Steven Erikson – Dust of Dreams (2009) Review


I was so blown away by Toll the Hounds (2008) that it is hard to grasp that there is still more storytelling to follow. But Toll the Hounds was only the penultimate chapter of this giant tale. Yes yes, there are ten books and Toll the Hounds was the eight, but the final two books make for a single novel split into two volumes. Erikson even adds an Author’s Note, an apology really, for this split and cautions us that Dust of Dreams does not follow a traditional arc for a novel and does not provide resolutions for its various plot threads; that all has to come in the final novel. And he encourages us to be patient. “I know you can do it: after all, you have waited this long, haven’t you?” It is therefore with some trepidation that I begin this book.

Dust of Dreams continues the story of the Bonehunters with quality writing and earth-shattering events. The story starts with a whole lot of foreshadowing about dire future events and nobody yet knows what those will be. Green comets are coming down like spears in the far-off sky. Adjunct Tavore orders a reading of the Deck of Dragons that puts everyone on edge. Mages everywhere feel that some endgame has begun. Even our favourite albino Tiste Andii is worried. Meanwhile, four or five different armies are moping around on the dusty plains of Lether, looking for a new purpose and nothing good can come of that. And to top it all off, K’Chain Che’Malle get their own points of view.

Some of it was fantastic, some of it not so interesting. The greatest problem that plagues every Erikson book in the series for me is that each book has two or three plot-threads too many and 200 or 300 pages too many. You either grok the thematic element or you don’t, and adding more stuff doesn’t help. Some readers love the fact that there is such a plethora of stories being told in this series, and usually I am on board with this, but Dust of Dreams introduces a couple of side stories that give rise to a malignant growth of new characters that I didn’t much cared for, and they were all about warlords. Nothing we haven’t seen before in other fantasy series. Erikson painstakingly invented names for every tribe and Barghast clan east of Letheras and all their warleaders, but do we really need perspectives for each and every one of them? They’re a bunch of Klingons, and I never liked Klingon episodes anyway.

Dust of Dreams, by Marc Simonetti

In contrast, the consolidated storylines of the Bonehunters and the Letheras crew give us fantastic new material, but sadly much of the novel is not about them. Erikson especially shines in scenes where he has a group of characters come together in top-level meetings and has them all react to one another. Like the famous dinner scene early in Frank Herbert’s Dune, Erikson gives us complex scenes that showcase the depth and consistency of his character development, and have us learn about everyones motivations. 

One theme of the book seems to be the fight against the wishes of gods. Not accepting their judgements and not wanting to be used as tools. This theme sets up the direction in which this final act of the series is moving, and it is crucial for beginning to understand Adjunct Tavore’s character. We are finally getting glimpses of her deeper feelings, which is very satisfying after Erikson deliberately withheld those glimpses for five long books. What a long game he has been playing. Interesting too that the questioning of gods lies in line with the Malazan culture of questioning their own leadership. It is in the Malazan spirit, in how Erikson set that up, that the Bonehunters are now in the rebellious position they are in.

This novel is very introspective. It’s one reason why Dust of Dreams often ends up in the lower half when fans rank the books on preference. Characters dive into their memories a lot more. Some chapters don’t bring the plot forward much with all this philosophising. And the topics are dark: the meaninglessness of existence. Empires come and go. Gods use people as tools and give no rewards for worship. For someone like Fiddler, it all comes down to looking at stark reality and figuring out what needs doing, and that that recognition is ultimately the most empathetic one, for him, but it is a difficult thing to do. When Cuttle gets drunk and brings his fellow soldiers down, Gesler steps in because he recognises what needs doing. And Erikson puts in the characters of Torrent and Kalyth. They are the last of their tribes. All the myths and beliefs of those tribes are now lost, meaningless, so their stories embody that loss of meaning. But they are still standing. So what truths will they stumble upon now?

For long stretches of the novel, Erikson holds his cards close to his chest. Page upon page full of Barghast indians being horrible to each other, without getting any clue that all this is absolutely necessary for the larger narrative, while great mysteries keep hanging about on the horizon of the vast plains. Large chunks of the novel I found rather boring, as all those named tribesmen have very little character development and I have no sympathy for any of these tribes that Erikson conjured up. And there are pages of introspection by characters that are nothing but random names, inserted into the plot without clear reason, only to die a few chapters later. Yes, I should trust Erikson after 8 books of good writing, but this approach at storytelling is now starting to grate on me. He keeps asking me to invest more and more energy without giving back. Sometimes less is more.

Much of the novel is about the death of peoples, and what answer should be given for that. Torrent and Kalyth are the last of their peoples. Onos T’oolan learns about the fate of the Imass and is trying to give answer. The K’Chain try their own ways. And the Barghast storylines show that if your culture implodes if it has no enemy to fight, then you’ve chosen the wrong culture. And the Barghast culture can be contrasted to that of the Khundryl and Perish. And add to that the theme that the world doesn’t care about your traditions. They don’t protect you against reality and disappear when your people dies. The final choices to make depend on stark reality and are informed by compassion. 

After the high of Toll the Hounds, Dust of Dreams was hard for me to get through. I mean, I get it, I think; I get the themes. But reading it was a chore. These stories were just not very interesting to me; less personal perhaps than the ones about grief in Toll the Hounds. Looking back at the entire novel, it isn’t bad. I am still impressed with Erikson’s writing. This is 1200 dense pages of expertly crafted scenes. There are many stunning scenes and interesting expansions of world-building, and the final chapters were wild. It has perhaps the most epic battle I have ever read in fantasy. But I do think that not every point-of-view character is necessary for the thematic explorations. Sometimes less is more. Let’s hope that the final novel will bring it all to a good end.

<– preceded by Toll the Hounds — followed by The Crippled God –>

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13 Responses to Steven Erikson – Dust of Dreams (2009) Review

  1. Pingback: Steven Erikson – Toll the Hounds (2008) Review | A Sky of Books and Movies

  2. Farhad Shawkat says:

    This was an odd one. If it was Book1 or 2, I would’ve loved it. As a Book 4 or 5, I’d be tempted to DNF the series. As a Book 9, I really enjoyed some parts, but it’s more like I’ll finish the series despite it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah if this was book 4 or even book 3, I probably would not have continued out of lack of interest, but since Erikson pretty much warns us that this is a lot of setup for the final book, I’ll just accept that and continue with the conclusion to the series.


  3. Bookstooge says:

    Well, I am glad you made it successfully through. This was the book that almost broke my re-read.

    I realize this is a bit far out, but what are your malazan plans after you are done this series?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m on the homestretch now. The Crippled God will be a breeze.

      For after the main 10 books, I’m considering Esslemont’s Path to Ascendancy series. Im a bit tired of Erikson so I don’t think that Forge of Darkness will work for me right now. And I heard some bad things about Esslemonts earlier books, so Path to Ascendancy sounds right.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bookstooge says:

        Yeah, the unfinished Kharkanas trilogy takes everything in this book in terms of self-indulgence and amplifies it 10X.

        Just be aware that Ascendency is a LOT more straightforward. I also enjoyed Esslemont’s Empire of Malaz books, but I seem to be an outlier in that regards.

        Have you thought trying the Bauchelain and Korbal Broach anthologies? Oh wait, those are all Erikson too.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah that Kharkanas thing sounds dangerous. I like Erikson but I don’t find his prose all that beautiful, so I think that book will just annoy me with all the philosophy and extended metaphors in the text. The Bauchelain novellas I have no interest in. I am very interested in the new sequel trilogy that Erikson is writing that is set after the Crippled God but I want to read Esslemont first.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Bookstooge says:

            I might read the Witness trilogy myself once it’s finished IF it’s not a self-indulgent philosophy wankfest 😀

            Personally, I liked ALL of Esslemont’s stuff better than Erikson. He doesn’t try to be as cryptic.

            Just out of curiosity, why no interest in Bauchelain and Korbal?

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Ola G says:

    Yeah, I agree – it was way too long and disjointed, almost obsessively so. I still enjoyed it, but my enthusiasm waned 😉 Still, I enjoyed Erikson much, much more than Esslemont, whose first few books are unreadable, and the rest is rather weak, if still an improvement over the first few 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting to see so many divergent opinions about Esslemont. I want to try his Path to Ascendancy books because they seem interesting, and they are not his first. Have you read those?

      Dust of Dreams was the hardest to get through of all the Malazan books so far. I hope that the Crippled God will be a good ending.


  5. Pingback: Review: Steven Erikson – Gardens of the Moon (1999) | A Sky of Books and Movies

  6. Pingback: Steven Erikson – The Crippled God (2011) Review | A Sky of Books and Movies

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