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Now this is epic fantasy. While I haven't become as besotted with the work of Steven Erikson as a great many other readers, I've remained enormously intrigued by his creative fearlessness and the seemingly bottomless well of energy he uses in building his monstrous Malazan Book of the Fallen series. A ten-volume sequence of phone-book sized epics recounting the ongoing wars and conflicts between the nations, wizards, and gods within and without the embattled Malazan Empire, Erikson's work has entered a class by itself. He isn't a writer to trade in the same old hoary genre clichés, and his approach to the material reflects the years of expertise he's built up as an archaeologist and anthropologist. In other words, he's fantasy's anti-Terry Brooks. (Brooks' career famously rests on little more than having read Tolkien at an impressionable age and wishing he'd written it...so he did.)

However, Erikson's lack of background as a novelist prior to essaying the Malazan series means his early work is extremely difficult and often ignores many of the narrative strategies common to good novel writing. His establishment of character was very sloppy in Gardens of the Moon, and there are so many layers — too many, really — to the work that reading it becomes a real chore to anyone who isn't already doe-eyed over the idea of world-building for world-building's sake. Still, once Gardens slid into its groove, it began to deliver some powerful storytelling and unforgettable setpieces, demonstrating that in Erikson, fantasy had a new writer of uncompromising vision and ambition. And it was up to all of us to catch up.

Memories of Ice, the third volume, is, up to this point, the strongest (and longest) entry in the saga. It shows particular improvement in Erikson's skill at plotting. Though there are no fewer characters and story threads in play than before, this time, for the first time, everything coheres into a (mostly) smooth narrative. This is a big step up from Deadhouse Gates, which flung readers all over the place like a wrestler on performance-enhancement drugs. Yes, like the other volumes, Memories of Ice quite frequently feels like it just goes on f-o-r-e-v-e-r. But once it reaches its destination, it has delivered on its promises. It features Erikson's very best handling of character to date, and the story's longueurs are offset by two extraordinary battle sequences, a spry sense of humor that seems to have popped out of nowhere, and a genuine reflection of the awe that is evoked by the pageant of history. I suppose it would take an archaeologist to pull off a story about a civilization getting rid of 300,000 years of baggage.

Memories returns readers to the wartorn continent of Genabackis, where the series began. High Fist Dujek Onearm, leader of the invading Malazan armies, now turned renegade, has allied with his former foe, Caladan Brood, to confront a new threat to the far south. The frighteningly aggressive Pannion Domin, led by their fanatical priest-king the Pannion Seer, are moving north. Their vast armies include the Tenescowri, a peasant rabble maddened by famine and the Seer's diabolical influence, who practice ritualized cannibalism and necrophilia!

Joining the fray are many familiar faces from Gardens, who, thanks to Erikson's improving skills, become much more sympathetic and three-dimensional people this time. Whiskeyjack, leader of the the elite Malazan fighting squadron the Bridgeburners, features prominently, as does Ganoes Paran, the noble-born captain striving both to live down the stigma of his high birth and live up to the expectations of his soldiers. A host of new players enter the stage as well. In the coastal city of Capustan, soon to be beseiged by the Pannion armies, we meet Itkovian, a soldier dedicated to the service of the god Fener, upon whom an impossible responsibility will soon be thrust. Also introduced are a pair of necromancers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, whom we are first led to believe will be rather nasty villains but who soon settle into a kind of off-kilter comic relief. There are many more, too many for a review synopsis (and even while reading the book, I found it helpful to consult the dramatis personae frequently), but most of whom end up making a profound impression.

It appears that the Pannion invasion is but a feint in a much larger war, a war between the Elder Gods themselves, going back hundreds of millennia. In the distant past, an effort on the part of the elder race the Tiste Andii to counter the ravages of a despot led to the summoning of an Ascendant of unknown origin. Now chained deep within a magical warren, the being now known as the Crippled God threatens the very existence of the world itself, as its presence is poisoning the Sleeping Goddess of the Earth. The final battle between the Pannion Domin and the fragile allied armies of Genabackis will decide more than the fate of a few cities.

It's safe to say that the mid-novel scenes depicting the siege of Capustan and the last stand of its defenders against hundreds of thousands of psychotically murderous cannibal warriors represent perhaps the most staggering battle sequence in all modern fantasy. It isn't just due to the violence, which is off the charts. Terry Goodkind is plenty violent. But Goodkind's goal with graphic violence is mostly just exploitation, while Erikson manages to communicate the crushing despair that emerges from the tragic waste of war. Likewise, heroism in war isn't about who can slaughter whom most efficiently as it is about who, in the midst of incalculable brutality and madness, can hold onto those precious commodities called humanity and compassion.

Do I have criticisms? Sure I do. One problem with having such a powerful action sequence halfway through a 900-page book is that the story feels like it peaks too early. For a couple hundred pages following the entire Capustan sequence, Memories settles into reams and reams of exposition in which we're given ample information about the involvement of the various gods, Ascendants, magical warrens, and elder races in the present conflict. It's remarkably intricate stuff, occasionally bewildering, but also quite punishing to read at times. Erikson has not, it would seem, let go of all of his indulgences just yet. And while nothing is as labor-intensive for readers to follow here as it has been in previous volumes, there were times a more detailed glossary than what we're given in the back of the book would have been a help. A sterner editor, I think, could have gotten Erikson to shave much of the book's second half by several thousand words, and not lost any meaningful content.

But Erikson rallies for a bravura finish that handily proves there's nothing like a writer with a blazingly fecund imagination to trump every special effects artist in the house for sheer spectacle. As this colossal tome winds down, it's a pleasant surprise just how close we've become to the story's heroes. Better background, such as the scene explaining the Bridgeburners' origins, gives Erikson's character development a dimension it's never had before. And I particularly enjoyed Erikson's treatment of the relationship between his people and their gods, which plainly shows the influence of his background in the antiquities. Even more than the Greeks and their testy Olympian deities, the heroes of Erikson's world consult, entreat, argue with, and even revere their gods, but they aren't especially in awe of them. When someone's particularly pissed off, he might even draw his sword on one. This is a frought world, where everybody — mortal and immortal alike — is in the soup together!

While he steadfastly remains a writer on the "Not For Everyone" list, Steven Erikson is one of the genre's most admirable and distinguished talents. Whatever the ups and downs of his books, the fact that he has the stubborn integrity to forge his own path and not follow in the footsteps of others makes him a writer to be reckoned with. He's a demanding storyteller for demanding readers. And if he isn't willing to make the going easy either for you or for himself, then it's all to his credit in the end.

Followed by House of Chains.