Dust of Dreams is the ninth of the planned 10 books of the Malazan Book of the Fallen epic fantasy series by Steven Erikson. Familiarity with the story up to this point is essential to understanding what's going on; this is definitely not a place to jump in if you haven't been following the series. Unlike the previous Malazan books, which are part of a larger story but meant to have some sort of resolution within each individual book, Dust of Dreams ends on a cliffhanger that will be continued directly in the forthcoming tenth and final book, The Crippled God.
(Newcomers should start at the beginning with Gardens of the Moon. I highly recommend the whole series for fantasy fans, especially if you enjoy books like Glen Cook's Black Company series)
The Bonehunters, renegade former Army of the Malazan Empire, have crossed the seas to the continent of Lether, a previously isolated land where beings of tremendous power are converging. Adjunct Tavore, their leader, intends to lead them past the civilized lands of the Empire of Letheras into the barren Wastelands beyond, and from there to the distant land of Kolanse- for reasons she will reveal to no one. Outlawed in their native lands and half a world away from everything they've ever known, the bone hunters have only their trust in the Adjunct and their loyalty to their comrades in arms to drive them as they march towards a lonely, lifeless land on a mission they don't comprehend or expect to survive.
Their allies have reached Lether are on the move to join them: the veteran cavalryman of the Khundryl Burned Tears and the Grey Helms, a warrior-cult dedicated to the war gods Togg and Fanderay. Meanwhile, other forces are at work. The matron of the last surviving bastion of the K'Chain Chemelle, the ancient species whose hive-like societies once dominated much of the world, is making a desperate and seemingly mad bid to save her people- one that rests on a human woman. Onos Toolan, the ancient and formerly undead warrior who has become chieftain of the nomadic White Face Barghast, struggles to maintain peace in the face of clan leaders and other rivals calling who are calling for war against the neighbors of the barghast and increasingly resentful of their new leader's opposition. The Errant, one of the ancient Elder Gods who ruled the world in its prehistory before being displaced by a younger generation of deities, is gathering his fellows in the hope of making a bid to regain his ancient power and glory. And somewhere in the midst of these events lurks the Crippled God, whose machinations to free himself from his torment and imprisonment have laid whole nations to waste.
I really enjoyed Dust of Dreams. Stylistically, the book lies somewhere between the more straightforward earlier books in the series and the more introspective and occasionally digressive style of its immediate predecessor, Toll the Hounds. The balance is mostly pretty successful, moving the action along steadily while still giving a lot of time to build up atmosphere. There are parts that get a bit too verbose, but the the book as a whole was more than strong enough to keep me reading. Erikson has a talent for evoking emotion through both large-scale, often cataclysmic events and individual struggles and tragedies, and the combination of the deeply personal and the implacably, pitilessly impersonal side by-side is very effective
The Malazan series has always been quite dark, despite containing a good deal of humor and inspiring heroism, and Dust of Dreams is even more so. The tone is relentlessly grim and foreboding, something reinforced by the book's events, the descriptions of the bleak, empty expanses on which most of the action takes place, and the thoughts of the characters as they march onward in a seemingly hopeless and senseless cause.
This is one of the ways the vast history of Erikson's setting, stretching back across hundreds of thousands of years, pays off. It's particularly striking in this book, and it adds a lot to the atmosphere. We finally get a close look at the K'Chain Chemelle- hundreds of thousands of years ago the world's dominant intelligent species and builders of wonders far beyond any achievement of humans, now a single isolated enclave barely clinging to existence. We learn more of the ancient history of the Tiste Andii; once the race whose vast power cast down the dominion of the K'Chain Chemelle, now themselves a fading remnant that has all but vanished from the world. Lether itself is changing, it's long isolation and stasis shattered by the arrival of the Malazans. The Errant and his fellow Elder Gods, who once commanded fundamental forces of the world and were worshiped with vast offerings of blood and human sacrifice, are a shadow of what they once were and have been all but forgotten. The weight of history feels almost crushing, with vast gulfs of time swallowing up even the mightiest beings and empires, every civilization and event built atop the dust of countless once-glorious races, nations, and even gods long since dead and forgotten.
The darkness can seem almost overwhelming at times, and it's added to buy some brutal emotional punches in the story. Despite this, it still- like the previous Malazan books- has a certain positivity that distinguishes it from a lot of other fantasy on the darker, grittier end of the spectrum. The heroism of many of the characters, whether they're marching off to war like the Bonehunters or struggling to prevent one like Onos Toolan, is in many places quite inspiring and moving, and grows even more so set against the dark background of Erikson's story and setting.
I definitely recommend Dust of Dreams for anyone who's followed the Malazan series so far. It's a rewarding continuation of the series so far and a fine buildup to the series' climax in The Crippled God.