Being the fourth entry in Steven Erikson’s sprawling series THE MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN, House of Chains continues with the storyline first started in Deadhouse Gates and somewhat loosely with the repercussions of the explosive climax to Memories of Ice. I won’t bother trying to summarize the setup of the book, and readers are expected to have knowledge of the previous books. So, if you have not yet read them — and I would suggest you give at least Gardens of the Moon a try — then I wouldn’t recommend reading this review.
Breaking from tradition, the first chapters of House of Chains lets go of the juggling back and forth between viewpoint characters to settle on an at-first unknown Teblor named Karsa Orlong. Karsa is very much reminiscent of the barbarian archetype. His whole life is centered on trying to kill as many weaklings as he can, and for him life is only worthy if it is spent perfecting the art and craft of dealing death. However, much of Karsa is Erikson fighting against that old fantasy trope. While Karsa is an incredibly vicious and bloodthirsty warrior, he is also uncharacteristically intelligent, very perceptive of his surroundings and the minds of others, and is only held back by the backwardness of the Teblor culture and by his lack of knowledge of the outside world. He also evolves a lot as a character as his story develops, which is notable insofar as one compares him to other characters in the series that tend to stay static to a large extent.
While there is definitely a lot to enjoy from Karsa, I must say that I am not a big fan of him. My problem with Karsa as a character boils down to the fact that he is virtually invincible. He can get bruised, and if he is overwhelmed by enemies who pin him down with chains he can be largely countered, but that is not the same as defeating him, and through his bloodthirsty stubbornness Karsa always ends up the victor in even the direst of situations. At the end of the book this is pushed to the point of ridicule when he fights against some immensely powerful monsters and barely breaks a sweat while killing them. It destroys any suspense that his fights might have, and I dread seeing him fight against beloved characters of mine because I can already predict who is going to come out victorious. It might not be fair of me to rail against Karsa when Icarium is also very much like him in that regard, but Icarium at least has legends surrounding him; people fear uttering his name, let alone be near his vicinity. Icarium has destroyed entire civilizations through the thousands of years he has lived, while Karsa has but some thousand souls haunting him. It might be that Karsa’s story is just beginning, and that his destination is that of legends (or gods), but so far his prowess in combat just feels too over the top for a character that at first glance doesn’t seem to warrant that sheer level of efficacy. Can Karsa fight against the barbarian trope when he embraces the destined-for-greatness one?
In terms of the storyline, given that House of Chains continues what Deadhouse Gates started in the Raraku desert, it’s fair to expect that those characters’ stories will all move forward. Felisin is the new Shaik, Tavore the new Adjunct and in charge of quelling the rebellion. Fiddler finds himself marching once more to war and in charge for the lives of his new squad. In good Malazan fashion, a host of new characters are introduced. Of those, Bottle is perhaps the most interesting and the most consequential of them all, and of course a mystery lingers around him which will blossom as the series goes on. There’s also the introduction of new twists in the overarching story, most importantly where it regards the shattering of Kurald Emurlahn and its relationship with the other Elder Warrens. From Cotillion also come new insights into how the Malazan Empire was first founded, most notably with the introduction of Traveller, a mysterious new character that seems intricately linked with Dancer, Kellanved, and Surly. Needless to say, the web grows larger and ever more complex.
There are some issues with the ending of House of Chains where I think the reader is robbed of a certain climax that he had been promised for a while. For two books, at least, there has been an emotional buildup that one expects would peak in this novel but that is resolved in a rather anticlimactic scene which doesn’t seem to have the emotional effect, neither on the reader nor on the characters themselves, that it warranted. Then again, with so many threads woven in each of these books, it’s not that big an issue when of them isn’t handled perfectly. House of Chains is still a good book with plenty to enjoy, and while it doesn’t reach that sheer epic level of Memories of Ice, it is still a worthwhile read.