Fifteen days and 784 pages later, with some of the tiniest font I have seen, I finished what is probably one of the finest fantasy novels I have ever read. Third in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, Memories of Ice is considered by many fans of the series to be the finest of them. I understand that claim now, and though I have only read the first three, I am in agreement. I’m not sure that these books are review-able. I say that because the scope of each, not even taking into account the overarching narrative at play in the series, is too much to encompass in what amounts to a long blurb. All I can do is gush with words about how I feel.
For the uninitiated, the Malazan series checks off all the really good fantasy tropes. There are dragons, gods and demigods of unknowable strength and intent, magical swords of immense power, a multitude of varied races that are mostly humanoid in appearance, ancient, mysterious civilizations, magic that makes no sense but that is incredible, and snarky soldiers who make jokes and then die on the next page. That last one may be slightly more unique to Malazan than the others, but you get the idea. What Steven Erikson does differently is that he amplifies many of these things to an extreme seen nowhere else in fantasy. He is also the father of what is known as grimdark fantasy, and while I doubt he is the first to explore the darker side of human nature, he is probably the master of it. Malazan is nothing but shades of grey, with the hue mostly bending towards black. The truly good characters in these novels are incredibly rare and almost mythic in their nature. They also tend to die.
One of the tenants of Erikson’s writing, and it could be said that he is the master of this, is his ability to weave together multiple narratives and have them all come together without a reader being aware of their proximity or relativity to one another, in a way that leaves eyes wide and jaws ajar. Memories of Ice is of the best in that it does this so much better than in the previous two entries. This is not to say that Gardens of the Moon or Deadhouse Gates did this poorly. Far from it, but in Memories, things come together so deafeningly that by the end I am sprawled out on the floor of my living room gasping for air and trying to find the book that fell from my trembling fingers. I exaggerate, but that is not far from the truth.
Another reason that Memories succeeds is that the book is about the Bridgeburners, a squad of Malazan infantry that stars in the first book but who is largely absent in the second due to the events of Deadhouse Gates happening alongside those of Memories. Fans of Glen Cook will recognize influences in the Bridgeburners, who stand alongside the Black Company as some of the most lovable misfits in fantasy fiction. They’re all insane, and led by a man named Whiskeyjack who, like any good father, tolerates and loves his weird children with a raised eyebrow. They are also one of the finest fighting forces in the world, and they are tested in Memories as never before. That the Bridgeburners will likely not be in any subsequent novels saddens me, though I feel that they will have a predecessor company to fill their shoes.
In brief, Memories of Ice is the tale of two sieges. Capustan and Coral have been captured by a religious zealot called the Pannion Seer whose army survives by eating its enemies. This is the grimdark part. It does not pull any punches and dives into the worst elements and potentials of human nature. The siege of Capustan is the tale of a horde overwhelming the defense and of a ragtag band of mercenaries and conscripts who manage the impossible. The siege of Coral reads more like the siege of Minas Tirith, but with plenty of secret surprises thrown in: the odds are more fair, but nothing ever goes to plan. There is something romantic about siege warfare. I have always enjoyed reading about it in books like Return of the King and Druss, and loved playing games where sieges played an important role. Some of my favorite memories involve defending castles in Dark Age of Camelot. Memories of Ice stands up there with the best and offers us viewpoints on both the besieged and those battering down the walls.
Aside from the Malazans, new characters are introduced in Memories that I hope will live on in the series. Gruntle, a name I never would have dreamed up but that somehow seems to work for the character, has a story arc that is fascinating to follow. He transforms, quite literally at one point, and though he is the same cynical mercenary in the end that he was in the beginning, he changes in important enough ways to make the journey worthwhile. His frenemy, Stonny Menackis, is also a character who I expect to see more from as there are several scenes where it is hinted that she may evolve into something bigger. Their vicious banter is a highlight of the story. Itkovian is another superstar of the book, and stands out as one of the most noble and self-sacrificing characters in Malazan history. Itkovian is a white character, without a doubt, and his is a story of redemption, not of himself but of those he comes into contact with. If a Christ character could be said to exist within the world of Malaz, Itkovian fits that mold. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, weird and mysterious sorcerers whose purpose is never made clear but who are delightful to read about every time they appear on the page. They are villains, but really likable ones (much like Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Neverwhere, disgusting but fun).
The world of Malaz stands out in the fantasy genre, even if it is one of those series that people either love or hate. The writing is dense, the vocabulary often odd enough that a dictionary is required to even verify if a world is real, and there are more characters to keep track of than in Game of Thrones, but if you can dive down into that morass of complication, this is truly one of the most rewarding pieces of literature to swim around in. There is not a question of me continuing the series. Rather, it’s recharging enough to withstand another entry because they beat you up and leave you stumbling around in a daze every time.