Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Malazan Book of the Fallen - Dark, Complex... Worth a Read?

A lot of the time I spend not writing or playing games is spent reading, typically fantasy novels. I've had an uptick in reading activity of late, which is not surprising considering that my Kindle is still very new. One series in particular has dominated the vast bulk of my time spent with the Kindle, and I'd like to talk about my early impressions of it now that I'm well into the second book. The Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Stephen Erikson (and additional novels set in the world by Ian C. Esselmont) is a dark fantasy epic comprised of 10 books published between 1999 and 2011. The series final book, The Crippled God was released just this February.
Cover art for the first book, showing Andromander Rake, a character reminiscent
of a cross between a drow and Elric of Melnibone.

Many people start as I did, with the first novel, Gardens of the Moon, and never make it through. Malazan books are surprisingly heavy reading in a genre whose critics often chide it for being too light and bereft of any real substance. The setting is complex, the cast of characters is huge, and the exposition is nonexistent. As a result, many readers struggle to keep track of all of the different characters, their motivations and alliances, and the lack of background means that even when the action isn't hard to follow, sometimes the purpose behind it is. As motivations become clearer and details slowly fill themselves in from context, I don't necessarily consider these statements a downside to the series.

The books have been compared most often to Glen Cook's The Black Company series and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (the series that inspires Game of Thrones). Like Martin's Westeros, the world containing the Malazan Empire has a deep, rich history and the story presented in both follow a large number of viewpoint characters through complicated and often political plots. The stark, gritty and sometimes overwhelmingly dark tones are reminiscent of Cook, and there are characters similar to the grim mercenaries of the Black Company in the Malazan world, both series of books also present magic as an incredibly powerful and often destructive force, capable of wiping out armies or even nations.

The final book in the 10 part series. At least one fantasy series completed before the author's death.

A lot of summaries of Malazan novels start as I have, talking more about what the novels are like, rather that what they are about. This is because the question “So what are the books about?” is harder to answer. The backdrop for the stories presented in the books is the Malazan Empire's war of conquest and its internal struggle to wipe out the memories of the last Emperor, as the current Empress assassinated him and usurped his position. Powerful beings involve themselves in the conquests surrounding the Malazan Empire, including surviving members of nearly extinct founding races (one of which survived, after a fashion by becoming undead) and the gods, who are similar to the Greco-Roman Pantheon in terms of their direct interference in mortal affairs.

The high magic and intricate cultures presented in the novels come naturally from the origins of the creation of the world in which the novels are set. Erikson, a trained archaeologist and anthropologist from Canada created the world along with Esselmont as a campaign setting, first for Dungeons and Dragons, and later to be used for tabletop gaming using the GURPS rules. Gardens of the Moon was originally a screenplay written by both men, who unsuccessfully pitched it as a feature film. Erikson rewrote the screenplay as a novel, with much of the original material appearing as the book's third act. As more distinct cultures with their own traditions, worldview and distinctive feel appear in the books, it is easy to see the influence of Erikson's academic training in anthropology.
Stephen Erikson, reading a book much smaller than any of the ones he's written.

Overall, I've really enjoyed the books so far despite (or maybe because of) how difficult they are to read. My main criticism of the work at this point (and I may change my opinion as I get further into the series) is that plots are frequently resolved through Deus Ex Machina. The frequent timely interventions and convenient turns of fate are somewhat forgivable in the first novel, given that the god(s) of Luck are personally involved in the events described. The sudden appearance and intervention of one of these gods or other powerful beings sometimes damages the tension created in storytelling, as it is hard to maintain suspense when you know that the character whose story you follow may be saved at the last minute or have their plans dashed to bits by an ultra-powerful entity at any moment.

There have been a few moments, elements and characters that have made pushing through the series page by page all worthwhile. I particularly liked the assassins' rooftop war, at one point turning into a three-way conflict between groups of highly-trained killers with powerful wizards supporting them, which is a main feature near the end of the first book. I also really like the concept of the Jaghut, an ancient race who eventually decided to go their separate ways and live in isolation, as they believe that community leads to a desire to exercise power over others, and Jaghuts are susceptible to the lure of tyranny, often leading destructive empires of slaves for many years until they are destroyed. The Deck of Dragons, a tarot-like magical fortune reading device also predicts and explains some of the main events in the story when it is used, especially in a funny scene where a group of soldiers is using it to play cards with a “wild talent” dealing as they gamble, their hands revealing important events many miles away.

Artist rendering of the start of the rooftop war, something unpleasant en route to the fan.

Many people have strong opinions about the series when they first encounter it, most either decide very quickly to love it or hate it. Even with my few objections, I'm coming down in the “love it” camp.
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Alpha said...

I really need to catch up on my fantasy reading...

Rob said...

I haven't read any fantasy books in a long time, I need to get back into them.

LifeHacks said...

Sounds like an epic read for sure and I'm going to get it!

The Angry Lurker said...

I have just started A Song of Fire and Ice, always up for a good fantasy series.

G said...

great review - might be one for holiday

Jay said...

thanks, i might look for this. :D

Bonjour Tristesse said...

The second half of the first book is great, and the 2nd and 3rd books are really amazing.

I stopped reading after Midnight Tides, but now that the last book is out, I think I might start up again.

Patti D. said...

I haven't read it but at least it's big so you get a lot to read for the same price...

You can visit my blog here.

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