An Overview of Malazan
There might be a subgenre of epic fantasy, but few readers would dispute that the Malazan novels are among the top even in this category. Not even considering merit, pure scale alone places the Malazan Book of the Fallen as one of the most epic fantasies today. And what is this scope? In the case of the Malazan Book of the Fallen (Erikson’s series), it spans millennia, continents and races, reaching from the individual storylines of the characters to the history of the world itself.
But before I introduce the series, I must provide a caveat (for the Book of the Fallen, anyway): Erikson’s writing is not for everyone. The Malazan series is immensely long and complex, with the just-concluded Book of the Fallen told over the course of ten books, each over 700 pages, and in the case of Toll the Hounds, the eighth novel, 1269 pages. And it’s difficult to find resolution in its mysteries until further into the series.
The Malazan world is entered into by two writers: Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont, both of whom have their own series (although Esslemont’s is less continuous than Erikson’s. Thus, the work is currently divided into two main series. The first is Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, which takes place over ten books, from Gardens of the Moon to The Crippled God. Although each novel, and the series as a whole is complex as to defy complete summary, the common thread in these novels is the dilemma of the Crippled God: a foreign god brought down in pieces and terrible pain, who now poses a threat again. It’s a measure of the series’ ability to defy description that the Crippled God, the series’ possible overarching threat – if there is any – is only introduced in the third book, Memories of Ice.
The second series is the Tales of the Malazan Empire, written by Ian C. Esslemont. Although similarly epic fantasy, these novels are slightly smaller in scale than Erikson’s, although not worse for it – they nevertheless tell a separate and concurrent story. Return of the Crimson Guard, for example, chronicles the period missed in Erikson’s main series: what happened after the Malazan 14th Army left, and Mallick Rel’s ascension. Many readers in fact prefer the Esslemont’s writing, as the individual books are generally clearer both in prose and plot, whereas Erikson’s series involves far more mysteries.
One of the main characters in the Malazan series itself, though, is the world. The two series are definitely recommended for fans of depth in worldbuilding: Erikson himself trained as an archaeologist and anthropologist, and it shows. The world is both intricate and original, with none of the clichés that plague some fantasy. Instead of the typical goblins and orcs, we find instead the Jaghut – a solitary race possessing green skin and tusks, with a few defective ‘Tyrants’ – the K’Chain Che’Malle – matriarchal hive-based lizards, each bred for a task and the almost-extinct makers of now-forgotten machinery.
Although elves could be considered present in the form of the Tiste Liosan, Andii and Edur, Erikson and Esslemont give them new twists – the Andii, for example, cast out from their goddess, are causeless. Their leader, Anomander Rake, thrusts them into conflicts into which they have no involvement simply to stir them from despair.
Erikson’s world also has plenty of mysteries, many – but not all of which – are unravelled over the course of the series. And central to these? The magic system.
Magic in the world of the Malazan Empire is an interesting business. Although there are several forms, one predominates in the books, and this represents an interesting mix of mystery and technicality. If we take wholly mysterious magic as one end – Tolkien, for example – and pretty much rule-based, if partially undiscovered – i.e. Brandon Sanderson – for the other, Erikson sits in the middle. Although the basic system is at first clear, that mages draw their power from ‘warrens’, essentially their own realms, this system is quickly complicated with mysteries, such as the question of their origin. Erikson’s system rapidly becomes more mysterious, and to his credit, he does resolve many of these mysteries throughout the series – while some are left, hopefully to be answered by other novels!
The two series also represent another ‘anyone can die’ setting, somewhat similar to Martin’s. Yes, you might have had a heroic death. On the other hand, you might not: you’re still dead. In the world of Malaz, however, characters do return from death or something like it on occasion, and death is still one of the most common routes to triggering ‘ascension’ – essentially becoming an ascendant, or something similar to a god (with enough worship, anyway!).
As a whole, the two series thus far represent a wonderful foray into an intricately plotted and detailed narrative, and furthermore, into a fleshed out world. It’s not for the faint-hearted or busy – there are ten volumes in the Book of the Fallen, after all! – but it’s very much recommended for more experienced fantasy readers who love their worldbuilding and have the time to venture into Erikson and Esslemont’s world.
Title image by Michael Komarck.