With his world set up, Erickson is finally free to deliver the full force of his ideas.
Memories of Ice is Book 3 of Steven Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series.
If you have read my reviews of the first two books in this series, then you will have an idea of what is coming. I am a big fan of Steven Erickson’s incredibly, occasionally mind bogglingly, epic fantasy series. I am, without any doubt, enamoured by the sheer effort and the unfathomable planning that must have gone in to develop such an elaborate world from scratch. And this book is no different. When you think you are finally getting to grips with the complexities of this far reaching adventure in to a world literally torn apart by war, Erickson unfurls more characters, more backstory, more Gods, and even more insane, and occasionally stomach churning, action.
After the intermission of Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice takes us back to the ravaged continent of Genabackis, back to the beginning. But not simply back to the beginning in the sense of where Erickson began writing his story, but back to the events that have consequently led the characters and events to this genre shattering tale. The book begins thousands of years before Gardens of the Moon, to a time where Elder Gods have descended to the Earth to bring down a King who has reached far above his position. It takes us to a time when the T’lan Imass were battling the fleeing Jaghut. And while this at first is a perplexing concept, as these are characters we have either seen only fleetingly or not at all, the truth is that these scenes weave a foundation that will echo throughout the whole story.
Once we have been given some insight in to the world as it once was, we are thrust back in to the now. In this case, the now is directly after GotM and parallel to Deadhouse Gates. Dujek and Whiskeyjack now lead the newly outlawed Bridgeburners in to a treaty with their one time enemy Caladan Brood. Together these unlikely allies aim to contend against the threat of the mysterious Pannion Domin and their fanatical followers.
I often hear ‘brutal’ and ‘gritty’ get flung around a lot when describing modern fantasy, but mostly the effect is a crass imitation of what the writer had initially intended. This is definitely not the case with Memories of Ice. There is a scene midway through this novel that depicts a siege on a city by the armies of the Pannion Domin. What we get in this sequence of events is one of the most staggering depictions of the madness and brutality of war that I have ever read. There is a lot of violence in these scenes; violence so graphic that it can often be a demoralising read. But what stands out about the extreme violence is that it is not simply as a means of exploitation. What this violence emphasises is the crippling despair of war and brings out the true idea of heroism. The heroes in this book are not those with the most power, or those with the greatest schemes. No, the heroes in this novel are those at the battle of Capustan who manage to keep hold of their humanity, even if it is only with the very tips of their fingers, while they watch all those close to them slaughtered in the vilest of manners.
Many new characters are introduced in this book, and they are the heroes so heavily inflicted in the battle of Capustan. I thought that, with this going back to Genabackis, we would see a predominance of characters already established. And while they do star at the forefront of this novel, I am happy to say that so too do many of these newcomers. I was a big fan of Gruntle and his somewhat offhand manner towards everything. The necromancers are excellent in their malignance that rides throughout the background of the main story. Seeing the likes of Kallor and Caladan Brood get much more of a role is also a pleasant notion, with Caladan Brood himself becoming one of my favourite characters as we realise the way he carries such earth shattering burden with (mostly) such calm intent. And finally we are introduced to, what I imagine is, the main antagonist of the whole of the series. The Crippled God is somewhat of a background character, but his presence, his influence, and most of all his malice is felt throughout the conspiracies so thickly laden.
Once again, not all characters are such instant winners. Itkovian, while incredible throughout the siege of Capustan, is a tad boring in the slower sections of the novel, and his laments can often be a bit of a burdensome read. Silver Fox often comes across as more annoying than conflicted, and I truly found it hard to understand how such a flawed character could gain such unerring support from the likes of Whiskeyjack and Anomander Rake. Considering she is meant to contain the spirits of three ancient mages, she acts more petulant than anything else. But, honestly, with these possible exceptions, the characterisation in this book is the best of the three novels so far.
Is it all positive? No. There are definitely a few criticisms that I can point out. Firstly, there are often large sections of internal monologue and thought processes that act as a slightly bumbling way of characterisation and exposition. I found these sections to be the most arduous of the whole novel. As with the previous entries in this series, it is not an easy read. It is definitely more accommodating than the others, but this could easily be because I am used to the style of writing, the world that has been set up and the plethora of characters that struggle amongst it. This is a long novel and there are definitely sections that drag on. The main issue with having such an incredible set piece in the middle is that a lot of what follows will be a slow journey as you meander your way to the absolutely thrilling climax.
But these criticisms should not put you off. Erickson has managed to create imagery that far surpasses even the most accomplished CGI you could see in movies. His characters are real. They are flawed, but not to the extent that you cannot find yourself rooting for them. And, most of all, they emphasise the true meaning of heroism. Something that I have rarely seen in books of this ilk. So far, this is my favourite in the series, and I honestly struggle to think of many fantasy novels that can surpass it.