I’m currently about half way through Reaper’s Gale, the latest offering in this monster of a series (which is a monster all its own at 900+ pages) and I just feel the urge to be a rambling fan-boy pimp for what is perhaps the best epic fantasy being written at the moment. No, I won’t be spoiling Reaper’s Gale or any other specific moment from earlier books, but I touch on broad plot progression, so consider yourself warned if you’re overly concerned about spoilers (and really, there aren’t any).
To introduce the series, Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is a planned 10-book series, and Reaper’s Gale is the 7th installment – he has released the books close to annually, so it won’t be a long wait to its conclusion. In a further interesting and complicating twist, the co-creator of the world is Ian Cameron Esslemont, who is planning to write 5 supporting/related novels set in the world – the first of these, Night of Knives, will have a wide release this summer, with the second, Return of the Crimson Guard, set for release sometime next year. Additionally, Erikson has written three novellas set in the world, otherwise unrelated to the main plot(s) of the series.
The series begins with Gardens of the Moon which is a very polarizing novel. Erikson forgoes the typical set-up of epic fantasy where you are conveniently introduced to the main characters in a safe setting that explains much of the world to you before things get interesting. Erikson instead drops you directly into the aftermath of horrific battle with thousands of casualties – we get almost no character introduction or explanation of the world. Confusing bits of terrifying sorcery and deep history abound. Many, many people complain of difficulty getting into the book and understanding what is going on – a significant number settle down and start enjoying the book a lot past about page 200, an equally significant number never get into the book or Erikson’s tales at all – to each their own, but for me, this is one of the best out there and I never had trouble getting hooked. From here, it only gets better – Gardens of the Moon is probably the weakest book in the series, and it’s still a good bit above most of the epic fantasy out there.
To steal a bit from something from MattD and Jay Tomio said over at FBS – one of the greatest aspects of Erikson and his series is the balls it takes to do what he’s doing. Sure it’s vulgar, and believe me, even Stephen Colbert would take notice, but it’s the correct way to say it (and ever appropriate with world created). The shear scope and ambition of what he’s trying to catalog with this series is mind boggling – interestingly enough, it’s often clear that it boggles Erikson’s mind as much as the reader – you get the feeling that the Malazan beast has wrestled some control from him and is heading in its own direction (this is not necessarily a bad thing).
One of the most common complaints about the series is the number of uber-powerful characters – we have gods, ascendants, and normal characters of a multitude of species with huge amounts of magical and physical power. Gods and the other uber-powerful walk the world, live among the characters, they kill and are killed in turn. Each book seems to introduce another one (or more) and keeping track of all of them and who is more powerful is a fruitless exercise. For me, I love it. Erikson doesn’t shy away from what is an almost inevitable problem in epic fantasy – he revels in it, throws it smack in your face. The books are full of total bad-asses and each one ends with a grand convergence – in each book, bad-asses kill other bad-asses. It’s great.
Balancing the uber-powerful are these ‘normal’ soldiers, assassins, and others who have to maneuver around, beneath and through the world. They are typified by a stoic, smart-ass, even existential, attitude that is in the least entertaining. Sure some of them develop or have certain attributes that help them along, but most seem to get by with a combination of whit and shit in a world that is most assuredly out to kill them.
Sure, there are weaknesses, but they tend to be minor in my opinion. Erikson tries to be funny, and he very often is, however when he tries too hard it can be just plain painful. Often the reader is left thinking that nobody actually thinks or talks that way. The shear number of different players from all the cultures and continents of his vast world gets very chaotic – which I don’t think is too far from the goal. Sometimes his politics become a bit too in your face – subtly is the norm, but some things slip through. His writing lacks the consistency of the best, but I’ll take it anytime.
So, what is the story of these 10(+) books? To keep it simple – the pantheon of gods is going to war and all the mortal (and immortal) societies and empires become tools and casualties of the gods and uber-powerful. But it’s never that simple – in the best way possible, I still don’t know where it’s all going to go.
So, is there a point to all this rambling – I suppose it’s a cathartic admission that I’m just another fan-boy geek for this epic series. Obviously I recommend it – I highly recommend it. I anticipate these books like none other at the moment, and that is saying a lot.
Oh, and for those of us at the mercy of the U.S. publisher, Tor, please ignore the generally disgraceful cover art. I don’t know why it seems they are out to sabotage any chance of success, but the best we can do is read the book anyway and continue to complain loudly.