Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Malazan Book of the Fallen

Written by Steven Erikson

Consisting of: Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice, House of Chains, Midnight Tides, The Bonehunters, Reapers Gale, Toll the Hounds, Dust of Dreams, The Crippled God

More than two years and ten books later, I have finally reached the conclusion of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Your mileage may vary on your response to the fact that my immediate desire is to go back and re-read it; it’s partly because I really enjoyed it, and am thoroughly in awe of the world that Erikson has created (well, co-created, but more on that later), but it is also because of the amount of detail I feel I’ve missed.

As you may guess from the figures at the start, this isn’t a short series. The shortest book, Gardens of the Moon, clocks in at just under eight hundred pages, while the later books could probably be used as offensive weapons, or be used to recreate scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I personally don’t view that as a negative quality, with the sole exception of when I’m trying to read them on the train, but it is worth bearing in mind. They are books you have to work at. To give you another figure, when settling down to write this post, I swung by Wikipedia and made my own little list of those characters I considered to be main ones. It clocked in at sixty, and that doesn’t even cover all the characters that get point of view scenes. I struggled to remember characters from earlier books when they reappeared, and events sometimes escaped me completely – you may feel that you need to read them with a notebook at your side to take notes.

This is a deliberate choice on Erikson’s part. My edition of Gardens of the Moon comes with a foreword which doubles as a warning, effectively saying “Yes, I’m going to drop you in at the deep end and you’re going to have to concentrate to get through it all. Sink or swim, dear reader.” This isn’t an inherent problem with the books, but again, it’s something to bear in mind before setting out on it, particularly because Erikson seems to view the books not just as a story, but windows into the world of the books; large swathes of the books are given over to essentially unimportant characters who may only get that one scene. Such scenes serve the thematic arcs of the individual books, of course, but it’s a style that can be off-putting.

The main attraction to the series is the setting. Erikson is an anthropologist by trade, and it shows in the depth and sense of realism of the world. More than any other series I’ve read, with the possible exception of Tolkien’s works, you feel as if it’s a real place. It helps that Erikson devised much of the setting and story with a friend, Ian Cameron Esslemont, who is an archaeologist in addition to writing stories set within the Malazan universe. Given that some of the books have their roots in events of several hundred thousands of years previously, and take in a wide range of cultures, their expertise is a clear benefit, and sets them apart from the vast quantities of fantasy that may well take in events of the past, but don’t necessarily feel like they involve actual history. And that’s really what the series is; a history of this world, with all that entails.

Beyond that, in many ways it’s a fairly typical fantasy setting, just done really, really well – it actually started out as a setting for Erikson and Esslemont’s Dungeons and Dragons game, which they then developed into a film script (which no-one wanted) before agreeing to write novels set within the universe (Esslemont has his own series, under the banner of Novels of the Malazan Empire, which focus more on the politics of the series; they’re now on my to read list). You have all the usual tropes: Gods, wizards, emperors, soldiers, assassins, thieves, nobles, urchins, elves (sort of), orcs (sort of), long forgotten schemes, barbarian heroes (sort of…well, barbarians definitely, but not quite so much with the heroism), cursed artefacts…the list goes on. It is really the scope and depth that singles the series out, and there were times when I felt like I was reading a retelling of something that had actually happened, more-so than any other fantasy story I’ve ever read, more-so in fact than some historical fiction. It’s the magnificent sense of place – and, for me, that insight into the wider, plot irrelevant context of the world.

Further appeal is found in the (massive) range of characters, with some of the most memorable creations I’ve read in a long time. The mercurial, sly wizard, Quick Ben, the messianic Anomander Rake, the deconstructive (in both the literary and almost literal sense) Karsa Orlong, the witty genius Tehol Beddict and his man-servant with hidden depths, Bugg…I could go on. But even the various species stick in the mind, with some inventive twists on some classic ideas. The most obvious are the T’Lan Imass and the K’Chain Che’malle; the former cast themselves into an undead state to wage war against their oppressors, functionally wiping their own species out in the process, while the latter are basically a race of zombie velociraptors with swords for hands.

In common with an awful lot of fantasy fiction these days, it isn’t a cheerful read, although if you’re reading a series titled Book of the Fallen, you have to expect a certain amount of death and destruction. Where it does differ though, is that the misery rarely feels like it’s there for the sake of misery or angst. When I read George R.R. Martin’s books, I occasionally feel like a character has been killed to provide a shock; in the Malazan series, it just feels like the logical conclusion of that characters arc, or at the very least, a logical result of the events happening around that character. Again, the world building helps with this, and while it may be a dangerous, bleak place to live, it still appeals, still feels…well, fantastical, perhaps. There’s danger, of course, and pain, and suffering (that rather being the key theme of the series, in a way), but it always feels justified.

That may or may not be a negative aspect of the books for you; similarly, Erikson’s writing is potentially divisive. He is much given to purple prose, especially in those books which feature the verbose Kruppe. For the most part it’s more or less acceptable, depending on your personal preferences, but even those who favour elaborate description and dialogue might tire of the sections where Erikson wanders off into philosophical musings. Whatever your opinion of the prose style, or the necessity of such scenes, the fact that characters often seem to break off from their own voice to talk in more intellectual tones is a significant flaw.

Given though that the series spans ten books, plus a prequel trilogy (only the first instalment of which has been published so far) and a sequence of side novels, the vast majority of which run to doorstopper status, that the occasional out of character moment is the only genuine, non-subjective flaw I can really spot is a hell of a recommendation. I’ll freely admit that the series isn’t for everyone; it’s literature that you need to work at, and it is certainly not a fun filled romp, but if you’re willing to stick at it, there is an awful lot to reward you.

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