The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

(2006-05-14)

  Bantam Press Hardcover 2006.

The Bonehunters is the sixth tale in Canadian author Steven Erikson's ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen, an epic fantasy series inspired by The Iliad and Napoleon's Book of the Fallen. Chronicling an empire's conquest in a world filled with magic and bloodshed, the series is both grand in scope and gritty in detail, depicting the plots of gods and emperors and their impact upon the soldiers, assassins, and common people of this world.

Or so I gather from what I have read so far.

I am an Erikson neophyte, never having read any of his work before The Bonehunters. One may wonder what type of review can be written for the sixth book in a series when the reviewer has not read the first five books. It is doubtful that an unfavorable review would dissuade readers who have read and enjoyed the first five volumes from continuing the series. Nor is it likely that a favorable review would bring back to the series those readers who have read and did not enjoy earlier installments. However, Bantam Press promotes The Bonehunters as the sixth chapter in a series of stand-alone tales. This review will therefore address the book as a stand-alone story. Hopefully fans of this series will find a newcomer's perspective on this book to be interesting as well.

The Malazan Army has conquered most of the subcontinent of the Seven Cities, and now pursues the remnants of the defeated rebel army. A once-unstoppable warrior with a forgotten past travels with a companion who has misgivings about his duty to help this warrior rediscover his terrible potential. A woman conscripted by the god of assassins to conduct a series of killings encounters two strange and mischievous spirits. Another group of travelers makes its way to a far-off island for a purpose known only to one of the travelers, a priest who possesses (or is possessed by?) a mysterious power. A witch and a Herculean warrior investigate the mass killing of an entire religious order. An army of children, led by a handful of warriors from an elder race of beings, defends a throne of power against a powerful invading army. These are just some of the stories one encounters in The Bonehunters.

Erikson has created a complex world brimming with history and filled with a variety of realistic and well-developed characters. Forgotten empires and cities, elder and younger races, a system of magic based upon alternate plains of existence called "warrens", technological levels varying wildly from primitive to medieval to futuristic, and an ever-changing pantheon connected to a deck of playing cards, this world possesses many of epic fantasy's most familiar elements while adding some very unique twists. There is a pervasive sense of expansiveness and near-discovery in The Bonehunters that compels the reader onward in a state of perpetually dawning comprehension with each new development.

Plunging headfirst into this complex interweave of stories, I was both aided and hindered by Erikson's writing, which combines tight, effective characterization with fast-paced narration that switches scenes often enough to satisfy those with even the shortest of attention spans (an exception is one rather long, but very intense, chapter late in the book's first half). While this plotline peregrination enabled me to become familiar with the story's large cast of characters quickly, it took some time to grasp firmly each of the story's many threads. However, once I had done so, I found The Bonehunters to be an exciting, insightful and truly epic experience. Action, intrigue, mystery, in-depth character development, philosophical discourse, humor, jaw-dropping moments of wonder - what else can one ask for in an epic fantasy? I thoroughly enjoyed The Bonehunters and can confidently say that is worthwhile reading.

However, it would be inaccurate to call this a stand-alone story. The Bonehunters is composed of several different plot threads that run independently, touch upon each other, join, or split, but never coalesce into one story. Furthermore, all of the plot threads were open-ended.  When I finished the book it was unclear whether there was closure in any of them and what significance may be attached to the events that occurred. This was because: 1) the events in the story seemed to have begun before I began reading and there was no expository recap, 2) I felt that I was missing important information about the principal characters revealed in prior volumes, and 3) the plot threads' denouements left more questions than answers, presumably to be answered in book seven. In short, The Bonehunters reads like a middle portion of a much larger story.

I had some other minor problems with The Bonehunters aside from the issue of serialization.

There were several instances in The Bonehunters where it appears that major characters die only to be saved through magical healing. In one instance, a handful of characters apparently die, but then several passages later all but one of them are completely healed (which in turn calls into question whether the one who does die will remain dead). This is especially a problem at the end of the book, where a major character's death seems certain but for the above-mentioned miraculous healing (not to mention divine intervention) possible in this world. These non-deaths gave me the impression that the author wanted the dramatic impact of the death of an important character while at the same time wanted to keep that character in the story. Such a plot device should be used sparingly, as repeated use will diminish a reader's concern for the story's characters when they face danger.

Erikson can also be maddening in his viewpoint selectivity. Erikson tells the story through third person limited omniscient perspective, and the viewpoints are primarily restricted to those who do not know what is going on (in particular the grunts from the Malazans' famed Fourteenth Army), and the reader shares the characters' surprise at new developments and frustration at being unable to find out what other, more powerful, characters are thinking. Erikson does occasionally invite the reader into the minds of characters who do possess information integral to the plot, but then he withholds said information from the reader (most notably the identity of the assassin Apsalar's last target). Lastly, for all that Erikson does reveal, much more remains a mystery. I am still in the dark as to the motivations of Adjunct Tavore, the most influential character in the Fourteenth Army's plot thread. Not to be able to get inside an important character's head is one thing, never to know what was in the character's head is another. Perhaps Tavore's secrets will be revealed in the next volume, in which case it can be chalked up as another argument that The Bonehunters is not a stand-alone tale.

As such, I recommend this book with reservations, and would suggest that readers instead consider starting with Gardens of the Moon, the first book of the series. Lost as I was through much of The Bonehunters, the story was so gripping, the characters so engaging, and the world so immersive that I want to go back to the beginning to learn more. If The Bonehunters is any accurate indication, Erikson has a talent for writing epic fantasy, and is sufficiently skilled a storyteller to have kept at least one reader enthralled through a very long, open-ended portion of the story he is telling. I can only hope that both beginning and end prove as satisfying as the middle.

Arthur Bangs

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