Thoughts on The Malazan Book of the Fallen

I took a five and a half hour bus ride yesterday evening, taking me from Rio de Janeiro back home to Sao Paulo. During that time I read the last third of The Crippled God, the final (tenth) book in Steven Erikson‘s Malazan Book of the Fallen.

This isn’t a review. I’m not sure it’s possible to write a review that adequately encapsulates what Erikson attempted, and largely achieved, with his series. It’s… epic. But not in the way that a lot of authors or publishers or whoever throw around the word epic when describing a fantasy series. It’s EPIC. In big bold letters. Big, bold, carved out of ancient stone letters.

It’s three and half million words, from start to finish. Ten novels each the length of four reasonably-sized novels. It tells a story that I’ve found impossible to completely hold in my mind all at once; I read the first seven, from Gardens of the Moon to Reaper’s Gale, in one first frenzied burst, having just discovered the series. I had to wait six months for Toll the Hounds to be released, but by the time Dust of Dreams came out the events of the first four books had been pushed out by the more recent. So I went back and reread them, books one through nine.

(Then Ian Cameron Esslemont released the first couple of his Malazan Empire novels, and I discovered they slotted within the chronology of Erikson’s books, so I went back, and… Yeah.)

The world Erikson and Esslemont have created is vast, both broad and deep, with a history spanning hundreds of millennia and a cast of thousands. The scale is so ambitious as to beggar belief. And while Esslemont is, for me, a solid writer of enjoyable tales, Erikson at his best is quite wonderful. I can’t think of another writer who can so smoothly blend earth-shattering, epoch-ending battles between gods with heartbreaking insight into the wasted lives of the forgotten, the dying and the destitute.

He goes too far with the philosophy, at times; often four or five pages will go by with a group of soldiers waxing lyrical on futility and the flawed aspects of the human condition. Everyone’s a philosopher, in Erikson’s world, except those who deliberately aren’t; but even those characters painted to be dull, or obtuse, tend to possess an insight into their own nature that’s a little unrealistic.

But that’s artistic licence. And he’s earned the right to it. The stories told over those three and a half million words are gripping, exhilarating, both uplifting and desperately sad. And the moral of those stories… well, it’s that life is hard. And some people are selfish and cruel. But other people are compassionate. There is always war, and only the names and faces change, and everything that happens has happened before–but it’s still worth trying to make it better.

Because there’s always hope.


7 thoughts on “Thoughts on The Malazan Book of the Fallen

  1. So I finished House of Chains a few days ago, with only another 6 books to go (plus the Ian Cameron Esselmont books, which I’m not sure if I should read as I go along or all together at the end).

    It has taken me about 4 months (my younger daughter’s entire life) to read those 4 books – and it looks like 2013 will be “the year of the Malazan Book of the Fallen” in terms of my literature consumption.

    I’m vaguely trying to persuade my wife to try reading them, but then I remember some of the more graphic aspects of the books (paedo-necro-cannibalism* anyone? Or siege ramps built from corpses?) and I think maybe it’s not such a good idea.

    Anyway, glad you’ve finished. I’ll know who to come to when I need to talk Malazan with someone. 🙂

    *I guess if you’re going to have paedo-cannibalism then it’s best that it’s paedo-necro-cannibalism…

    1. It’s generally advised that reading ICM’s books as you go along is the best option. They tell parallel stories, and events from each series do feed into the other to some extent. As the reading order isn’t completely obvious–it’s not the order of publication, for a start–here’s a handy guide:

      KoN is a pacy novella, RotC was great, SW was an 800-word trudge which got good in the last hundred pages, and OST was very good. (I’ve not read Blood and Bone yet, and Assail’s yet to be released.)

      Good luck recommending them to anyone; just make sure you give the caveat that they’re pretty much unrelentingly grim, with just occasional flashes of extremely black humour to lighten the mood 🙂

  2. I first read Gardens of the Moon years ago and hated it. I was reading a lot if heroic fantasy at the time and I couldn’t enjoy Erikson’s more gritty vision. A few years later I tried again and loved the series. Gardens of the Moon is still very much a first novel with all the inconsistencies you would expect, but the writing and characterisation just gets better as the series progresses. I agree with your point about not being able to hold all the books in your head. The series is best read in one go. I didn’t read the Esselmont books and it had no impact on my enjoyment. I’m currently wading through the Wheel of Time from start to finish and you can see how much the fantasy genre has changed in the 20 years between this and Erikson, Abercrombie er al.

    1. Completely agree. I grew up reading stuff like Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara series, which was entertaining at the time, but I don’t think I could stomach it now. The whole black and white, good and evil type of heroic fantasy just doesn’t do it for me any more. I want gritty complexity, dammit! 🙂

  3. I loved this article, Dan. I got to Reaper’s Gale, but have yet to finish it. But that’s mostly my fault for having too many other things to read and write.

    1. Glad to hear it! It’s very much worth your perseverance. The end of Reaper’s Gale made me yelo with excitement the first time I read it, and the next book (Toll the Hounds) is my favourite of the series.

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