Monday, March 13, 2006

The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

The Bonehunters is the sixth and latest volume of Erikson’s anticipated 10-volume series: The Malazan Book of the Fallen. For those not familiar with Erikson’s series, my advice is become familiar with it – in my opinion, it is the best ‘fantasy’ series out there. The books have everything: action, epic battles, gods, magic, demons, beasts, humor, truth, lies, death, destruction, despair, hope… And through it all, Erikson anchors the story in superb characterization of both the powerful and the men and women in the trenches, the expendable.

The story picks up where House of Chainsleaves off after Shiak’s rebellion. Pursuing Leoman of the Flails and the remnant of the rebellion, the 14th Army is in bad shape. Can the Bonehunters survive and grow into their name as a showdown typical of Erikson awaits at Y’Ghatan, a place famous for feeding on Malazan blood? Are the handful of veterans and old guard enough, will they survive?

Other threads are in action and approach yet another convergence. Mappo and Icarium suffer a major blow – will Icarium’s wrath be unleashed once more? Apsalar continues in service to the House of Shadow with the skills of a god and a broken heart. Who are her targets, and what role do her new companions have to play? Cutter and company journey to Otataral Island and into ambush. The Master of the Deck reveals his power; the Edur Empire becomes known to the Malazan Empire; Karsa is Karsa.

For me, The Bonehunters began at a crawl as I struggled to recall all the players – a reread of the other books is recommended, as Erikson brings many arcs towards another convergence. There is no repetitive back-story here, however, momentum continues to build and the book became almost impossible to put down.

New revelations occur as our understanding of the world, the rules, and the ‘real fight’ grows. Questions above are answered and left unanswered, new questions, old questions, new and old players in the game, confused, conflicting, hidden motivations abound – Erikson weaves an intricate, yet raw masterpiece.

As I’ve come to expect from Erikson, commentary relative to our own world abounds. Real and perceived inequities, religious and other fanaticism, torture, war and peace – Erikson paints a truly cynical view. Yet, his characters are not without hope; they continue in spite of the apparent pointlessness to it all…I’m more curious than ever to see how Erikson will conclude this epic, tragic tale.

Ultimately, I am still undecided on where The Bonehunters fits in with the rest of the series. Part of me believes it may be the weakest book of the series so far – which still leaves it superior to most SF out there. The humor seems forced at times, especially in the beginning, and not the effortless banter of some of the other books. Another part of me believes that rating these books against one another is an exercise in futility, missing the point.

My fully admitted bias in favor of Erikson makes this book difficult to rate; on my 10-point scale, where 5 is a take-it or leave-it book, and 10 is unsurpassed, I rate The Bonehunters at 7.5-8. Other efforts in the series rate as high as 8.5 or 9, and none below 7.5. While the story somewhat stands alone, The Bonehunters is an installment in a greater work, and it should be treated as such.

So, after my thrillingly exhaustive read of The Bonehunters, I’ll end with but one of my many questions: Steven Erikson, who is your Gumble?

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