearnings of our heart if in order to do so we break it on the way? Are you honest enough to be able to see that in the pursuit of justice that committing an injustice diminishes you and your goal? Are you strong enough to look in that mirror inside of you and admit to your own true motivations, or acknowledge that you might not understand another's? Well, it's down those avenues that Erikson takes his central characters in Toll The Hounds. Some come close to being broken by the journey, others are tempered and honed until like the finest steel they shine with an inner light, and some discover a new capacity for life and love.
With the Malazan Book Of The Fallen sequence Erikson has taken fantasy out of the hands of the swashbucklers where action is the credo and the only consequences anyone suffers is usually at the receiving end of a weapon. In Toll The Hounds he continues to prove that he is a masterful writer capable of creating characters who do more then just bleed and kill. At times his narrative is nearly poetic in nature as he makes use of his various character's flights of fancy and singularity of thought to colour his prose. While in the hands of a less skilled author this might prove disastrous and end up trivializing the content of the story, here it increases the poignancy while adding some necessary lightness of spirit to moments that might otherwise have been too devastating to cope with.
If you have not yet read any of the books in the Malazan Book Of The Fallen sequence you could probably read Toll The Hounds and enjoy it for the pure spectacle, but you would have little or no idea of what was going on. For those of you who have been with Steven Erikson since he began the series, be prepared to read things that will break your heart, make you laugh, and have you on the edge of your seat all the way through. As hard as it maybe to believe, not only does the series continue to get better with each book, it continues to amaze and surprise. A brilliant effort by a brilliant author.
(Originally posted August 2008)
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.