Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Giving up on Erikson

I gave up on House of Chains last night. My annoyance with various flaws grew to a head, and eventually there came a (minor) 'jump the shark' moment which made me decide to put the book away and never pick it up again. I was about 200 pages from the end of the 1000, but oddly I feel no compunction to carry on. I don't care what happens.

This is a first for me. I fairly often start books but don't finish; usually this is because due to general business I have no time to read for a few days and lose the thread of the story. (I'm sure this happens to everyone.) But on this occasion it was pure and simple dislike for the book. More specifically, the characters.

I've read and enjoyed plenty of books which have unlikeable characters. Many characters in A Song of Ice and Fire are unlikeable, for instance. However, with George R. R. Martin this is clearly by design - and in their very unlikeableness there is a kind of charm and charisma in the characters which makes you interested in them all the same. They're three-dimensional, is why.

Erikson's characters, however, are unlikeable by accident - by which I mean that I think the author is trying to present us with sympathetic and 'cool' people, but they almost universally turn out to be pretentious, insufferable bores - spouting cod philosophy, navel gazing endlessly, uttering supposed profundities, and using words and phrasing which no human being ever uses in conversation if they aren't a precocious teenager trying to impress their English teacher. That would perhaps have been forgiveable if the characters weren't also such ciphers. At almost no stage does the behaviour of any of the cast seem credible as a description of how a human being would behave in the given circumstances. (There are I think two exceptions to this - i.e. two characters who do seem like real people.) Rather, they seem to behave as if totally aware that they are in a fantasy novel and must advance the plot according to the author's predetermined plan.

Erikson's politics also seem to permeate the story to its detriment, in my opinion, which is a cardinal sin. I don't believe this is overt, but it is certainly noticeable if (like me) you don't share his politics. I don't want to have a political debate in the blog, but I'll note that with many of the best fantasy/sf authors whose political views are well known (Gibson, Wolfe, Martin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Le Guin, Heinlein etc.), you could read the books and either not notice the political subtexts (either because the craftsmanship is so good or because the writer is trying their damnest not to express them) or not care (because the story is so gripping and the characters so engaging). The first of these is true of A Song of Ice and Fire - Martin never allows his story to be about anything other than the characters; the second is true of for instance Starship Troopers - the politics are overt but hey, it's still a rip-roaring read whether you agree with them or not. Neither of these things are true of 'The Malazan Book of the Fallen'.

Finally, I have issues with Erikson's tone, which continually seems to be groping for the profound, the weighty, the important. This becomes grating very quickly if you're a fan of writers like Carver, Chandler and Hemingway, like I am.

Nevertheless, my quest for a Good Fantasy Series continues. Yesterday I bought something called Acacia: The War with the Mein on impulse. It's new (2007) but I understand there are to be plenty of sequels. I'll let you know how it goes.


  1. You very definately picked the wrong book to start from. It's a daunting series starting from the beginning, let alone on that particular book. If you get the chance have a look at Ian C Esslemont's "Night of Knives", same universe but different author and different focus. I suggest that as I think it was Erikson's writing style that irritated you most? Esslemont's is rather different.
    Also in your quest for a good fantasy book and/or series, I strongly recommend Patrick Rothfuss - "The Name Of The Wind" and Scott Lynch - "The Lies Of Locke Lamora", followed by "Red Seas under Red Skies". Both have sequels due out towards the end of this year I believe?

  2. Malcuy: Thanks very much for the recommendations.

    Yes, I think it was Erikson's writing style that annoyed me most, although to be frank I also found the setting a bit bland. I must be unusual in this, because I often see the setting trumpeted as being particularly unique and interesting.

    Unfortunately I had to start with House of Chains because my English bookshop (I live near Tokyo) only had it, plus some later books in the series, on sale. As I understand it the first five books or so are pretty self contained anyway?

  3. You STARTED with House of Chains?
    That's like starting the Lord of the Rings with last quarter of the The Two Towers- no wonder you didn't finish it.

    If you want a real introduction you have to start with Gardens of the Moon, or as suggested above "Night of Knives" as it is chronologically the first tale in the setting.

    The first five books introduce the world & while having self-contained stories, they all tie together across the series.

    I've read the entire series thus far & I have to say, I don't get ANY politics from the books that are not sourced by the politics of the setting itself.

    That said if you don't like Ericksons "voice" then you don't like it, too bad as I've found his work some fo the most refreshing in ages.

    I also agree with Malcuy above: Name of the Wind & Lies of Locke Lamora are both quite good.
    Rory, loyal blog reader

  4. I will agree with the other can't start at that point of the series, because normally reading the earlier books you would have been more invested in the setting and characters. Someday give it a shot from Book One and I think it'll go down easier.
    Speaking of politics bleeding through, I just got finished with a pulp detective/crime story book binge (8 books in two weeks), and while every book was quite good, it was extremely annoying to have authors I typically enjoy permeate their books with very lightly veiled jabs at recent political events, even when some of the books were set back in the pulp era of the 30s and 40s. Do they think they are being clever or relevant or what? It's just annoying.

  5. Said it before, will say it again - check out the First Law series by Joe Abercrombie. Rothfuss and Lynch also get high marks.

  6. I have to agree with the other posters here in saying that you should have started with the first book in the series. I too found the setting to be incredibly rich and interesting. Erikson's background in anthropology and archaeology is readily apparent throughout the series thus far.

    Good luck though with Acacia, as I have that on my list of books that I couldn't finish. I got 300 pages in and just gave up, nothing was 300 pages.

  7. Anonymous: I don't mean "politics" in the sense of him being a tory or a liberal (or whatever the parties are in Canada!), just in the sense of his general worldview, which is one I don't share. Anyway it felt grating to me. Thanks for reading the blog, by the way - nice to have loyal readers. :)

    As an aside, the first time I read LOTR I actually did start with the Two Towers!

    Badmike: Yep, it's really annoying.

    As for investment in the characters... well, perhaps it would have been different if I'd started from The Gardens of the Moon, but something tells me the things I really didn't like about these people wouldn't change. Who knows, I might read it someday.

    SKelly: Noted. I'll put it on the list.

    Bill: As I said, I found the setting a bit bland, though all this is a matter of taste of course.

    I'll see how Acacia goes. I read the first chapter last night and it seems okay so far. Ask me again when I'm at the 300 page mark! ;)

  8. Amityville Mike appears to be almost finished with his re-reading of Lieber's Lankhmar stories, you should ask him if you can borrow them. Fritz Lieber is,of course, vastly superior to any living writer.

  9. I've read Lieber. He's good, but not superior to M. John Harrison, Gene Wolfe or GRRM in my opinion!