How often do you read an 800-plus page book and get to the end not wanting it to end? I don't care how good a book it is, or how great the author, it takes something pretty special to not only hold your attention for that many pages, but to make you want it to keep going.
Well, that's the case with the latest book from Steven Erikson, Dust Of Dreams, published by Random House Canada. In this, the ninth and second to last book of his Malazan Book Of The Fallen series, not only has Erikson managed to maintain the level of intensity of the previous books, he ramps it up another notch, to the point where the reader is pretty much kept on the edge of their seats for the entire book.
Throughout the series Erikson has introduced us to literally hundreds of characters of various sizes, shapes, colours, and powers. Regular soldiers, kings, queens, wizards, gods, goddesses, demons, un-dead warriors of a variety of species, and shape-shifters, who represent an amazing array of species, worlds, and eras. In what has to be one of the most virtuoso pieces of universe creation yet, the action in Erikson's books is not limited to one world or one time period. In almost every book we are whisked backwards and forwards through time as the action not only spans continents and different planes of existence, but the past, present, and sometimes future of each location.
While locales and characters may change from book to book, the one constant in every book has been war. From the opening pages of the very first book, Gardens Of The Moon, where we find ourselves in the aftermath of a particularly bloody battle, we haven't been able to escape the battlefield. While some of the books deal with the battles waged by the Malazan Empire as it strives to both expand its territories and hold onto what it has captured at the same time, others deal with wars between races on distant continents with the latter seemingly unconnected to the former. However, no matter if the battle takes place between humans using mundane weapons or is being fought in the spirit world by gods and other outlandish folk, it's gradually become apparent that all of them have been skirmishes in one great conflict.
One troop of humans the series has followed through various battles has been the beleaguered 14th army of the Malazan Empire. From their first battles quelling an uprising in the outlying reaches of the Empire, to their betrayal by the Empress herself on their return to their homeland, we've watched them turn from wide-eyed, green recruits under the tutelage of a few veterans, to world weary, cynical battlers. Having survived almost everything war can throw at them, from fire storms to sorcery, one would think they are now prepared to take on anything the world has in store for them. Yet when we meet up with them in Dust Of Dreams they seem more intent upon tearing themselves apart than readying for what might be their most deadly battle to date.
Part of that can be put down to the fact that they are still cut adrift, flying no country or empire's flag. They represent no one but themselves and the will of their leader, former Adjunct to the Empress, Tavore Paron. They neither know who they are about to fight, nor why they are heading off into some of the most inhospitable lands the world knows for this battle, but there are whispers of battles between gods and ancient forces making the rounds of their camps that make even the stoutest hearts quail and loyalties waver. If Tavore knows what they are heading into, she's not saying, as not even her closest advisors and highest ranking officers are able to enlighten the troops. Those few among the troops, wizards, healers, and diviners of the future, who might reassure the troops with foreknowledge are no better off than the rest. In fact what little they are able to glean by reading signs or consulting their gods makes them so uneasy it only increases the tension among their fellows.
It's not just the Malazans, or humans for that matter, who are preparing for battle. In fact it begins to appear that all who have survived the series to this point are about to converge at the same place and at the same time as the 14th army. Gods from the ancient days of the planet's life are plotting to regain power by attempting to depose those who have replaced them in mankind's pantheon. While their children and grandchildren may have come to ascendancy in other lands, here on this continent, belief in them is still strong enough for them to have the power necessary to strike what could be a blow that not only topples their descendants, but destroys the world. What better vengeance against a population that has begun to reject you is there for a god than destroying the world in which the mortals live?
Does all this sound a little much? Are you confused? Well, if you've not read the previous eight books in the series, or at least some of them, you'll be hard pressed to understand the context of what you're reading and the majority of the plot lines won't make any sense. However, anybody who has been following Erikson from the beginning won't have any trouble keeping pace with events. While some new threads are introduced into the pattern, Dust Of Dreams is primarily populated by familiar faces and names continuing on the paths that Erikson set out for them whenever they first made their presence felt in the series. Whether it's Quick Ben or Fiddler, who we've followed all the way from the first book, or one of the myriad other characters who we've met along the way, their histories are sufficiently well known even if they've not been mentioned for a couple of books we're able to pick up their tale again with ease.
For it's the characters that have made this series so compelling from the onset. Erikson's careful attention to detail when creating the people who play significant roles in this world has ensured the reader will have no problems with continuity. It also means that even at this late stage in the game he is able to introduce new and seemingly unrelated story lines without creating any confusion. In fact those who have received only passing mention before, or who are introduced for the first time, not only play significant roles in helping build the series to its climax, they provide answers to questions that have been left dangling from previous books.
The Malazon Book Of The Fallen has distinguished itself from other epic ventures in the way it has always successfully melded action with thought. Not only is Erikson a master weaver of plots, a creator of fascinating characters, and the possessor of a vivid imagination, his work is far more intellectually stimulating than what you'd expect from the fantasy/sword and sorcery genre. His books raise questions about religion, faith, societal structure, war, human nature, and culture that both treat the subjects with the seriousness they deserve and integrate them seamlessly into the story lines. As a result there's never even the faintest whiff of pontification to be smelt while reading. Dust Of Dreams is no exception to this, as he continues to have his characters pose questions about their circumstances that encourage readers to think more carefully about their own situations without preaching or pretending there is only ever one solution to a problem.
Dust Of Dreams is the second last book in Steven Erikson's epic series The Malazon Book Of The Fallen, and like its predecessors, it's a masterful piece of storytelling. Not only does the author continue to hold our attention throughout the 880-some pages of the book, he does so through his usual admirable mix of action, thought, and humour. For those who've read all of the previous books in the series, this one will not only not disappoint, it will exceed your expectations. For those who've not read any of his other books — you don't know what you've been missing out on. In the future this will be the benchmark against which other epics will be measured.