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.

Epic.