The first time I read this book was 8 years ago on a holiday in a mosquito-infested house and I used the paperback to kill dozens of mosquitos at night. This book has committed violence. The back cover still has smudges on it but after 8 years most of the organic stuff has fallen off. Anyway…
Memories of Ice is a fascinating book. It is, perhaps, the finest, most awe-inspiring epic fantasy novel of the early 2000s. It is also a pivotal entry in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, taking its place in the series as the end of the beginning, the finishing step in the setting of a grand, millennia-spanning stage. And for its central themes, Erikson has chosen destruction and creation, birth, rebirth, motherhood and self-sacrifice. The story is full of mother figures. Memories of Ice introduces the central, pitiful antagonist of the entire series, the Crippled God, who, millennia ago, crashed into the world like a sperm cell crashing into an egg, slowly infecting the world and the magical realms. The time has come for its rebirth.
There are some essential chapters in the first parts of the book that lay everything out. The prologue is a mixture of origin myths that works like a cypher for the entire novel folded into a single chapter. Erikson’s background in archaeology informs his worldbuilding here, which goes back a few hundred thousand years. We learn about the plights of the Imass and Jaghut, and of the relationships between individuals like Kallor, K’rul, Rake, Draconus, The Lady of Cold Nights. The Crippled God and Burn. A few chapters on, all the great army commanders meet and the mysterious child Silverfox enters their midst to lay down some revelations, shocking every commander into thinking over the implications. Again, the stage is vast and complex, involving the fates of species, gods and nations. My mind is left reeling.
The case of the Crippled God is an interesting one. This book gives the first real description of this fundamental part of the series. At first glance his fall from heaven is like Satan’s from Aligieri’s Divine Comedy, smashing into the world and exerting a corrupting influence. At other times, Erikson paints him as a victim, unprivileged and chained (and attracting those who are like him). A disenfranchised god seeking a place of power in an existing power structure of gods that reject him. What to make of this is a question for later entries in the series. Kruppe is also a strange case. Under his speech patterns lies a lot of wisdom and a good heart. He can hold his own amongst all these great heroes and ascendants and even guides conversations and meetings towards where he wants things to go. The joke is that he looks and comes across as nothing like a hero. But he’s a great guy. I trust in his mystery.
Memories of Ice has a simpler story structure than Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates. The immediate threat is the Pannion Domin and there’s a battle in the middle and a battle at the end. The armies of Dujek Onearm and Whiskeyjack meet up with former adversaries Caladan Brood, Kallor and Anomander Rake to march up to the Pannion Seer and his empire. The Darujhistan gang is present too, so expect some Kruppe shenanigans. The meetup felt like the Council of Elrond from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Other storylines tie up into the greater overarching conflicts of the series and give us moments of creative brilliance. Erikson packs a lot of fascinating characters and creatures into these pages.
Some of Erikson’s writing has improved, some of it is still a bit rough. Where Deadhouse Gates gave some confusing action scenes, the writing here is clearer, focused less on logistics and more on brave final stands. The depravity and intensity of the Pannion Domin sieges remained unmatched till R. Scott Bakker’s The White Luck Warrior in 2012. Characters’ inner monologues are often overwritten, though, and Erikson has this schtick of prattling comic reliefs that all sound the same.
One thing that stood out to me was the various mother archetypes. The Mhybe girl represents the sacrifices that mothers make to raise their children. Her tale is a harrowing one. A certain Matron represents the smothering or needful mother in an horrific way. There is also the sleeping Mother Earth, in danger. The wide variety of female characters feels like a conscious endeavour by Erikson. We have a crone by the name of Crone, and various forms of partners, maidens, seducers, and women in roles of soldiers and a shamanistic saviour type (the rare female saviour). This is reductionism on my side – these characters also have their individual traits, but Erikson is highly focused on themes and this stands out as a noticeable part of the narrative.
Motherhood ties into sacrifice, and personal sacrifice ties into massive acts of benediction and redemption in the latter half of the story. As Kruppe says: “…matters of vast mercy are in progress.” Parts of the story feel Homeric, as in squabbling Gods and the siege of Troy (and even some Homeric writing techniques), or Biblical in its themes of fallen Gods, corruption and redemption. Erikson contrasts a couple of ways to gain power in the novel. In the Malazan world, if you get this wrong, the consequences are horrific. High King Kallor shows us how the sacrifice of blood can be made for the wrong reasons, and the Pannion Domin has pain, madness and blood tragedies at its heart. In contrast, other intriguing characters which I won’t name show us redemption through personal sacrifice or blood relations and become loci of power. Kallor never understood this.
Finally, between all the sieges and misery is a beautiful, hidden storyline about two wolves that you’ll only pick up completely in a second or third reread. Main characters like Toc, Paran, the Mhybe, Kruppe and Silverfox all add little pieces of puzzle, but it plays out in the shadows of the stories that are upfront in the book.
Much more can be said. It is a very full novel. But for now, let’s say that Memories of Ice is a make or break point if you’re on the fence whether Erikson’s series works for you. It is full of the fantastic and all the drama and awe that comes with that. It is so full of subplots that some of them got a more superficial treatment than they deserve. At the same time, Erikson offers us many complex emotional situations that tug at the heartstrings if you are a careful, attentive reader.
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