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Malazan Book of the Fallen – Redux

Gardens of the Moon (cover 2)So, over a period of close to a year, I’ve waxed lyrical about Erikson’s epic series Malazan Book of the Fallen but, with today’s demands on our time, the question remains, should you even bother?

Chances are good that you can guess my answer to this question but it may not be as clear cut as a simple yes, for, if the story were as accessible as perhaps it should be, then I doubt that it would have taken someone four years or so, to have reviewed the series for Fantasy-Faction. Before I try one last time to encourage you to pick up book one, Gardens of the Moon, let me tell you a few of the reasons why you maybe shouldn’t read this masterwork, which takes all of the wonder and strength of Greek tragedy and drops it into a robust and compelling fantasy setting.

First, Erikson clearly hates his readers. And by this, I don’t mean the kind of tenterhooks many authors are known for; such as George RR and his penchant for killing off the beloved, or the outright recycling of stories one might accuse Eddings of having perpetrated. No, Erikson’s hatred of his readers is structural.

Memories of Ice (cover)Chapter breaks: more than just the skeleton of any narrative, they also help the reader to compartmentalise the story into its significant elements yet to Erikson, they are a nuisance, at least so it seems. Who knows; maybe Erikson’s advice from his editors was ‘in a work this long, just keep the reader moving forward, so don’t interrupt them with chapter breaks’; or it might have been something like ‘the characters are going through hell, why not share some of that with the reader’. There are times when reaching the end of a chapter feels like finding an unexpected oasis in the desert. And while the moments of relief these oases provide is palpable, they also shouldn’t be so far and few between.

On the other hand, as far as interesting reading experiences go, perhaps that editor’s advice isn’t so far from the mark. Most of us have read books and series where the structure could have done with some amendment; too many chapter breaks is as bad as too few, so who am I to tell Erikson how long each chapter should be?

Next is the prose. It’s dense, it’s florid, and, because it’s a point worth repeating, it’s dense. This will be off-putting for many, but it’s not like you’re being asked to pick up something written in olde English; it just takes a bit of acclimatisation, is all.

Toll the Hounds (cover)Last is the way Erikson plunges you into the story. I vividly recall reading Gardens…for the first time and thinking “who….what….”, along with a host of other questions but, again, this is more of an acclimatisation issue than a failing. Also, reading on in the face of uncertainty forces many a reader to wonder, “what if the author can’t get their shit together in time for it to make any kind of sense?” Thankfully Erikson’s storytelling doesn’t leave you stranded, and it makes sense soon enough.

Should you therefore decide to give this series a go, the above is an honest accounting of all that will stand in your way. To balance, if not tip in outright favour, the pans of the scale, there is a host of reasons to read this series, and if you’ve scanned through some of my reviews of each of the books, you’ll know why. But a brief recap is in order, as well as a few new points that have occurred to me recently:

– It’s finished! No worries about your author dropping off the perch before the series is complete – this one is all locked up; just the way the author wanted it. And, apart from a minor deviation or two, it all holds together superbly.

– Epical epicness to end all epicness: Beowulf, Ulysses, The Aeneid, LoTR, The Wheel of Time; good as these and almost any other exposition of the form are, they are all eclipsed by Erikson’s work. Treat yourself to a story that dares to tackle such breadth and scope.

– The feels: it hurts so good; it lifts you up; it crashes you down. When it is done right, an author getting the feels right is as good a reason as any to read a story. Erikson gets it right about 94.65% of the time.

– Oh the in-humanity! Erikson combines the weft of mortal drama and the weave of immortal intrigue so well, and has designed a tapestry so large, that it may well be some time before another story allows us to explore how different races might experience each other in as grand a way as this one.

The Crippled God (cover)– The characters: Shake your fist at Rallick Mel, pull your hair at Shadowthrone, be humbled by Beak, feel protective of Felesin, endure the labours of Toc and Onos, laugh at Kruppe, cry at Mappo, thrill at Kalam, wonder at Quick Ben, endure with Strings/Fiddler, be dwarfed by Anomander; I could go on.

I doubt whether any additional words from me would be able to convince you to give this series a go, but if you’re in for an adventure unlike anything you’ve read before; one that stands head and shoulders above the pap that generally passes for storytelling, then come and join those of us who are in the know about all that is in this terrific series.

And so to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this redux, it is definitely worth picking up this series.

I give it 10/10.

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Rating: 9.7/10 (38 votes cast)
Malazan Book of the Fallen – Redux, 9.7 out of 10 based on 38 ratings
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26 Comments

  1. Hedin says:

    The chapters thing is what I struggled with early on, it felt like I had teach myself a new way to read. I think the chapters are what make the books feel so dense, I kept waiting for the natural pause the end of the chapter gives and you rarely get them.

    The other hard thing was keeping track of timelines and who is where doing what when. The series doesn’t follow the same set of characters from book to book nor does it have a direct linear timeline from book to book; you have a lot of different groups of characters you follow in different parts of the world and a lot of the events in each book overlap events in other books. it does take a little work to keep it all straight but once you do you realize the epicness of the story.

    Those points (and the ones in the artciles) seem like a lot of negatives for reading the series but really once you get yourself immersed into it all you won’t regret it. You’ll soon get used and adapt to the structure and really fall in love with the characters and the series. For me it’s the best series I have ever read and it’s one I don’t see being topped very easily.

  2. Gabriel Guerrero says:

    I started off hating Gardens of the Moon and dropped out after around fifty pages, mainly for one of the reasons you stated above–the way he drops you into the narrative without much explanation. A year later after that try, and I’ve no idea why I did this, I gave it another shot and got hooked.
    The thing with this series is that you have to pay attention. Despite the simple prose, Erikson will casually mention important details that require you to pay attention…well, everything. The poems, the historical snippets, the proverbs, the way everyone relates to each other. He’s a poet through and through and will not back down from it.
    Once I put some effort into, it clicked. I couldn’t stop reading it. I’ve only read the Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates, and it’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to read something more complex than a cooking recipe. But I might just start over and read the series straight through–which I never do! 🙂

    • That’s the spirit!

      I guess I probably underestimated the “pay attention” factor for first time readers, because at times you’ll be happily reading something and then realise it relates to something that seemed unimportant three books ago!

      For first time readers, I recommend just keep going. Most of it is bloody important if you want to start joining dots between First Empire and the K’Chain Che’malle, or between Chaos, Mother Dark and Draconus, but in the end this is the back story. This is the Bridgeburners and the Bonehunters story.

      For me, what is so terrific about Erikson’s writing is that it makes you want to come to grips with the mostly in-human back story, as much as the story of the here and now.

  3. Ahimsa says:

    For me, it wasn’t the lack of chapters or the prose that made it difficult to read. (I did get 6 or 7 books in before giving up.) It was 1) The humor, which felt forced and not funny to me. 2.) It seemed like every time a bad ass character was presented, Erikson would then introduce a whole ‘nother warrior (or race) that was even stronger. The first dozen times he did this, it was fine, but after a while the trick got old.

    • Good points Ahimsa, though you could say this about Star Trek and Buffy too.

      I’ve given up on long series too for similar reasons. You gave it a red hot go, and other than the satisfaction that comes from experiencing the ending in all its glory, I hope you got some gems out of the books you read.

      Any if you thought Erikson’s humour was a little forced at times, I wouldn’t recommend you read any of Esslemont’s contributions to the Malazan world,

      Best
      Karl

      • Ahimsa says:

        To be fair, I can’t watch Star Trek or (especially) Buffy either! Not my jam. But I get the appeal to Malaaan. Kind of like a literary Dragon Ball Z. As a lifelong fan of barbarians, I did appreciate the Karsa Orlong character as well.

  4. Jon_Anon says:

    Best fantasy series I’ve ever read.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for that interesting review! I had a weird introduction to the series by picking out a random book at my library – I think it was Return of the Crimson Guard. It was amazing, but difficult to keep on top of. Perhaps now is the time to read the rest of the series in chronological order.

  6. Leanne Ellis says:

    I am glad you enjoyed these books. Steven Erikson is the writer I wish I could be. The scale of his world and characters defies description.

  7. The main reason I never got to read this series is that you almost never see any argument why it’s actually good. It’s usually “Yes, it has this, and this, and this flaw, but that doesn’t matter because it’s really good, trust me”.

    • algon 33 says:

      Excellent characters, for one, not your usual 2-dimensional crap. Erikson frequently creates empathetic characters (include the one-time ones). The magic system is intriguing, and it gives the author a fair bit of freedom, whilst not feeling hand-wavey. The world is a beautiful feat of imagination, on a scale and quality I have never before encountered. It feels huge, and it feels alive. The writing can be so very beautiful, and the author is not afraid to take the story in emotionally painful directions, but the deaths never feel cheap, or for the sake of drama. Really, just treat yourself.

      • Nate says:

        Having just finished Gardens, I found most of the characters to be two dimensional, and by the end I did not develop any sense of caring about any of them except Kruppe.

        For me it was a real tedious read just for that reason.

  8. David says:

    I wish I could get on board. I really do. I’ve read the first two books of the series – twice each! – pumped up by the enthusiasm of people like you. Each page was a test of my patience. I know fans think Deadhouse Gates is brilliant, but for me it’s no better than Gardens. Both books are full of long descriptive passages of things that don’t seem to carry much emotional weight. The characters, which so many praise, feel like two-dimensional archetypes who have long, befuddling conversations in which they exchange gnomic reflections on their situation or history or the gods. Then, once in a while, one of them will announce a major plot development – “It seems he has been in league with the empress all along!” – seemingly out of the blue. I can live with the slowly-revealed world-building and the ambiguous politics and the shifty motives, but I can’t live with characters I don’t feel I know, because if I don’t know them, I can’t care about them. I recently did my second read of the books thinking that this time I’d be ready to move on to the third, and that’s where I’d start enjoying it, but, like with the first time, I just felt beaten down by the time I finished. Do the characters become more vivid in the third book?

    • HI David,

      Hey – you’ve given it every change to grab you, there’s nothing wrong with that. If it’s hard going – I dare say its not going to change for you as you go through the series.

      Yes there’s more depth to every character as the series goes on, but there is also a ton more characters who get introduced with the same Erikson style, so perhaps the problem will renew.

      You might want to try some of Esslemont’s contributions to the Malazan world, to see if his style is more suited to you. There are some good ones and some ordinary ones from Ian – try Return of the Crimson Guard.

      Cheers
      Karl

      • David says:

        I don’t know if anyone will even read this at this point, but over the past few days I’ve been mulling over why these books didn’t click for me, and I figured I might as well post my conclusions. I’d love for others to weigh in, especially if they disagree. I think my major issue is that while Erikson is obviously great at creating a vast, complicated, deep world, I don’t feel he knows how to convey character motivation. After finishing Deadhouse Gates, I felt like I had absolutely no idea what was driving Mappo & Icarium. I get the millennia-spanning tragedy, but not why they should care about what they are doing right now. Duiker’s only motivation seems to be a historian. Coltain wants to command. Etc. I don’t honestly know what Fiddler cares about in this book. The big picture is wonderful, but on the level of character, there is so little to drive the story forward. Compare this to, for example, A Game of Thrones. Martin is less effective about this in later books, but in that first volume, every chapter has a drive – he or she desperately wants something, or wants to escape something, or needs to discover something, and those drives are related to who those characters are. There is rich psychological complexity. When I finished Deadhouse Gates, I had no idea what drove most of the characters. Later, I found myself thinking about the world, and that was enough to tempt me to try volume 3, but I’m not sure it will be enough.

        • Hi David,

          Thanks for giving us a bit more information about your experience.

          On the whole, I agree with your points and the example of Mappo and Icarium is a good one. And it is a little bit like the way the writing makes assumptions about a reader’s level of interest in the Bridgeburners; an assumption that is only rewarded as the story unfolds, so too with these characters.

          From my experience, I did find connecting with many of the characters to be difficult at first, however I didn’t find this to be fatal to my enjoyment of the overall story. In fact, at times it added to it! But I can certainly understand the frustration.

          In one of my reviews, I pointed to the interesting tidbit that the series started off as a role playing game among some friends. IN this sense, you can see how the Mappo and Icarium arc started as a ‘random encounter’ which then weaves itself into the story as it unfolds. That arcs like this only find their full expression deep, deep, deep in the series challenged me as a reader but also rewarded me by not setting characters too much in stone. It allowed me to get to know them by watching them react to their own trials and tribulations, rather than by a few sweeping descriptions that stick all the way through.

          Erikson’s teasing out of characters makes them vibrant but it does take some time, which clearly isn’t going to suit everyone. You are not alone in this, and it is a very valid criticism of Erikson’s style.

          All the best,
          Karl

  9. xiagan says:

    Just finished the Crippled God and you’re absolutely right. There is nothing of that scope in Epic Fantasy out there and Erikson’s writing of some scenes is outright brilliant.
    Btw, your last reviews were always in time with me reading the books.
    If you’re interested, we have a read along section in the FF forums with multiple threads to every book. 🙂

  10. Adam says:

    I love these books. And all the problems that some people have with them are what makes the series so strong in my opinion. Erikson doesn’t give you stuff for free – its inaccessibility was really refreshing. The books get better with the more effort you put in, which will mean it won’t appeal to everyone.

    But the breadth and depth of his characters is absurdly good. He has easily some of the most badass characters in fantasy here. I love the fact that the cast includes a mixture of Gods, humans, other races in other realms – especially as the theme he often comes back to is that humans can shape the world despite the meddling from the gods, and their sacrifices and actions actually mean something.

    The scope of his imagination is staggering (and from a pragmatic perspective, he releases books regularly, once a year usually). And also, brave. He often entirely switches his narrative away from more conventional plotlines and popular characters to something wholly new – I love it but I could see why it may bother other readers. The trick is to just keep reading and let it wash over you.

    On the whole though, I think I would say that erikson has the crown for the best epic fantasy series at the moment.

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