In Northern Genabackis, a raiding party of savage tribal warriors descends from the mountains into the southern flat lands. Their intention is to wreak havoc amongst the despised lowlanders, but for the one named Karsa Orlong it marks the beginning of what will prove an extraordinary destiny.
Some years later, it is the aftermath of the Chain of Dogs. Tavore, the new Adjunct to the Empress, has arrived in the last remaining Malazan stronghold on Seven Cities. New to command, she must hone twelve thousand soldiers, mostly raw recruits but for a handful of veterans of Coltaine’s legendary march, into a force capable of challenging the massed horde of Sha’ik’s whirlwind who lie in wait at the heart of the Holy Desert.
But waiting is never easy. The seer’s warlords are locked in a power struggle that threatens the very soul of the rebellion, while Sha’ik herself suffers, haunted by the knowledge of her nemesis: her own sister, Tavore.
House of Chains is book four of the Malazan Book of the Fallen and the fifth book in the Malazan Reread. This review is way behind though, as by the time this will go live, we’ll probably have finished the next book, Midnight Tides as well. House of Chains is very different from the previous three books. It starts with a section dedicated to Karsa Orlong, who is to say it mildly not a pleasant character. After this first part we return to the more familiar switching view points. I found it refreshing that Erikson wasn’t afraid to experiment in his writing and his build up of the novel. However, because Karsa isn’t that likeable to start with, I had a hard time connecting to him and it took me a while to find my feet in the book. Luckily, Karsa undergoes a lot of character growth and isn’t as abhorrent any more in later chapters, which made finding my feet much easier.
In House of Chains we also reunite with some of the characters from Deadhouse Gates and we see some of the few remaining Bridgeburners appear as well. It was good to return to these characters and meet new ones. There are some awesome new additions, such as Cuttle and the rest of Fiddler’s new squad, Felisin Younger, Greyfrog, Onrack and Trull. With the returning characters especially those who had been caught up in the Chain of Dogs, but in Fiddler too, Erikson manages to show how much damage trauma and loss can do, but also how well some people can cope with said damage. Forged in the fires of adversity – how’s that for an understatement – some of these people turn out to have cores of steel, such as Captain Keneb, Temul and Fiddler, others turn brittle and can break under pressure, such as Fist Gamet, the Wickan sorcerors Nether and Nil, and Felisin the Elder. His characterisations are magnificent and you come to feel for all of them. If Erikson’s good guys are strong characters, his villains are even better. There are few writers who can get me to dislike characters as intensely as Erikson can. Among the Malazans these were few this time, though Captain Ranal made my blood boil with his stupid arrogance. Among Sha’ik’s adherents though, these dislikeable characters were far more numerous; starting with the lesser evils of Kamist Reloe, Febryl, Silgar, and Korbolo Dom and ending with the despicable Bidithal. Oh, how I hated Bidithal! This might be mostly caused by his predilection for abusing young girls and female genital mutilation, which as a female and as the mother of one (soon to be two) daughters offends and disturbs me to no end, but he’s a treacherous and selfish creature as well.
The main arc of the novel deals with the impending clash between Tavore’s forces and Sha’ik’s army, but there are some interesting side stories as well. Of course, there is the rather long introduction of Karsa, mentioned above, but there is also Tavore’s journey to the heart of Raraku, which mirrors the path of the Chain of Dogs, the forming and forging of the 8th Legion, the meeting and bonding of Onrack and Trull, the Tiste Liosan make an appearance and of course the deceit and treachery within Sha’ik’s camp and that is just what I can remember off the top of my head. Of all of these, I loved Karsa’s story and the story of the 8th Legion the most. Karsa’s because Erikson managed to actually make me like the bastard by the end of his introduction and the 8th Legion’s story, because I just love the Malazan army sequences. From the end of Karsa’s introduction onwards, there is a building to the climax of the battle between the Malazans and the Rebellion. Depending on your point of view the final confrontation in the book is either hugely disappointing or genius. I myself will go with genius, since again Erikson shows he isn’t afraid to go against expectations and that the course history often turns on the smallest of actions.
House of Chains was another stunning addition to the Malazan Book of the Fallen. There is a lot of discussion whether this book is actually a transition between the first three books and the books that make up the rest of the series, as the first three books form a sort of cohesive whole and apparently so do the latter six books. Since I haven’t read beyond book five, which I’m currently reading for the first time, I can see that House of Chains strikes out in a new direction from the first three books and I’m curious to see where I’ll find myself in this discussion once I’ve finished the final book in the series. For now though, I can only say that if you haven’t been reading this series, you’re missing out. It is one of the best (finished!) fantasy series out there today!