What I love about the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson
An enthusiastic yet critical Malazan Book of the Fallen Review.
Why am I in love with Erikson’s epic fantasy series?
It’s the pantheon of mysteries, powerful, larger-than-life characters put in the geographically vast and historically deep world that does it for me.
Yes, it could be confusing and difficult to read (probably the series that took me the most time to finish), but its shortcomings serve a purpose and for me, the results are worth it.
If you want to find out if Steven Erikson’s masterpiece is for you, read on.
If you think Malazan is your cup of tea, you can get it on Amazon to support the author (and the publication, we get a small cut as affiliates!):
MBOTF is a controversial series. Diehard fans are swearing it’s the greatest thing in the world, while plenty of people are giving it one-star reviews and are baffled how someone could possibly enjoy reading it.
So, I’ll try to explain why I love the Malazan Book of the Fallen, while at the same time outlining as objectively as possible how the books can put some people off.
Malazan’s Plot: a means to an end
I’ll start with what I believe is one major reason some people are turned off from the Malazan series: the books (and the whole series) are most definitely not plot-driven.
This is a huge flaw for people that love intrigue, mystery, thrillers, and plot twists above all else. In the MBOTF there are many, many characters with many loosely connected subplots of their own, many philosophical outpourings that don’t move things forward, etc. The pace definitely could feel sluggish for three-quarters of each book (in the final act it usually picks up).
Yet, this approach serves a purpose. Erikson might have chosen to stick to a few viewpoint characters to move their story forward more dynamically. Yet, this isn’t his goal. It might be fair to say that the plot(s) in MBOTF books are just a means to an end: they allow you to get to know many different intriguing characters, feel the vast world from a lot of different viewpoints, and understand the overarching theme of the series better (civilization, history, war, compassion).
Finding out what happens isn’t the major reason you’d want to read those books. The major reasons are:
Malazan’s Characters: larger than life
“Kallor shrugged. ‘[…] I have walked this land when the T’lan Imass were but children. I have commanded armies a hundred thousand strong. I have spread the fire of my wrath across entire continents, and sat alone upon tall thrones. Do you grasp the meaning of this?’
‘Yes,’ [said Caladan Brood.] ‘You never learn.”
The Malazan Book of the Fallen has the best characters you’ve ever seen in fantasy.
Or the worst, depending on what you’re looking for.
Let me try to unpack this bundle of confusion. Characters could either be very grounded, relatable, human (e.g. Ron Weasley), or they could be larger-than-life, out-of-this-world, mysterious, epic, awe-inspiring (e.g. Gandalf). It is a spectrum. Malazan Book of the Fallen definitely puts a heavy emphasis on the second type.
The bad side of this coin is that some of the “ordinary” people in the book (even viewpoint characters) could feel bland and shallow as if they exist just to serve as a window through which you can see the cooler, more epic stuff. You will rarely feel a strong emotional attachment.
The good side is that the larger-than-life characters are extremely attractive and you’ll find yourself craving to learn more about them while the author throws breadcrumbs your way.
Larger-than-life characters are where the Malazan Book of the Fallen shines. The way they are built makes them so mysterious, epic, and with such grand backstories, that I don’t believe other works of fiction often come close.
If someone asks me who the biggest badass you’ve ever read about is, I’d answer:
The First Son of Darkness. The Knight of Darkness. The Black-Winged Lord. The Wielder of Dragnipur. The Lord of Moon’s Spawn. The Slayer of Draconus.
Anomander. Fucking. Rake.
“Rake was an atmosphere, a heart-thudding, terror-threaded presence no-one could ignore, much less escape. Violence, antiquity, sombre pathos, and darkest horror — the Son of Darkness was a gelid eddy in immortality’s current,”
He’s the white-haired dude sitting on top of the pile of bodies (that he killed over the ages) staring into the wall of chaos.
If the above titles, image, and quote tickled you the right way, if you want to learn more about this Anomander guy, then probably the Malazan book of the fallen is for you.
If you rolled your eyes — you’d better go read something else.
Malazan’s Setting: vast & epic
“Children are dying.”
Lull nodded. “That’s a succinct summary of humankind, I’d say. Who needs tomes and volumes of history? Children are dying. The injustices of the world hide in those three words.”
When talking about setting in fantasy, the golden standard is Tolkien’s Middle Earth (or more accurately Tolkien’s Arda).
While Tolkien’s world is deeper linguistically and mythologically, I’d argue Malazan’s world is more complex and occasionally deeper culturally, geographically, anthropologically, and in other random areas.
Both depth and scope are impressive, which is important for most people that read epic fantasy, but there’s one other thing that distinguishes the Malazan Book of the Fallen’s world-building from most fantasy.
First of all, it has a very distinct feel and atmosphere:
- Middle Earth feels like a classical, romantic, clean playground for the age-long battle between the forces of good and evil. It’s clearly inspired by mythology.
- Westeros feels like a realistic, gritty representation of the Middle Ages where the battle between good and evil happens within the heart of every character. It’s clearly inspired by a specific period in human history and it’s political struggles.
- The Malazan world feels like it’s bigger than the characters and stories in it. The battles between good and evil inside or outside of the individual are ultimately futile. The powerful forces of the world are indifferent and time, sooner or later, crushes everything to dust. Rather than focusing on a specific time period, it feels as if it’s inspired by nature, civilizations, and the passage of time. Erikson has a background in archaeology and anthropology and it has a strong influence on Malazan’s setting.
Second, Erikson seems to fear info-dumps (in any shape or form) more than death:
- Erikson throws you into the scene, and if two characters are talking about something they know about but you don’t — that’s too bad for you. You better listen carefully and try to put the puzzle together next time the same topic comes up in another scene (Maybe 5 books later. Which makes the series quite enjoyable on a re-read.).
- There is no convenient apprentice character to whom everyone else explains how things work. If there are characters who don’t understand things, the other characters are more likely to smirk at them rather than give an explanation.
- The viewpoint characters don’t explain things in their minds as well (no exposition through internal monologue). They often muse about civilization, war, and the human condition, but they most certainly don’t give convenient explanations of things they already know about (how the world/magic works, etc.).
All of this is absolutely great for your sense of immersion. And it is absolutely terrible for your sense of knowing what’s going on.
The result is something I haven’t gotten from any other fantasy series.
When you get deeper and deeper into the Malazan world, your level of understanding slowly but surely rises and some pieces of the puzzle start clicking, which is very satisfying. You get a sense that you are part of a huge, dynamic, living world, rather than a hollow construct built to serve a story.
It feels like the story just takes place in the world, and as in the real world, it happens simultaneously with many, many other stories involving many, many other characters with their own motivations you’ll never know about.
Again, this is great for some people and terrible for others. If you love to put the puzzle together as you go along, you’ll love it. If being confused most of the time rubs you wrong and makes reading further difficult — it’s not for you.
Malazan’s Prose: verbose, but full of gems
To put the final nail in the coffin for people who are turned off from the plot/characters/setting, Erikson’s writing isn’t the easiest to consume. He’s not afraid to use large words and to tackle deep concepts.
While some authors have a thing for overly-detailed descriptions, Erikson has a thing for philosophy.
This makes his series one of the most quotable pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. It also makes the books hard to read for people that just want to know what happens next rather than explore the philosophical musings of every character.
Yet, if you have the needed patience, you can find a lot of beauty and emotion in his words:
“My arms wrapped about little Jala, little sister, hot with fever but the fire grew too hot, and so, in my arms, her flesh cooled to dawn-stone, mother keening — Jala was the ember now lifeless, and from that day, in mother’s eyes, I became naught but its bed of ash.”
Malazan Book of the Fallen Reading Guide
Or in other words — how deep you need to get to know with certainty if you should continue reading or not:
- Gardens of the Moon (1999): the first, probably most confusing (as you don’t know anything about the world yet), and strangely the most different of all the books. It was written about a decade before the other entries and heavily edited before publishing. Because of this, most people recommend going deeper into the series even if you don’t like the first book. I’d argue that this is good advice only if you’re not certain if you like it or not. If you hate it, you won’t magically like the other books.
- Deadhouse Gates (2000): takes you to a different continent, different story, and different characters. Deadhouse Gates is the favorite story of some fans and shows how some Malazan books can be quite tragic, which is different from what you see in Gardens.
- Memories of Ice (2001): my personal favorite, it continues the Gardens of the Moon plotlines and characters. If you’re still not satisfied, definitely don’t go further. If you like it so far, you probably don’t need convincing to keep on reading.
- House of Chains (2002): continues the Deadhouse Gates storyline. If you’re still reading, you’re probably already a fan.
- Midnight Tides (2004): surprise! Another continent, new characters, new plotlines. IMO the best new beginning. The “ordinary” characters seem to be getting more interesting, and the individual subplots are a bit easier to follow along. In my opinion, if this was the first published book (as it could easily be read before Gardens of the Moon with minor changes), the whole series would have had a bigger following.
- The Bonehunters (2006): the major plotlines begin to merge. You’re no longer reading three different series. The results are quite satisfying.
- Reaper’s Gale (2007): the major plotlines finish merging and in doing so we enter the final major stage/arc of the series.
- Toll the Hounds (2008): the stakes build-up, the gods start moving, some of them quite desperately…
- Dust of Dreams (2009): the endgame of the whole series has begun.
- The Crippled God (2011): the grand finale. Feels quite satisfying, but if I have to be critical the final plotlines (and ultimately the “villains”) maybe should have been introduced a bit earlier into the series. While the Malazan book of the Fallen spans 10 books, most of them don’t build-up to this final conflict. That said, I don’t believe this matters that much. Few fans are unhappy with the ending, and as I said — if you read the first three books and were happy, you should read the last 7 and make up your own mind about the series conclusion.
Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is without a doubt one of the series that shaped my understanding and expectations of fantasy and it’s very close to my heart.
Its biggest shortcoming, the fact that it can be confusing and often even difficult to read, actually had a positive outcome in my case. It provided my fantasy-reading high-school friends with plenty of topics to discuss and argue about, which is a fond memory. Malazan is a lot of things, but it is not shallow, so sharing the experience of reading it with someone you can talk to is awesome.
Even with all of this in mind, I wouldn’t recommend the books to most people in my life simply because I know they wouldn’t enjoy them. It is probably the thickest piece of Fantasy I’ve read and it requires a certain type of person to be able to enjoy it. Hopefully, the text above helps you figure out if you’re that type of person or not!
Steven Erikson 10 Books Collection Set (Vol. 1-10) (The Malazan Book of the Fallen)
Steven Erikson 10 Books Collection Set (Vol. 1-10) (The Malazan Book of the Fallen) [Steven Erikson] on Amazon.com…
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