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Midnight Tides
Steven Erikson
Transworld Publishers/Bantam Press, 698 pages

Midnight Tides
Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson was born in Toronto, grew up in Winnipeg, and worked in the UK for several years until returning to Winnipeg a few years ago, where he now lives with his wife and son. He is an anthropologist and archaeologist by training, as well as being a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Gardens of the Moon (1999), his first fantasy novel, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Healthy Dead
SF Site Review: House of Chains
SF Site Review: Blood Follows
SF Site Review: Memories of Ice
SF Site Review: Deadhouse Gates
SF Site Interview: Steven Erikson
SF Site Review: Gardens of the Moon

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

The fifth novel in Steven Erikson's ongoing series, Midnight Tides, marks a slight departure from his earlier work. The vivid and imaginative world-building and myth creation remains, as does the indelible cast of characters informed by forgotten history and racial memory. But unlike past books, where one could expect a carry-over of characters as well as some temporal link between multiple and diverse storylines, Midnight Tides appears superficially to be a clean break with what has preceded, despite the presence of elder races such as the Tiste Edur which have influneced previous work. The Bridgeburners are absent, as is any direct mention of the Malazan Empire. The Deck of Dragons has undergone a change and assumed new identities and relationships, and while Ascendants such as Anomander Rake are mentioned, such references often remain tenuous. And there is a sense that we have moved backward in time from the events of the first four books, reinforced by participants and events taking place upon a new continent with its own unique past and cultures. Of course, by now, after five volumes and over three thousand pages of some of the most febrile and imaginative myth-making ever attempted, it's hard at times to know where one is without a score card, scholarship or a compendium that goes far beyond the brief glossaries provided. And though each novel so far has in part stood relatively on its own, aspects of Erikson's evolving and interrelated narratives are certain to confound the casual reader. Fortunately, the originality of his vision and the vitality of his writing more than compensate for the occasional doubt and uncertainty. And I suspect that by the time he's completed this series (we're now at midway point) most if not all questions concerning time, relevance, identity and history will be answered.

The story opens, after the usual prologue containing references to a past that will inform the future, on the Lether frontier, between the ancestral home of the native Tiste Edur and the Letherii, immigrants marooned on the continent following the fall of the First Empire. It is one year before the Letherii Seventh Closure and the Ascension of the Empty Hold, the end of a millennium where it is prophesized that the Lether king shall ascend to become emperor, by implication occupying the empty throne and ushering in a new era. That the prophecies are vague when it comes to details concerning this promised age, or the exact nature of the king's ascension, troubles few, and most Letherii are convinced that it is but one more sign confirming their destiny. Driven by an ethos in which "progress was necessity, growth was gain," the Letherii have absorbed or enslaved all the lands and native inhabitants of their adopted home, until only the tribal Edur remain free. And in a move combining both force and diplomacy, they have begun to threaten them as well. But the latter have recently unified under a Warlock King who wields mysterious and unknown sorceries, and whose search for a sword which can't be touched will bring about an unexpected outcome that will threaten Tiste Edur and Letherii alike. Meanwhile, in the heart of the Lether capital, the Hold of Azath, built by an ancient and forgotten race, is dying, and the ground beneath has begun to stir.

Such synopsis, while likely to intrigue some, offers barely a hint of all that will unfold, and of itself is absent of significance, beyond the customary inside dust jacket promotion meant to entice the reader. But long-time fans of Erikson (and by now you should be legion) will immediately suspect this is a premise for interwoven narratives whose scope will redefine the expectations of epic fantasy, and whose prose will suggest a spirit of legend not voiced since Snorri Sturluson, Homer or The Tain. And yet, despite their clear affinities with such older work, the outcomes and storylines of Erikson's novels carry a resonance and sensibility contiguous to the contemporary era.

This is perhaps no more apparent than in Midnight Tides. Again, in a departure somewhat from earlier narratives, the author more directly addresses and mirrors the contemporary world. His portrayal of the Letherii and their adherence to a form of imperial materialism and manifest destiny bears uncomfortable reflections of British history and, more recently, that of America. The enslavement of their own population, as well as others, through indebtedness, should strike a chord in the US, if not elsewhere. And his more immediate exploration of the certitudes inherent in dualistic (or by implication, monistic) metaphysics through Shadow raises old questions of perception and reality in a manner that has recently found voice in sources as diverse as Jean Baudrillard, Slavoj Žižek or the Wachowski brothers. This is only reinforced by characters predicating their lives and actions around a misapprehended history. And the presence of the Crippled God, who has appeared elsewhere, and is an avatar that has found expression in many religions and myths of our own world, is suggestive that Erikson's pantheon bears relevance to our own active and ongoing myth creation.

The wry humor -- always present -- that begins to become more prevalent in Memories of Ice (and reappears in the related novellas Blood Follows and The Healthy Dead, published by PS Publishing) emerges as a dominant feature here. Once again, as in the aforementioned work, its focus centers upon the relationship between master and servant, in this case the failed financier, Tehol Beddict, and his equally eccentric servant, Bugg. Neither character is all that they appear, and the interaction between these two, at once touching and satiric, creates one of the more memorable duos to grace fantasy, and serves as a counterpoint to the more grim and dire action taking place elsewhere. As in previous novels, this is reinforced by a large cast of minor characters and skits reminiscent of Dickens, if portrayed in a landscape with features far more alien.

Erikson's productivity remains prodigious, and unlike other authors that have reached a similar point in protracted series, there is no evidence that either his imagination or energy has flagged; if anything, each new novel moves from strength to strength, improving on what has gone before. Granted, there is a sense near the end of abbreviation, of resolutions that might have been better fleshed out. But in a serial world where others have stalled or are engaged in reiterative narratives, Erikson's accomplishment is no mean feat, and this series has already clearly established itself as the most significant work of epic fantasy since Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, published twenty-some years back. The same and more might be claimed for heroic fantasy.

Those of you that have yet to read Erikson don't know what you're missing, though this is not work for readers seeking romance or unadulterated escape. Fans that have discovered the imaginative and percipient vision which inspires this author's work, always propelled by vigorous action, will not be disappointed here -- Erikson can accomplish more in a few pages what it takes others dozens to realize. And he does so better and with far greater style.

Hopefully the publication of his novels in the US will bring him the audience he deserves, as well as the critical recognition he's so far been relatively denied. There's quite literally a storm on the horizon, vast in proportion, and its passage will reshape the landscape of epic fantasy.

Note: While TOR is to be applauded for finally bringing this series to the States, the same can not be said for their choice of cover art. Steve Youll's highly romanticized, medieval and leathered soft-porn dust jacket entirely misrepresents the novel's contents, and has more to do with some marketing department's notion of juvenile promotion than anything reflecting the narrative (though in all fairness to the artist, it is possible that he never read the book, and instead was working off some limited synopsis or tailored instruction from the publisher). It would be nice to see the publisher extend greater integrity toward future novels, as well as their potential audience.

Copyright © 2004 William Thompson

In addition to the SF Site, William Thompson's reviews have appeared in Interzone, Revolution Science Fiction and Locus Online. He also has worked as a freelance editor for PS Publishing, editing The Healthy Dead and Grandma Matchie, by Steven Erikson, and Night of Knives, by Cameron Esslemont. He lives in Mesilla, New Mexico.

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