Reaper’s Gale (2007), sequel to both Midnight Tides (2005) and The Bonehunters (2006), has a bit of a frustrating structure, but sticks the landing. There, that’s my review. No, let’s dive into it. This entry in the series revolves around fated confrontations between powerful characters and empires that we all know has been coming since the middle of The Bonehunters. But Erikson lets this simmer for a long, long time. He has two hands full of new characters he is exited to introduce first! Divided into four “books”, each subsequent book delivers more excitement than the one before it, but some patience is needed to let Erikson set it all up and slowly work his way forward. It’s a “slow burn”. Many of its storylines feature steady dissolutions and rising crises, which all come to a head later in the novel.
Coming from The Bonehunters and all that that promised for the future, starting Reaper’s Gale feels like a reset of tension that may be disappointing for some readers. Personally I had no real problems with all the new characters but my reading energy did drop over the course of the novel as the confrontations never seemed to arrive.
The best storylines all involved the characters we already know from previous books, and their stories are what I am here for. Sadly, of the newly introduced characters, not many stood out as memorable. There was nothing much wrong with the new additions, but the new Edurs were interchangeable and the new Letherii felt like the standard evil twisted men that you find in dozens of other fantasy novels. The book suffered a bit from an overload of these characters, which expanded the page count between the more thrilling moments and so dampened the overall excitement. On the positive side, of the new faces Yan Tovis adds an interesting dimension about identity, Beak stirs feelings of brotherly protection and Redmask has a stirring rise to power.
And after 500 pages of setting up all these new characters, Erikson mostly drops them to focus on the arrival of the Malazans. Reaper’s Gale reinvents the city of Letheras with its internal power struggles to set the scene for the Malazans, and their impact on this continent is the great question to explore and is the greatest source of excitement in the novel. Only at the end does Erikson pick up all those dropped ends to tie everything together into a satisfyingly complicated ball. He also ties in plotlines from earlier in the series that many readers (including myself) might not have guessed play into them. The series as a whole has a unique structure that still throws me for a loop and brings huge satisfaction when things come together.
One of the pleasures of Reaper’s Gale is seeing destiny unfold for so many characters. Midnight Tides did set up so many side characters too, like Feather Witch, Hannan Mosag, Silchas Ruin, the Errant, Fear Sengar, Ublala Pung and many others, and only in this book do their roles in the grand tapestry come to full fruition. The book is really an essential continuation of Midnight Tides in that regard. And we have a side plot that echoes the American expansion to the West and its clashes with Native American tribes. This too is an expansion of the social commentary that could be found in Midnight Tides. At other times, Erikson channels some very obvious inspiration from military fiction. Some chapters feel like they come straight from World War I or Vietnam war novels. I can readily picture the Malazan marines trudging through French farmland.
Reaper’s Gale addresses a couple of interesting themes. One of the character groups looks suspiciously like an actual fantasy quest group. If you’ve made it this far into the series then you know that Erikson loves to acknowledge, examine and subvert well-worn fantasy tropes, so rest assured that this quest will make for an interesting journey. Is there actual value in plain dumb masculine heroism? In some ways, maybe yes. This group, whose names would spoil Midnight Tides, is one of the great reasons I was excited to start this novel, because each member in that group is unique with a fascinating past and outlook on life. Their interactions are great fun to read, and one of them is an unstoppable badass striding unchallenged through the first parts of this novel. He also may be the first one to make us think twice about the plight of the Crippled God.
The Tiste Edur, meanwhile, have fully conquered the Letherii, but do not understand their capitalist social system, and as a result they are being assimilated into it, like flies trapped in amber. Or, as Erikson may suggest, like ghosts trapped in delicious dragon blood. The book extends the commentary on capitalism and colonialism that is found in Midnight Tides, but gives it here a much darker twist into dystopia and oppression. We are not in Ankh-Morpork anymore. The new Letherii characters introduced here are all horribly ruthless, but there is meaning in that the Letherii culture comes to life again in a new way, even after their submission to the Edur. What is power? Is one of the questions this book asks, and power is more about ideas, paradigms, even trickery, than about physical force.
Another recurring theme fits with this very well, and that is that the world is complex, and there are a couple of small tyrants in this novel (Anict, Sirryn, Invictad) who want the world to be simple, and want to exert the violence to make it simple. But by doing so, they reap consequences of a more complex reality. And by extension, we the readers enter this novel with our desires and expectations. We have expectations for what we want Karsa and Icarium to do in this story, but do we then truly care about their happiness? Are we imposing our desires for a clear story of good and evil on their happiness?
Overall, while Reaper’s Gale has a lot of good character development for returning characters, like Rhulad, Seren Pedac and the Malazans, and one or two interesting new additions, it nevertheless felt like the bulk of the novel did not live up to what The Bonehunters promised, yet I was still fine with it. Reaper’s Gale has its own qualities, once you accept that its focus is just different from what you might have expected. It stands out in shorter emotional vignettes, and many of those vignettes were contained, temporary points of view. So, zooming in on individual chapters, there is some amazing writing in this novel, but looking at the entire book and the series so far, was this book truly the right place to dive into so many new characters? Every reader will react to that differently. I was mostly fine with it, but I understand those who are not. And I admit that the final 200 pages were such a rollercoaster of emotional gut punches that that retroactively lifted up all the storylines with power and meaning. Those final chapters are sublime and feature one of the best convergences of all the books so far.