Malazan Book of the Fallen: A (Partial) Review
Malazan Book of the Fallen
A bit pre-emptive, perhaps, but I felt as if it was timely to offer up a review of the past couple fantasy books I’d been reading, that of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The first, re-purposed from an unsuccessful film-script, showed up back in 1999, and they’ve been rolling on since. The series proper tied off at ten full novels, in 2011. However, a prequel trilogy is still being written, with the second novel expected later this year, and various one-off and supplemental works scattered throughout the last decade and more working in the same “world.”
Like some…other… recent fantasy works, the Malazan series grew out of a previously developed table-top gaming setting. Erikson and his friend, Ian Cameron Esslemont, made the setting for their own enjoyment back in the early eighties, which goes some way to explaining why the initial series could be produced with such machine-like regularity – the ground was fertile, and the stories already sketched out. Esslemont, it should be noted, has also written works in the shared property, a six-part series that wrapped up back in ’14, and a new one in the offing.
At two for two, it might be a bit early to make the call, but I’m going to come out and say it – Social Scientists make good fantasy writers. Much like China Miéville, a few of whose works I’ve already written about, Erikson is a trained anthropologist, and it shows in his work. The initial ten-piece series was written as a po-mo criticism of the standard, Tolkien-dominated fantasy tropes – non-linear story telling, inversion of gender roles, dense, unforgiving narrative, little “plot armour” for the multiple protagonists, this was not to be just another repeat of Dragonlance.
You won’t find any elves or dwarves in the Malazan setting (though there are dragons…kinda…), but the series is definitely fantasy. There are plenty of non-human races, and magic – a well-thought-through and novel system, I’m happy to say – is a key part of the story. The scope is of a grand scale, mortal humans interacting with Ascended Demi-gods and the Elder Gods above even them. Erikson and Esslemont have done something I’ve seen very little of in high fantasy, if at all, and it is this that best shows off Erikson’s anthro chops. The narrative extends back into the pre-history of the world, with non Sapien Sapien species the equivalent of Neanderthals, Homo Erectus and others playing a large and continuing role in the late-medieval setting. Some of the most gripping moments, as odd as it may sound, are the points where the puzzle-pieces of how these species interacted in the dim past, their shared history, finally crystallise. If Miéville is a writer possessed by Antiquity, Erikson is haunted by the Palaeolithic.
The series had been on my radar for some time – Erikson and Esslemont are both Canucks, and a number of my friends had read and recommended the series over the years. I’ll confess, turning to finally read it now has been a bit of a mixed blessing. Bad, in that there are so many arcs, so many individual elements in the series that I had wanted to use in my own writing – stuff I’d come up with independently, but feel like I’d either be seen as ripping off from, or, perhaps worse, indeed unconsciously mimic now that I’ve consumed them. However, it is good to know that there is a market, and seemingly a large one at that, for just this sort of fiction.
As I said at the start, I might have jumped the gun a bit on writing this now – I’ve only just finished the fourth instalment in the original series – but I felt as if I’ve got enough of a grip on the style, on the particularities of the content, to at least point the way.
The initial novel, Gardens of the Moon, sets the tone for those that follow – the main story focuses on the eponymous Malazan Empire, or, more particularly, a squad within a legion within an army of that multiple-continent-spanning Empire, called the Bridgeburners. In medias res, the reader is thrust into the latest, offensive, conflict to grip the Empire’s armies, as they struggle to bring the continent Genabackis under Malazan dominion. Things don’t really go as planned, but that’s what makes the story worthwhile. Along the way, the perspective is broadened – other agents of the Empire, the various forces that oppose them – until all the various skeins, the disparate story elements, are brought together in a gripping climax, all the better for being multi-sided.
The next instalment, Deadhouse Gates, largely abandons the characters of the first novel – set instead in another location altogether, within the Empire but on the edge of continent-wide rebellion. The narrative follows the efforts of a Malazan army to guide several thousand refugees to safety across enemy territory, though of course with the multiple view-points, density of characterisation, and well-developed social and religious elements the earlier novel brought to bear. Counterpoint to this is the desperate escape effort of a trio of prisoners, enslaved under false pretences, taking them across deserts, seas, and magical lands themselves under assault. The hatred that drives them forth, the bitterness of betrayal by family and loved ones, will have tragic consequences for more than one continent.
Memories of Ice runs concurrent with Deadhouse Gates, picking up where Gardens left off. Former enemies are turned to uneasy allies as a threat from the south threatens to overtake them all. This threat – in the form of the Pannion Domin, a sorcerous, theocratic empire that drives its adherents to acts of mass cannibalism – is both older and more grave than anyone could have thought. Though I might be wrong, the shadowy forces behind it are likely the antagonists for the series overall. Where Gardens was largely urban intrigue, and Deadhouse a beleaguered dash across a continent, Memories focuses on several siege engagements. While none are as drawn out as, say, Gemmell’s Legend (which I heartily recommend, if you’ve yet to read it), the weightiness, the grind, is well executed.
I thought it was the fourth book, House of Chains, where things really get rolling. Spanning both of the previously visited continents, the start is the most unforgiving yet – the reader is thrown into a society totally different from any yet seen, much more barbaric, with no apparent points of commonality and a prose style tilted on its head – to the point where it takes several dozen pages even to realise that this is set in the same universe. As the narrative unfolds, we return to the continent of Seven Cities, where the nascent rebellion, unopposed throughout the land, awaits the response of the Malazan Empire. What really struck me about this one is the way in which previous characters I’d thought were merely meant to supply local colour, to stand in for an off-the-cuff remark, are shown to be much more central than I could have imagined. This is the complicated, mind-numbingly diverse sort of story-telling exemplified by R. R. Martin or Robert Jordan, with whom Erikson definitely stands equal.
Alongside the aforementioned emphasis on a narrative over evolutionary time, Erikson makes some interesting choices with the societies of the Malazan universe. Most pointedly, women are seen as equal to men – both in soldiery and in places of authority – in almost every society yet seen. Obviously, other fantasy works have had female characters, and more unusually full protagonists, but what’s worthy of remark here is the sheer mundaneity of it, that it just takes it as a matter of course that a medieval army, without the equalising presence of modern firearms, should be at least half female. Erikson doesn’t shy away from the realities of this, either – sexual violence is used, against both men and women, on more than one occasion. It’s nice to see that, at least from what I’ve seen, this hasn’t ever been an example of character-development-by-rape, which is a common failing when an author dares to enter into this territory. Instead, each instance fits the larger narrative and progresses, with appropriate gravity, as smoothly as possible.
There are points where the world-building misses a trick, as could be anticipated. Despite the long historical backdrop, the main story lines take place in a high medieval equivalent that looks to have been stable for some time. True, the presence of explosive munitions (again with the pre-theft!) and their game-changing impact show that that world is changing, and that, this being a fictional construct, there’s no need for it to follow lock-step our own history, but it is a common issue in fantasy that you are presented this world which has had the same tech level for 10,000 years, with no explanation as to why. “Medieval stasis” – don’t do it – it’s bad.
Leveraging the boons of a multi-viewpoint model for the narrative, there are several instances where, just as you’re starting to feel as if the story is slipping into some sort of militaristic triumphalism, a character says something to shift the whole tenor of the passage, redefining the way you look at the preceding chapters and books. Despite it’s own complexity and multitude of story lines, this is something that Jordan’s Wheel of Time series ultimately failed at, I feel (we’re not going to talk about Sanderson’s…additions…). It asks a bit of the reader, but a work that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, and knowing that the author has deliberately constructed it thusly, is an encouraging affair for genre fiction.
So, if any of the above sounds like something you’d enjoy, I recommend you take up Erikson and Esslemont’s Malazan series’, starting with Malazan Book of the Fallen. It’s quality stuff – relatively challenging, well-wrought prose that critiques the old modes of fantasy writing without being antagonistic or unfair. Dense, believable characters that act with a bounded rationality. Just my cup of tea!