Karsa Orlong is a Teblor youth, a member of a savage tribe intent on glory. He leads two other tribe members on a quest beyond the tribal homeland to strike a glorious blow at the hated lowlanders. This initial 150 pages or so is beautifully written and totally immersive, a feat of world building. Erikson creates a multi-faceted culture whose history and worldview tie it, on many levels, to the greater conflicts in the series. Not only that, but Karsa Orlong is a fabulously drawn character. By degrees, Erikson takes us from disdain and disgust at the cruel and arrogant chauvinism and bravado Karsa displays, to finding ourselves rooting for his utter determination. As our opinions of him transform, Karsa Orlong begins to reenvision himself. If the entire Malazan Book of the Fallen series was written in this style, and followed individual characters this closely, I would adore this series. However, Karsa Orlong is swept up in the chaotic tides of a story so sprawling it defies coherency.
In contrast to that stellar character portrait are a host of redundant minor players who crowd the stage and blur together. I don’t care about Febryl or Leoman of the Flails. The byzantine politics of the oasis felt like I was reading a list. I would much rather have spent more time exploring Onrack’s relationship with Trull Sengar and his backstory with Kilava and the Whirlwind goddess. The internecine strife within the rebel army just felt a bit overcomplicated and contrived. Everybody wanted to kill everybody. Everybody had a secret, and they were all hanging by a thread. It just didn’t work for me. It was basically the second book in the series about all of this squabbling without any sense of progress.
The ending of House of Chains is characterized by the total lack of emotional stakes. There is a frenzy of bloodshed in which characters are killed off seemingly at random, with no regard for the conflicts that have been established in the previous 2,000-3,000 pages. The conflict between Felisin and Tavore in particular, is the literal personification of the larger conflict between the Malazan’s and rebels, furthermore, Felisin’s broken nature marks her as a representative of the House of Chains, while Tavore’s imperial allegiance puts her tangentially in allegiance with the House of Shadows. With all the investment Erickson put into these characters, having absolutely no personal resolution to their conflict is mind-boggling. The only way it makes sense to me is if he is keeping this confrontation in reserve for a latter book. But, personally, I can’t imagine a better place for this than at the end of the book that largely revolves around that very conflict.
House of Chains is different from the preceding novels in style and execution. While I was deeply disappointed with the anticlimactic ending, much of the book was still mysterious and engaging. Erikson is undeniably one of the greats. Still, while I’m sure many a Malazan diehard will disagree, this one nearly soured me on the rest of the series. The downside of taking it on faith that all of the confusion will pay off in the end, is the disillusionment when it does not. I’ve enjoyed most of the narrative enough to keep plowing through, but my faith is now tempered with a healthy skepticism. 3.5/5