March 22, 2013
Like most people, I'd heard about the "Bushmen of the Kalahari" as a boy, but really had no idea what that meant, or really who these people were. In a nutshell, the !Kung are an ancient people that have essentially lived a nomadic Paleolithic lifestyle in the Kalahari Desert for more than 20,000 years. Interestingly too, with the recent completion of the Human Genome Project, we now know that these people are some of the most ancient and genetically diverse anatomically modern humans (i.e., Homo sapiens) on the planet. If you will, the !Kung peoples are the 'rootstock' of most of us. And as such, I think a book like that which Ms. Thomas has written is incredibly important for all of us to read and think about. In other words, this book has the capability of putting us firmly in touch with who we were, and who we are.
The !Kung also speak an incredibly ancient language--one of the African 'click' languages--a mix of phonemes and click sounds made with the palate, lips, tongue, or cheeks. Linguists believe that the click language that the !Kung speak is at least 60,000 years old, and may rank as one of humanity's oldest existing languages. In reading this book I discovered that utilizing a click language actually makes great sense when living and hunting in a dangerously hostile environment like the Kalahari, as the click sounds tend to blend in and sound more 'natural' and don't alarm prey or alert potential predators like spoken words can.
Ms. Thomas starts off talking about the relationship of these people to the 1,500 centuries, or more, of modern human existence; and up until the mid-1960s, not much had changed from the way our Paleolithic ancestors lived some 60,000-70,000 years ago. She then described the complex relationship that the !Kung had with their environment and the animals that occupied the Kalahari and that the people depended upon for meat. The heart of the book is that these were peoples that were completely connected to the habitat and ecology around them. They intimately understood the habits of all of the animals and and habitat preferences and uses for the plant species of the savannah and desert. Ms. Thomas describes in fascinating detail how plants are gathered and used among the people, marriage and the importance of lineage, how children were raised, how animals were hunted, religious and mythological beliefs, the interactions and social fabric of the family dynamic and small collections of families that lived and migrated together. There is even a whole chapter on the relationship of the !Kung with the top predators of the Kalahari, African lions, leopards, and spotted hyenas.
Inevitably though time and the new way of human life caught up to this remote corner of the world, and Thomas reports that by the 1990s most of the Bushmen, including the !Kung, had been forced off of their natural ranges and now live in government-sponsored shanty towns and have largely given up their hunter-gatherer subsistence lifestyle. And similar to what has happened to many Native American peoples in the United States, it has been a very difficult transition for many of them in trying to adapt to the new ways of 'modern' living. It made me sad to think that these people, so lovingly described and respected by Ms. Thomas in this book, really no longer exist. Sure, there are still Bushmen living in southwestern Africa near their old homelands in the Kalahari Desert, but they're not living "The Old Way" as the "First People" any longer, and that, I think, is a loss for all of humanity.
In conclusion, I highly recommend this book, and count it as a non-fiction favorite read for 2013, and is certainly a book that I will undoubtedly revisit sometime in the future.
The Old Way--A Story of the First People
By Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Hardcover, 344 pp.
Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2006
March 10, 2013
Much of this book is an incredibly compelling melding of the existing paleoanthropological, archaeological, and genetic evidence that, when combined with known ecological and climatological data, tells the story of these robust early modern humans that undertook this grand journey that completely changed the world we live in. Oppenheimer carefully presents and considers all of the available archaeological evidence and the conclusions drawn from it, and then compares it with the results of the now extensive amount of genetic research associated with maternal mitochondrial-DNA and male Y-chromosome analyses. Oppenheimer believes that we now have answers or, at a minimum, some pretty compelling hypotheses that go far in addressing questions about who these peoples were that trekked along the coasts colonizing the Near East, eastern and western Europe, India, southeast Asia and eventually even New Guinea, and Australia; while others continued 'coasting' up along the Asian-Pacific coast before turning inland and settling the hinterlands of the ice-age steppe tundra of Siberia and Mongolia. Finally, Oppenheimer addresses one of the most contentious issues in modern archaeology--that of the settling of the Americas. When did modern humans reach the Americas? Who were these early colonizers? Where did they come from? Did they come in a single wave following the end of the last ice-age, or were there multiple entries? And were the Clovis peoples really the first to arrive about 12,000 years ago?
The organization of this book in its seven chapters is simply superb too, in my opinion. Dr. Oppenheimer starts off with the fascinating discussion of our early modern human ancestors in Africa, and what it was that might have compelled them to leave Africa between 80,000 and 90,000 years ago. He then spends time describing the archaeological evidence associated with the potential routes of initial dispersal from Africa (i.e., a northern route through the Levant, or the southern route--the preferred alternative--via the Bab al Mandab at the bottom of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa).
The second chapter is equally fascinating, and addresses the all-important question of when did anatomically modern humans become 'behaviorally modern'. This has been a vexing question to paleoanthropologists and archaeologists for some time now, and there is a considerable body of evidence out there that can be interpreted quite differently. Frankly though, I'm leaning toward agreement with Dr. Oppenheimer that the appearance of anatomically modern humans between 200,000 years and 170,000 years ago was largely concurrent with the appearance of our behavioral modernity as well. In contrast, there are many well-respected anthropologists, e.g., Richard G. Klein of Stanford University, who believe that Homo sapiens became behaviorally modern sometime around 50,000 years ago, the result of additional adaptations within the human brain. Oppenheimer and other geneticists have not yet ferreted out what this change might have been, nor does he believe that the archaeological evidence supports this theory. All in all, I found this a very thought-provoking chapter.
The remainder of the book's chapters (i.e., 3-7) focus on detailed archaeological and genetic discussions of the timing of the entries into the various regions of the world colonized by the mitochondrial 'Out-of-Africa Eve' and Y-chromosomal 'Out-of-Africa Adam' and their genetic descendants. Chapter Three describes the types of people and timing of the colonizing of eastern and western Europe. Chapter Four focuses on the colonization of India, southeast Asia and leading to humans reaching New Guinea and Australia by about 60,000 years ago (implication being you'd certainly have to have been 'behaviorally modern' to fabricate a craft that was capable of 'island-hopping' and crossing many tens of kilometers of open ocean to reach Australia!). Chapter Five looks at the types of peoples and the timing of the settling of the great interior regions of ice-age Asia and eastern Russia. Chapter Six tells the story of the impact of the last ice-age in the late-Pleistocene (i.e., the Last Glacial Maximum), that wreaked havoc on the small populations of humans scattered throughout Europe and Asia. The last chapter of the book is Oppenheimer's take on the peopling of the Americas. He's of the opinion--based upon archaeology and genetics--that the first 'Americans' arrived between 25,000 years and 22,000 years ago, and that this was followed by a re-expansion of peoples that had occupied Beringia (the huge continent that existed between 25,000-11,000 years ago and linked Asian Siberia with North American Alaska during the run up and through the Last Glacial Maximum).
'So,' you ask, 'having read this fascinating book, what's the upshot?' Well, first, I can categorically answer that we are all African! Second, I think the genetic evidence and its most parsimonious interpretations tend to validate and enhance the current "Out-of-Africa" hypothesis for the dispersal of Homo sapiens from eastern Africa around 80,000 years ago. Third, after reading this book you'll never look at another human being quite the same. You'll always be thinking about our remarkable kinship, yet more fully understanding the meaning of the differences that exist among the peoples of our world today. I think it is also important to point out that Dr. Oppenheimer has also very carefully sourced and documented the material he presents in the book with over 50 pages of end-notes. I strongly recommend reading each of the end-notes too, it made for an even more complete reading experience for me.
Dr. Oppenheimer's The Real Eve: Modern Man's Journey Out of Africa is a grand synthesis of a grand story--our own human origins and subsequent dispersal around the globe. This book is really the incredible story of how a very small group (1,000-2,000 individuals) from a total population of the approximately 20,000 Homo sapiens that occupied Africa about 80,000 years ago actually got up the gumption to strike out and explore and colonize the rest of the world over the next 40,000 years or so. Finally, don't be intimidated by the subject matter, Dr. Oppenheimer is an engaging writer and spends the time and effort to present the material in such a fashion as to be understandable by any reader. It includes loads of terrific maps and detailed charts illustrating and supporting the genetic evidence and conclusions presented in the book.
In closing, I do want to say that I consider myself more than just a casual student of topics in paleoanthropology and human origins and evolution. Over my entire adult life I have made a point of staying current with the latest information, via books and technical journal articles, on this intellectually challenging subject, and I can unhesitatingly say that I believe that this is one of the most important books that I've read associated with modern human origins. This was such a good book that I've gone ahead and found a hardcover edition for my paleoanthropology book collection, as I know that I will be diving into this book time and again in the future. I highly recommend this book, and feel entirely justified in giving this 'five stars'.
The Real Eve: Modern Man's Journey Out of Africa
By Stephen Oppenheimer
Softcover, 440 pp.
Carroll & Graf Publishing, 2004
March 4, 2013
Gibbons, in telling the story of these discoveries, necessarily focuses much of the book on the out-sized personalities (and, dare I say, egos) of the anthropologists leading the teams exploring various important fossil regions in Africa. The teams she primarily focuses on in the book include Tim White and his work in the Afar Depression of Ethiopia; Richard and Meave Leakey in the Lake Turkana region of Kenya; Martin Pickford and Brigitte Senut in the Tugen Hills of Kenya; and Michel Brunet and his team in the Djureb Desert of Chad. Each of these teams of highly professional specialists in their respective fields have significantly added to our general understanding and knowledge base associated with the very earliest hominin species found to date, including Australopithecus, Ardipithecus, and two newly identified species, Orrorin tugenensis and Sahelanthropus tchadensis.
Gibbons is quite even-handed in describing the tension and academic conflict that has arisen among some of these researchers associated with the interpretation and meaning of these important fossil discoveries and their role in understanding and explaining human evolution. Gibbons does a great job of not editorializing or letting her own emotions color the scenes she writes about, and simply factually recounts the stories of the fossil discoveries, the research science that followed, and the resultant back-and-forth academic squabbles that erupted as articles were published and discussed in various academic journals. As a serious amateur student of paleoanthropology and human evolution, I know that this is pretty much de rigueur, not only in anthropological circles, but among the scientific community as a whole. All in all, I think that a rigorous and scholarly debate is incredibly healthy and typically results in the advancement of scientific knowledge. Having said that though, and based upon my interpretation of what Gibbons presents in this book, it is my personal opinion that Martin Pickford--one of the co-discoverers of O. tugenensis--behaved simply deplorably in his much of his dealings with his peers in the academic community over many, many years.
If you're interested in reading about how scientists gear up and conduct scientific expeditions in some very inhospitable portions of the world in their on-going search for the proverbial "needle in the haystack", then I think you'll very much enjoy Ms. Gibbons, The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors. Additionally, if you're specifically interested in learning more about these new, and incredibly ancient, species that have been discovered (i.e., O. tugenensis and S. tchadensis you'll very much appreciate the detail and solid science that Ms. Gibbons provides in telling this fascinating story.
The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestor
By Ann Gibbons
Softcover, 336 pp.
Anchor Books, 2006
What Mr. Reader has created in Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins (2011) is a profoundly interesting story. First, for its detailed description of the expeditions and the 'thrill of the hunt' associated with all of the fascinating fossil discoveries and interpretations of the biological evidence. Second, Reader uses the book to tell the story of the fascinating personalities (and, in some cases, huge egos) of all of the men and women involved in these searches for hominin fossils and their role in better understanding our own biological history. This is as much a story of Charles Darwin, Arthur Keith, Eugene Dubois, Raymond Dart, Robert Bloom, the Leakey family, Phillip Tobias, Don Johanson, Tim White, and Michel Brunet, and a host of others, as it is about the fossils themselves. Another important element that Reader brings to the story is the importance of the integration of many different scientific disciplines when investigating and endeavoring to piece together and tell the complicated story and timeline of our human existence over the past six to seven million years.
In some respects, this book reminded me of the second edition of Ian Tattersall's brilliant book, The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know about Human Evolution (2008). While Tattersall's book is perhaps more technically oriented to the actual fossil evidence and biological data, Mr. Reader's is more focused on the historical elements associated with the finds and the anthropologists and anatomists doing the work. All in all, they are actually quite complementary works, and well worth having in your collection. So, whether you're a professional anthropologist or you are simply interested in better understanding your own biological and evolutionary history and origins, I highly recommend John Reader's Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins.
Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins
By John Reader
Hardcover, 538 pp.
Oxford University Press, 2011
Review: "In Search of the Neanderthals: Solving the Puzzle of Human Origins" By Christopher Stringer and Clive Gamble
Much of Dr. Stringer's book focuses on describing the fossil, biological, genetic and archaeological data and evidence that actually distinguishes anatomically modern humans (i.e., us) from the Neandertal peoples. It is Stringer's contention, and that of much of the paleoanthropological community as well, that anatomically modern humans are not descended from Neandertals, but were a contemporaneous species that shared a common ancestor such as Homo heidelbergensis or Homo antecessor between them and the earlier Homo erectus.
In this book, Dr. Stringer does an excellent job of making the case for an "Out-of-Africa" dispersal for anatomically modern humans that probably began about 90,000-70,000 years ago, and by 45,000 years ago these modern humans, also known as the "Cro-Magnon", had spread into western Europe, the home of the Neandertals for 200,000+ years and ultimately displaced them. It appears that the modern behaviors (e.g., planning, art, improved stone-tool and shelter technologies, language, etc.) and tremendous environmental adaptability exhibited by these new modern peoples was probably enough to pressure the Neandertals to have to shift to small isolated enclaves at the margins of their former range across much of western and central Europe. This diminution of their range and inability to adapt ultimately led to the extinction of the Neandertals approximately 30,000-25,000 years ago.
If you're looking for a good one-volume, easy-to-read, treatment of the origins and relationship between our close cousins, the Neandertals, and ourselves, then I highly recommend this book. Additionally, this volume is profusely illustrated with a terrific collection of photographs that illustrates and supports the fossil evidence for Stringer's contention that anatomically modern humans evolved separately and apart from Neandertals. Finally, if you want the latest--state-of-the-science--information about our human origins, I strongly urge you to read Dr. Stringer's latest book, Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth (2012).
In Search of the Neanderthals: Solving the Puzzle of Human Origins
By Chris Stringer and Clive Gamble
Hardcover, 248 pp.
Thames & Hudson, 1993
Review: "The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers" By Juan Luis Arsuaga (translated by Andy Katt)
What Professor Arsuaga accomplishes in this book is to eloquently tell the history of the early human species that occupied western Europe, especially the Iberian peninsula from the Middle Paleolithic through the early Upper Paleolithic and the extinction of the Neandertals. What I particularly appreciated was Dr. Arsuaga's melding of the data associated with regional climatic and ecological conditions in telling the story of these early hominin species who occupied these habitats so many millenia in our past in Spain during those fluctuating periods of extreme world-wide glaciation and interglacials. Over the years that I have been reading books and technical papers about human origins, I have come to better understand and appreciate that data and information associated with the effects of global and regional climate change and regional ecological conditions are every bit as important as the fossil and genetic evidence.
Personally, I think Professor Arsuaga's book, The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers, is an important book and goes far in helping fill in the details about our human origins between what we currently know about the dispersal of Homo erectus from Africa between approximately 1.5-1.2 million years ago, and the arrival of fully-functioning anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) in western Europe about 45,000 years ago. I also strongly suggest that Professor Arsuaga's book makes an excellent companion to Clive Finlayson's relatively recent (2010) book entitled, The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived. In reading both of these books, the reader will come away with a clear understanding of the role of the early hominin species in western Europe and the role that climate change and ecological conditions played in ultimately reaching the point that only one human species--Homo sapiens--remained on the planet.
The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers
By Juan Luis Arsuaga, translated by Andy Katt
Hardcover, 320 pp.
Basic Books, 2002
February 4, 2013
In my opinion, Deadhouse Gates is a fine example of what I truly love the most about the MBotF series, and that is Erikson’s ability to make his readers empathize with the characters in his books. One thing that really impresses me about Erikson’s characters is that they are all typically people that the reader can relate to, and there are really very few, if any, characters that aren’t flawed in one fashion or another. Also, Erikson’s MBotF characters exhibit a strong dose of egalitarianism, as men and women in the books commonly occupy positions of authority and responsibility across all walks of life in the Malazan world.
Much of Deadhouse Gates occurs on the continent of “Seven Cities” and introduces a whole new cast of characters from those presented in Gardens of the Moon. Never fear though, of the multiple story arcs in Deadhouse Gates, one arc does involve a small group of characters that the reader met in Gardens of the Moon and who become quite important to the storyline in this episode. As is typical of Erikson novels in the MBotF series, there are plots and sub-plots galore swirling around throughout this 600+ page book (trade-paperback edition), and each of them is an attention-grabber, and at times contain a powerful ‘punch to the gut’.
Without giving away anything of significance away, Deadhouse Gates revolves around the rebellion of many of the subjugated peoples of the Seven Cities continent. This rebellion is known as “The Whirlwind” and is intended to rid the continent of all of the Malazan occupiers, both administrative and military. The main plot of the novel is one that just takes your breath away—that of the tactical retreat of the Malazan Seventh Army over several hundred leagues from one city to another. The Malazan Seventh is commanded by Coltaine, a Wickan Crow Clan warchief, and now a Fist (General) in the Malazan Army. Fist Coltaine and many of the other Wickan characters are some of my favorites in the entire MBotF series, and the Wickan Clans themselves—with names like “Foolish Dog Clan”, “Weasel Clan, and “Crow Clan”—reminded me of some of the Native American tribes that so effectively battled the U.S. Army in the latter half of the 19th century.
Honestly, the story of the Seventh Army’s retreat across the landscape of Seven Cities is truly nothing short of epic, as Coltaine must try and not only preserve the fighting capacity of the Seventh Army, but protect more than 50,000 refugees that his forces are endeavoring to shepherd to safety. This plot thread that weaves through much of the novel becomes known as “Coltaine’s Chain of Dogs”, a moniker of significant distinction and pride to the members of the Seventh Army, as well as the rest of the Malazan Empire. As a veteran of the military myself, there was something in this story of the “Chain of Dogs” that truly tugged at the heartstrings of my very soul, and I cannot begin to tell you how many times while reading about the desperate attempts of the Seventh Army to survive its horrifying trek across Seven Cities that I had to set the book aside for a few moments and simply let the tears roll down my cheeks. While at times a terribly tragic story, the tale of Coltaine’s “Chain of Dogs” is also one that exhibits the finest qualities of humanity—courage, compassion, comradeship, and Love.
Erikson's description of this epic journey, and the battles fought along the way, rivals any that have been written about in numerous superb non-fiction military histories. Examples that immediately come to mind include the U.S. Continental Army’s retreat from New York to Valley Forge, or Napoleon’s Grande Armee’s retreat from Russia, or Field Marshal von Manstein's strategic retreat of several German armies across the frozen steppes of southern Russia in early 1942 (after the fall of Stalingrad). Erikson’s tale of the “Chain of Dogs” in Deadhouse Gates is some of the best military fiction I’ve ever read, and should appeal to readers with even a passing interest in military or historical fiction or non-fiction.
But wait, there’s even more—So much more! Deadhouse Gates is also chock full of important plot and story lines that really help to begin to open up the full breadth and scope of the Malazan world to the reader. There are significant tie-backs to important events and happenings in Gardens of the Moon, as well as explanations of the fascinating and complex system of magic and sorcery, and loads of new information about the mythology and significance of the pantheon of gods and goddesses who occupy the Malazan world. Deadhouse Gates can perhaps be best characterized as the ‘tale of multiple journeys’, with Coltaine’s “Chain of the Dogs” being the centerpiece, but there are also the journeys of several other groups of characters that are just as meaningful to the overall plot and are very, very important to future episodes in the MBotF series.
I continue to be completely blown away with the sheer quality of the writing, the plotting, the character development, the pacing, the pathos and drama, and the sheer inventiveness and originality of the world that Erikson has created. Mr. Erikson doesn't pull his punches, this is truly some hard, bleak, and dark fiction; and it is at times viscerally tragic and profoundly sad. At the same time though, Erikson soars to heights almost unknown in fantasy fiction with his moments of triumph, success, and the joy of experiencing those fleeting instants of pure and unbridled goodness and humanity.
In closing, I highly and unhesitatingly recommend this series; and, in my opinion, Deadhouse Gates is much more than a quantum step forward from the first novel in the series, Gardens of the Moon. Deadhouse Gates was the book in the MBotF series that cemented my love affair with all things Malazan. Read Deadhouse Gates--you’ll become a believer too!
By Steven Erikson
Tor Books, 2005
Trade Paperback Edition, 608 pp
January 25, 2013
Gardens of the Moon, and the entire "Malazan Book of the Fallen" series is generally classified as fantasy fiction, and while that is an appropriate designation, it is also so much more than that. I'd like to use this posting to briefly describe why I think it is actually kind of hard to simply pigeon-hole this series safely in the fantasy genre.
First of all, let's talk about what this series is not. The "Malazan Book of the Fallen" (or, MBotF) is not a recounting of an epic struggle between Good and Evil. Nor is the MBotF a bildungsroman of some young poor farmer boy or girl who sets out upon a grand and desperate quest to save the world from an evil sorcerer or ruler. Finally, the MBotF series is not the story of one, or even a few, main characters, but contains a cast of hundreds. Frankly, very few of the typical fantasy tropes are in play in this series, the MBotF is some seriously new and cutting-edge stuff, and it probably is not going to appeal to all who pick it up. I'm also convinced that the MBotF is destined to ultimately be viewed as 'classic' and will be read for many, many years to come. It really is that original.
Up front you need to realize that Steven Erikson does not 'hold your hand' while reading this series. By that I mean there are no big 'information dumps' that explain the Malazan world, or detailed character backgrounds, or in-depth descriptions of how the magic systems works, or even what's going on at any precise moment in time. You really gotta work for it in reading this series, and sometimes its bloody hard work and can be quite frustrating. In some respects, reading the MBotF is kinda like assembling a giant 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a Jackson Pollack painting--it takes time, and it can be confusing as hell; but when it 'clicks' it becomes an immensely satisfying reading experience, and one that you'll want to revisit and delve into for the rest of your life.
To me, the MBotF is like reading the history of a whole planet, as you will be learning about new cultures and events that have occurred over the span of several hundred millenia. This characteristic is actually very reflective of Erikson's educational background and years of work experience. 'Steven Erikson' is the pen-name for Steve Rune Lundin, a Canadian anthropologist and author. Apparently, a lot of the original concepts associated with elements of the MBotF were 'ginned up' by Erikson and his friend, Ian C. Esslemont (more on Esslemont later) during anthropological/archaeological field trips and sitting around the campfire at night. As you read these books you do recognize similarities between some of the characters and cultures in Erikson's Malazan world and historic and prehistoric human cultures. For example, there are human-like peoples that very much reminded me of early hominid species like Neanderthals and the even earlier hominid, Homo erectus, and there are races of peoples that certainly remind me of various Native American cultures. The Malazans themselves bear some similarity to the peoples and cultures of the ancient Greek or Roman empires.
The mythopoeic quality of the MBotF series is astounding and maybe one of the more important elements that sets this series apart from all other modern fantasy fiction. The only other book, in my humble opinion, that creates such a fantastical and intellectually creative fictional mythology is The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien. Erikson's mythology, like Tolkien's, is an elegant amalgam of creation and origin myths, religious elements, and cultural and social geography all of which seems to be strongly connected to the environment and geology of the Malazan world. The MBotF contains an enormous and complex pantheon of goddesses and gods that rivals the Greeks, Romans, Norse, Celts and other human cultures. Much of this mythology is presented in the MBotF as epigraphical poetry or fictional bits of history leading off chapters in each of the books, that when initially read can seem quite enigmatic but ultimately help illuminate plot points and/or foreshadow events to come. Interestingly, the Malazan world goddesses and gods, like the Greek gods of Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey delight in meddling in the affairs of the mortals, and are perhaps even somewhat envious of the Human condition, i.e., the capacity to love, to experience pain, sadness, joy, and even to die.
Gardens of the Moon is arguably the toughest book to read in the entire series, and much of that is simply related to the reader having to become accustomed to Erikson's writing and story-telling style. As I said earlier, he makes you work for it. It took me two attempts before I successfully read and completed Gardens of the Moon, and from what I understand I'm not particularly unique in that experience. I think if you can just 'hang tough' and get through the first four chapters, you'll start being able to put some pieces of the puzzle together and I'm betting that your interest will be piqued enough to see you through the end of the novel. This novel, like all in the series, is full of a gritty, but heart-felt realism that I think we can all relate to, i.e., it just feels right some how. And once you've finished Gardens of the Moon and start Deadhouse Gates (one of my personal favorites in the series), I predict that you'll be hooked and then you're in for the long-haul.
Gardens of the Moon opens with a great battle involving a Malazan army and its mages attacking the city of Pale and a bizarre gigantic chuck of basalt that is suspended in the sky over Pale that is known as "Moon's Spawn". While you will likely leave the first couple of chapters somewhat 'dazed-and-confused', you should probably take the time to go back and reread sections of this opening section again and again, and the 'muddy waters' will slowly begin to clear for you. I recommend that new readers get used to the notion that being 'dazed-and-confused' initially is really okay, and that eventually you will come across information later that helps explain things and start answering your questions. Erikson rewards you as you figure things out, as you get these significant 'aha', or 'lightbulb', moments. For example, the 'Siege of Pale' (Chapter Two) is an important event, and will be referred to time and time again throughout all ten books in the series, but you'll not quite have it all figured out until you're well into the series. Anyway, following the events at Pale, the scene shifts south to the large city of Darujhistan and the Malazan Empire's efforts to covertly infiltrate the city and bring it to heel. To the best of your ability, pay attention to everything, for just about everything that Erikson gives you is important, including events as well as things said. Utilize the "Dramatis Personae" and maps (at the front of the book) and the "Glossary" (at the end of the book) liberally. Slowly, but surely, you'll begin to get your 'sea-legs' in the Malazan world and you'll soon find yourself swept up in the tale.
Finally, I want to come back to Erikson's friend, Ian C. Esslemont, or as we Malazan fans refer to him, ICE. Esslemont is also an archaeologist and author, and is the co-creator of the Malazan world with Steven Erikson. In fact, ICE has now authored five novels in his "Malazan Empire" series, and the plots of his books are inter-woven and connected with the ten books in Erikson's MBotF. It is my understanding that ICE has a couple more Malazan Empire novels in him and then we'll have "the rest of the story". The cool thing is that ICE uses his novels to tell the stories about events and happenings or topics about which Erikson has been specifically vague or even silent on. So, by reading the books of both authors a reader really can start figuring it all out.
In conclusion, I highly recommend both the MBotF series by Steven Erikson, and the Malazan Empire books by Ian Esslemont. I have read the entire "Wheel of Time" series by Robert Jordan (and capably finished by Brandon Sanderson), and the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series by George R.R. Martin, and while they are both very, very good, the Malazan world created by Messrs. Erikson and Esslemont kicks their collective asses! Don't take my word for it though, give Gardens of the Moon a try, and see what you think. Try your best not to give up, and just persevere through the first one-hundred pages or so; and if you do give up, just set it up on the shelf and come back a few weeks later. It'll 'click' at some point, and you be so glad that it did. It is one of my favorite series of books, and I know that the Malazan world is going to be a part of my literary life as long as I live.
If you're interested, here's a listing of Erikson's books in the "Malazan Book of the Fallen" series--
Gardens of the Moon
Memories of Ice
House of Chains
Toll the Hounds
Dust of Dreams
The Crippled God
And here's a listing of Esslemont's books in his "Malazan Empire" series (so far)--
Night of Knives
Return of the Crimson Guard
Orb Sceptre Throne
Blood and Bone
January 22, 2013
Blood and Bone is a tour de force on so many levels--the quality of writing, the plotting and complexity, characterization, and then the sheer significance to the entire Malazan canon. This novel grabbed me from the first page and didn't let up until the very last page--it really is that good! Both Erikson and Esslemont are known for Malazan novels that build with tension and a whole host of seemingly incongruous plot-threads, but generally about two-thirds of the way through the book a series of convergences begin to occur. This typically culminates in the 'mother of all convergences' near the end of the book, with everything coming flying together, usually in spectacular--and sometimes bloody--fashion.
Blood and Bone begins its mega-convergence pretty much from the first page and just builds like a series of monstrous waves crashing on a rocky shoreline. As I read Blood and Bone I kept thinking about Joseph Conrad's brilliant little novel Heart of Darkness, and I just have to believe that Esslemont must have also been influenced by it as he wrote this book (as well as his anthropological work in Southeast Asia). Additionally, there is a real cinematic quality to Esslemont's writing in this book that very much reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola's film Apocalypse Now (his take on Conrad's Heart of Darkness).
Blood and Bone is set on the island continent of 'Jacaruku' which is bisected by a great range of mountains that run from the northern end to the southern. The western half of the island is home to a group of warring desert tribes people and a brutal society of practitioners of dark and evil magic. The eastern half of Jacaruku is a dense and incredibly dangerous jungle realm known as 'Himatan' that will likely make most readers think of the great jungles in the heart of Africa or the Amazon in South America. And like Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Blood and Bone recounts the stories of the trials and tribulations of several disparate groups of peoples that are all struggling to travel into the interior of this jungle to a fabled lost city--including one group's truly epic journey up a river through the jungle of 'Himatan'. I'm not going to tell you why, except to say that it is all about power--gaining it, or denying it of somebody else.
I think that Blood and Bone is vitally important in helping to answer some questions, or shed significant light on events touched upon in the other novels in Erikson's and Esslemont's Malazan world. If you've been a close reader, you will very much enjoy much of what you discover in this action-packed novel. You're also going to be delighted to encounter some 'old friends' from previous novels, and you're going to love the 'new friends' you're meeting for the first time. While complexly plotted, this is a rollicking good read with loads of action, tension, and a goodly number of moments of mind-numbing terror. As I said at the outset, I think this is Esslemont's best novel yet, and I can't wait to see where he takes us in his next installment. While I have a pretty good guess, I'll let you read Blood and Bone and work that out for yourself. I have no qualms awarding this book five of five stars, it is a truly great story!
Blood and Bone
By Ian C. Esslemont
Bantam Press, UK, Hardcover
January 14, 2013
The premise of The Graveyard Book is of a mysterious man who slays three members of a family, but the fourth member--an 18-month old little baby boy--toddles off in the night and ends up in an old graveyard. He is adopted by the 'residents'--all dead themselves--who range in age from Roman times up to the present. He is taken in and 'raised' by a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Owens, who've been dead for something like 300 years, and is named "Nobody Owens" (nick-named "Bod"). Bod also has a living caretaker, 'Silas', that provides for his material needs whilst keeping him safe as he lives and grows up on the grounds of the cemetery. Bod is in the unique position of being able to essentially cross-walk, if you will, between the land of the living and that of those dead and residing in the cemetery. Bod is given a basic education from former teachers who are now permanent residents in the cemetery. His teachers send him out to practice his reading of English and Latin by studying the plethora of headstones in the cemetery. Bod also learns some nifty little survival tactics, like how to haunt and fade, from all of his dead 'family' and 'friends', and this serves him very well as the mysterious man is still earnestly looking for Bod in order to finish the job. Bod also begins to learn more about his protectors Silas and Miss Lupescu.
Like much of Gaiman's fiction this is a quick read, but the plot and the writing are immensely satisfying. There are all sorts of allusions and references to fairy tales and bits of folklore scattered throughout the book that, taken together, truly cements Gaiman's reputation as a master story-teller in our modern age. The Graveyard Book is a story that I'd love to see somebody (i.e., like Tim Burton, maybe?) endeavor to bring to the 'big screen', as it such a wonderful, wonderful story from start-to-finish.
The Graveyard Book
By Neil Gaiman
Harper Collins, Hardcover, 2008