So I finished book six of The Malazan Book of the Fallen (The Bonehunters) a while ago. It was pretty good--it opened with a very strong set-piece involving a city siege and then a desperate escape from said city once it caught on fire, which, unusually for this series, was an unbroken sequence a few hundred pages long. After that a lot happened, but I really should have written about it right after finishing, because now I don't remember a lot of it. There was a definite "middle of series" feel, in that a lot of what happened, while interesting, was mainly interesting because of what it set up to happen in (hopefully) the next book. For example: two of the most interesting characters have been set on what appears to be a collision course which can only end in an epic battle, but as of this book they're both still traveling. I'm almost ready to pick up the next book.
Meanwhile, I've been reading a lot of other things. I read three books by James Enge about the character Morlock Ambrosius, son of Merlin, and they are amazing and delightful. I love Enge's writing style--he's a professor of classics, and I think I can see something in his style of, well, those classics--stripped down and yet seeded with wild images. The books are also funny, dark, and completely unpredictable. I also read three books by Leo Perutz, about whom I learned from a comment in a thread about historical fiction on some forum or other. Awesome writer. I recommend in particular "The Marquis of Bolibar," though all I've read have been worthwhile. Short, dark/beautiful, and idiosyncratic. Also, of course, how could I forget A Dance With Dragons, which was great, and Lev Grossman's The Magician King, which I thought was also great. The second Fantomas novel, on the other hand, was not great, though it was sublime in its own way.
I am halfway done reading The Malazan Book of the Fallen. What strikes me: how a tricky medium the long-form fantasy novel must be. To do well. To finish before dying of old age. The tricky part being, I assume, since I haven't written one myself, to make the earlier volumes talk to the later, and not just the later volumes to the former. It's the difference between writing one long, complex story and just a bunch of books with the same setting. Erikson's story is maybe too complicated, but I love it for that. It keeps doubling back, filling in the gaps, showing what was happening over there while this was happening right here. This volume (the fifth) I would have to say is my favorite so far. It's very funny in places, despite having a kind of doom written over it; we know from events in the last book that the whole setting (a kind of splinter off the main world of the previous books) will be destroyed. And still we laugh at the antics of its gods and monsters and heroes and villains, a fake world within a fake world...
This is the fourth book in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. I really like this series, though what it offers is a bit different than most books I tend to love. Specifically, the prose is fine rather than great. Plot, for me, is more or less irrelevant to whether I like a book, and so I could take or leave Erikson's, which is your normal fat-fantasy "epic." I like his characters, particularly when he places sympathetic ones on different sides of a conflict. I think he has a great sense of humor. The way magic works in his world is weird and all but inexplicable--world-spanning "warrens," like a complex circulatory system, which can be travelled through, sometimes, or can be a source of power--which feels right. But what's best about this series is the sense of scale. By the fourth book the reader is just starting to lock down what tangled political acts happened between the prologue of the first book and the current action, and with every volume, millennia of past history are unrolled. Ancient races and their alien motives and magics are shown to have had fundamentally important effects on the world. One ancient race's warren of ice scoured the peat and prairie warren of another race, mimicking the actions of glaciers in our history. Thousands of years worth of old mistakes and resentments are coming back to haunt the world. Characters are being slotted into the "Deck of Dragons"--a sort of living tarot deck that's a map of ascendant powers--sometimes against their will, which probably isn't a good thing for their hopeful masters...
If all this sounds a bit too complicated, well, it probably is, but that's a great part of its charm.
Oh, I also read a handful of other books between volumes 3 and 4. Most notably, The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. I should have set aside a few paragraphs to write about it. I consider it brilliant. If Erikson's muted awesomeness is in the long form (a serial drama that draws you in despite being on VHS), Rajaniemi's is compressed like diamonds, the first movie I ever saw on an HD screen. A confection of glittering science fiction. "Sense of wonder" sparking off every page. There's a cool system of economics based on time. There's a detective, and a character modeled on Arsene Lupin. And some literal confections, inside a chocolate shop on Mars.
The third book in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. I don't know about you, but I like this series more and more. Like book two, it's less almost... wacky than the first book, but again, it's better. It's super grim. War is terrible, for either side, no matter who wins. Seems almost silly, put that way, but there's no glory to be found in the battles here. Cannibal metaphors made literal--one of fantasy's strong suits. (The literal, not the cannibal.) "Comic relief" characters have never been so necessary as in this book. Fortunately Erikson's are very funny. And of course much more than just comic relief. I'm still impressed with the writing, which is amazingly good considering how quickly it must have been written. These are notably long books, and he's written ten of them in thirteen years.
Finished the next draft of my novel Cuculo yesterday. It's still a bit underdeveloped, but I think I have all the main parts in there now, in roughly the correct order. If I had to guess I'd say maybe 2/3 was newly written, with the remaining 1/3 adapted from the last draft. I guess you could compare that last draft to paleontologists' first renderings of the Iguanadon--you know, where they thought it had a giant nose horn. In this draft I stripped the flesh and figured out where those spikes actually needed to go--as thumbs. So to speak. I'm now gladly putting it back in the drawer for a few months while I work on other projects, and then I'll reclothe the somewhat bare parts in flesh.
Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich Kleist. Kohlhaas is a 16th-century horse trader who suffers an injustice at the hands of a land-owning knight. He labors for months to have this injustice rectified through the legal system, but the knight's relatives have Kohlhaas's suits thrown out at every turn. Kohlhaas decides to take his justice by the force of arms. Martin Luther intervenes, and things start to get Kafkaesque. (Though I suppose we shoud actually say that Kafka is Kleistian.) One thing I love about this novella is the tone, which is completely deadpan even as the violence and intrigue escalate to a ludicrous degree.
The Translation of Father Torturo by Brendan Connell. Xaviero Torturo is a sociopathic priest who wants to be pope. His escapades--in an Italy that's a mixture between that found in a giallo thriller and a steaming, lurid gothic--are quite perverse. The details, or the "local color", are all lovely, the shades of the rivers, the sidewalks, the funicular ride on the way to Slovenia. I was also quite amused (once I looked it up) by the idea of a pope who would name himself Lando II.
The Other Side of the Mountain by Michel Bernanos. To be honest this is hardly a Europe at all, since the narrator has signed onto a galleon by the first sentence. It's more of a European nightmare. The galleon is sailing to "look for gold in Peru for the Spaniards," a somewhat vague quest, to be sure--a nightmare of colonialism gone awry? Where they finally arrive is nowhere so normal as Peru. I quite like the writing, which is clear as crystal and very evocative of horrible wonders. I think it's the prose equivalent of a Dali painting, though I might be wrong.
This is the second book in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series. It's more straightforward than the first volume, moves with a surer pace, and has a more even tone--which in a way is too bad, since it lacks the almost wild unpredictability of the first volume. I think by most measures though it's a better book. It's certainly a darker book. There are a few flashes of humor here and there (including one character who speaks his devious asides out loud in full hearing of the people he's trying to trick; their exasperation is quite funny) but mainly this is a book of grim darkness. What's clever is the way the reader's sympathy keeps being twisted around. There's an empire--boo, I hate imperialism! There's a disreputable genius Imperial general--but the corrupt establishment hates him, so many he's not so bad! He's protecting refugees--better and better! But he's protecting them from freedom fighters who just want their lands back--huh. Though some of the freedom fighters are actually traitors falling in with what they assume will be the winning side--hmm. And among the refugees are odious nobles who keep almost messing up the general's plans to save them all--hrm. Actually, my sympathies weren't conflicted at all about the nobles. They were a rotten bunch.
This book is 19th-century Scottish writer James Hogg's sole remaining claim to fame. It's a good one, too, kind of a mixture of a religious satire and a gothic. The story is about a young man who is raised to believe that since he is one of the "elect" there won't be any ill effects if he sins. Unfortunately this leaves him vulnerable to demons, one of which persuades him that he should become a holy assassin, murdering such deviants as ministers who teach the blasphemy that good works are the route to salvation. And his brother. And his father. Or maybe the demon doesn't exist at all. It's a bit ambiguous that way--the book has an interesting format, with a long introduction (80 pages) purporting to be historical, which lays out most of the story, followed by slightly longer section of "memoir", and of course there are discrepancies between the two versions.