Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson

(2008-06-30)

  

It all begins with the ending. This review of Toll the Hounds was, up until reading the last 300 pages, going to be about whether the early negative elements had made this one of the weaker books in the series. Then four hours disappeared in a heartbeat and the words now fail to adequately convey how absolutely draining reading the last third of the book is.

After another gorgeous cover, simply looking at the three page cast list, dramatis personae, is enough to give any fan goose-bumps. It's a who’s-who of the Malazan books, suggesting a meeting of characters so powerful as to shake the pantheon. It does not disappoint.

None of this is evident from the start however. Beginning with one of Erikson’s regularly mysterious prologues, which you may have read here, a major staging ground for the unfolding events is revealed as Dragnipur, the feared sword of Draconus now wielded by Anomander Rake. Chaos is almost upon the gate of Darkness and those drawing the wagon can go no further, some small hope however lies in a meeting of Gods, strange bedfellows whose plan is reliant on many more miracles than they have the right to grant. From this intriguing opening, events pass between the two cities that constitute the majority of the book, Black Coral and Darujhistan.

Darujhistan is the nexus for the events of Toll the Hounds, the focus point for a convergence of such staggering proportions as to rock the very world that Erikson has created. Crokus Younghand, now the heartbroken Cutter, returns home to a very different city from the one he left. There are Bridgeburners running Krul’s Bar, unsavoury types on the Council with ties to the younger Crokus that the older version cannot avoid. There are Gods and doomed warriors, ascendants, supposedly dead men and far too many hounds converging all in the hopes of claiming a singular prize. First though, we are reconciled with the state of the city last seen in Memories of Ice, showing us previously unfinished threads that for the most part come to deadly ends. It is fair to say that had this book been entitled Reaper’s Gale it wouldn’t have been misnamed.

Although it is enjoyable to look in once more on Murilio, Coll, Antsy, Blend, Picker and others, including a few notable returns, there will undoubtedly be an urgency within the reader to get down to brass tacks. Only two books remain after this one and yet there is no initial rush to begin an ending, instead it seems to be symptomatic of juggling so many storylines and the amount of time between revisiting them, that Erikson employs a go-slow start to proceedings. It is however somewhat fitting given the nature of the characters involved, particularly the inhabitants of Black Coral.

Despite being a central figure to the story from the very beginning (can anyone forget Moon Spawn’s appearance in Gardens of the Moon?) it is only in this the eighth book of the series that Anomander Rake truly comes into his own. With large sections of this book dedicated to Black Coral (the city of the Pannion Domin besieged by the armies of Calandan Brood and the Malazans in Memories of Ice, now enveloped in the Darkness of the Tiste Andii) Erikson at last explores the reasons why Mother Dark turned away from her children and the centuries long planning of Rake to change her mind. In doing so we also learn much more about the seemingly pathetic group of Rake’s descendants lead by Nimander and their journey with Clip, which surprisingly is one of the most enjoyable threads in the book, filling in detail that was perhaps lacking from our meetings with them in The Bonehunters and Reaper's Gale.

Of course Erikson’s dealing with such issues is suitably oblique, we view the Son of Darkness not directly, but through the eyes of two new Tiste Andii characters, Endest Silann and Spinnock Durav. Both have known Rake for centuries and Endest Silann can track their relationship back to the First City of Darkness, Kharkanas, on another world. Both characters have pivotal roles in the book that are multi-faceted and although not immediately relevant make for an interesting insight into Andii society, particularly in their constant belief and worship of an, even to them, unfathomable Rake.

Surprisingly for a book with Kruppe supposedly to the fore, his appearances are limited and an end ‘confrontation’ with a similar character for comedic value falls flat. This ties in to the negative elements of the book because it is easy to dislike the over use of Kruppe's diction in the narrative, a desire to skip descriptions and asides only avoided by the constant experience that Steven Erikson will throw gems of information into the clutter. There also appears to be a heavy reliance on convergence as a repetitive device to drive the series and, despite the breath-taking ending, it seems in retrospect a little too neat and excessive.

Disappointingly there are, like Reaper’s Gale, a few throwaway deaths that despite being consistent with the world; merited more than a single sentence with no seeming after effects on the people close to them.

Lastly anyone expecting to see something remotely approaching an ending is in for a let down. If anything, more pieces are added to the board than taken away and some of these new characters add multiple factors of questions to the already bewildering list.

On the plus side; however, the book offers many interesting points for discussion. Elder Gods involved with plans within plans, the arrival of old powers, momentous events from the past and a feeling that Darujhistan has not yet faced the worst of it. There are also several small and not-so-small gems of information that will have you thinking all kinds of crazed theories. Resolution for many of the supporting cast is guaranteed, from Barathol to Stonny there is a feeling that most of the minor threads in this area of the series are finished, or close to, so that the main players will be unfettered for the finale.

If the ending of Toll the Hounds is any indication of what they may be like, then hold on tight because as the pace of the narrative quickens toward the end, Erikson excels in guiding so many threads into a series of confrontations and revelations that will stun fans. The ending is a spell-binding lunge toward a climactic encounter that turns the whole world and indeed those beyond on its head, themes of sacrifice and redemption mixed with loyalty and heart-breaking sorrow scar each and every character. It is the very epic nature of the work defined, redeeming what could have been a misstep into a wonderful look at what hopefully awaits us over the last two thousand or so pages. Savour all of it, even the negatives, because there isn’t long left.

Reviewed by Owen Jones © 2008

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