Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Review: Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson

Toll:
(v) ring slowly
(v) charge a fee for using
(n) value measured by what must be given or done or undergone to obtain something


As I sit here somewhat shell-shocked after reading Toll the Hounds (US, UK, Canada) by Steven Erikson, I can’t help but reflect on how perfectly the title fits. At once evocative and somewhat confounding to the tongue, I almost want to question if the title is correct. In the end, whether you attribute the title to a verb or noun, it is the ideal representation of the words contained within in what may be the best written volume so far in Steven Erikson’s momentous epic fantasy series: The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Toll the Hounds is the eighth volume in this ten-volume series, and it took me until the seventh figure out what I feel is one of the most important perspectives with which to approach this series – this is the story of the fallen. The obvious perspective to approach an epic tale with is to concentrate on the living, the survivors – I think to understand the true heart of this series one must concentrate on the fallen, those that don’t live to see the end. The war central to it all is not a simple war or a series of separate-but-related wars – this is a war of the gods encompassing all and nothing is immune. Death can visit anyone – soldiers, bystanders, and the gods themselves. It’s the stories of those that don’t survive that provide the sad lessons and depressing hope – they are the price, the toll.

In Toll the Hounds Erikson returns to the beginning – the continent and remaining survivors we first meet in Gardens of the Moon (US, UK, Canada), the first book in the series. The endgame is approaching and it's all the more appropriate that we go back to where it began for us – the great and independent city of Darujhistan. A large number of threads are woven together in ever increasing anticipation of the biggest convergence of power yet to occur, a convergence with a shattering toll. If you are really interested in a plot summary – Pat exhaustively provides – but I’ll leave it at this is the extension of the story fans have been following for the previous seven volumes.

For the eighth volume of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Erikson shifts his writing style a bit. Always on the verbose side, things are notched up as Toll the Hounds is partially narrated by the humorous, often-confusing, often-annoying, Kruppe – a rotund man who loves the sound of his voice, good pastry and wine. This approach, along with many of the characters followed, leads to a more introspective feel for the book, especially in the first half. Combined with the shear number of subplots followed, the beginning feels slow, disorientating, and overwritten – in spite of the improved skill Erikson is clearly wielding. At 200 pages into Toll the Hounds, I believed this was a bad decision; at 400 pages I was thinking my earlier judgment may have been hasty. By the end of the book I was fully convinced of the correctness of this choice and somewhat awed by the skill wielded by Erikson.

Erikson’s shift in style will certainly rub some readers the wrong way – it makes an already verbose writer even more so. The number of plots feels unnecessary, especially toward the beginning of the book, and disorients the reader. However, late in novel, I feel the following passage answers these criticisms.

‘Sad truth,’ Kruppe said – his audience of none sighing in agreement – ‘that a tendency towards verbal excess can so defeat the precision of meaning. That intent can be so well disguised in majestic plethora of nuance, of rhythm both serious and mocking, of this penchant for self-referential slyness, that the unwitting simply skip on past – imagining their time to be so precious, imagining themselves above all manner of conviction, save that of their own witty perfection.' Sigh and sigh again.

At first I was unconvinced by this shift for a volume so late in an already established series – I thought that this approach would make for a singularly spectacular stand-alone novel, but was misplaced in the later half of a series. The concentration on so many subplots didn’t work at the start. However, by the end, I realized why it does work and why it fits so well with Erikson’s thematic goals. Erikson has always shown us the everyman (or everywoman), be it a soldier, assassin, caravan guard, or town drunk. His story of a great war among the gods is largely told not from the perspective of the leaders, the powerful, the nobles, but from the grunt on the front lines who doesn’t know what is going on. Toll the Hounds is no different – and it’s the very realization of that toll on everyman and everywoman that Erikson wants us to see. Toll the Hounds accomplishes this aim better than most of the volumes in The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Erikson often falls to the temptation of becoming overly condemning of the modern world in his writing – in such a way that looses subtly, jerking the reader from that wonderfully realized world and hurting the story at hand. Toll the Hounds dials this down a bit – Erikson is every bit as condemning, but the in-your-face and almost didactic feel isn’t present. Likewise, in previous volumes, the humor so often attempted feels forced, while in Toll the Hounds, he balances it just right. One scene is sure to rise above the rest, with a high-noon style confrontation, paying satirical homage to a medieval joust, that had me hearing an Ennio Morricone soundtrack in a Sergio Leone setting. With all the surrounding tragedy – it’s this scene that sticks with me (of course that’s the way of my sense of humor).

Fully realizing that I am a biased fanboy when it comes to this series, Toll the Hounds is a clear improvement over the previous two volumes and possibly the best effort yet. I am more convinced than ever that Erikson is writing the best and most powerful epic fantasy series around and I’m already eagerly anticipating the next volume – Dust of Dreams (US, UK, Canada). In spite of what some will feel to be weaknesses, Toll the Hounds is a superior entry in The Malazan Book of the Fallen and the most thrilling read I’ve had in a long time. 8.5/10

Related Posts: Interview with Steven Erikson, Reaper's Gale review, The Bonehunters review, The Lees of Laughter's End review, Return of the Crimson Guard review, Crack'd Pot Trail Review

10 comments:

Alice said...

Ah, I was putting this one off because the last one was a bit disappointing, but I think an immediate visit to Amazon is in order!

Neth said...

well, I'm sure some will disagree - my favorite in the series is MT (though that may have just changed), and that's not a widely held opinion.

ThRiNiDiR said...

‘Sad truth,’ Kruppe said – his audience of none sighing in agreement – ‘that a tendency towards verbal excess can so defeat the precision of meaning. That intent can be so well disguised in majestic plethora of nuance, of rhythm both serious and mocking, of this penchant for self-referential slyness, that the unwitting simply skip on past – imagining their time to be so precious, imagining themselves above all manner of conviction, save that of their own witty perfection.' Sigh and sigh again.

Isn't Erikson mocking his critical readership at this point?

Toll the Hounds dials this down a bit – Erikson is every bit as condemning, but the in-your-face and almost didactic feel isn’t present. Likewise, in previous volumes, the humor so often attempted feels forced, while in Toll the Hounds, he balances it just right.

You noticed those two things too in the previous volumes,eerie likeness of our observations :). You give me hope for this one.

Neth said...

Isn't Erikson mocking his critical readership at this point?

I'd actually say the opposite. I think Erikson is mocking the noncritical readership - those that get overly preoccupied in plot points and inconsistencies and don't delve deeper into his thematic goals.

Neth said...

of course reading too deeply into a quote taken out of its original context is always tricky.

ThRiNiDiR said...

and there might be that :)

Anonymous said...

one of the best reviews i've read in a long while, in any type of medium. thanks!

Heather J. said...

I hopped over from GRASPING AT THE WIND's review meme - hi. :)

How is it that I've never heard of this series?! It seems to have all the complexity that I love ... I will definitely have to check it out.

Dreamybee said...

Great review! I don't know if I'm ready to jump into a 10-volume series, having read none of it to date, but I might recommend this to my husband. He's better at the many-volume series thing than I am.

Kesera said...

Ken,

Thank you for a great review. I know that it was done a while ago, but recently I saw a review of TTH on Graeme's review site and he made some comments that signaled he was one of those who did not appreciate the verbose nature of the book. After reading that I felt that while the book was verbose, I did enjoy it for that reason, and reading your review reminded of why. There is loss in this book, and the fallen deserve to have their stores/views shared.

Cheers!

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