Friday, April 01, 2011

Review: The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

I’m going to state it right out – The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson is the most ambitious epic fantasy series ever written – this is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. Rather than ambition, fans of epic fantasy are much more likely to honor tradition and nostalgia, but the genre has come far from where it was effectively defined by The Lord of the Rings and fans have grown as well. These days gritty and subversion seem to be the buzz words of fantasy fans, and while The Malazan Book of the Fallen certainly meets both in numerous ways, it really is much more.

It’s been ambitious since the start when Erikson proposed Malazan to be a 10-book series back in the 1990s – there was never any trilogy-creep, this was always going this long. But of course it isn’t so simple – the series is not Erikson’s alone. The Malazan world was co-created with Ian C. Esslemont who has written three books of his own that support the series, with three more to come. While Erikson’s 10-book series is complete, once Esslemont finishes his parts it will be more complete, perhaps making this review a bit premature.

The Malazan world has its origins in Dungeon’s and Dragons and GURPS role-playing campaigns played out by Erikson and Esslemont and has since grown in ambition. In many ways the series is meant to be more of a response to epic fantasy than a part of it. Not in the same ‘FU’ manor as The First Law by Joe Abercrombie, but again as something more. Ultimately, it’s about the human condition and the cost of civilization, but again it’s more. The series is also about deception in something of a post-modern, meta-fictional way. While the foreshadowing is present, and even a rubric to the whole series buried in one of its volumes, it’s still difficult to see beneath surface. It’s all light, darkness and shadow with more than a bit of sleight of hand.

However, don’t let me mislead you into thinking that it’s not epic fantasy, because it is. Like most epic fantasy, this is a book of war and magic. And the magic plays an incredibly important role – it’s powerful…all-powerful. The scope and horror of magic is laid out from the beginning, while the mechanics of it remain an enigma. In every book we meet a hidden power that rises to tremendous, spectacular heights. Of course that’s the point of it – readers may want to call foul, may want to shout dues ex machina, but they miss the point.

The series begins as a tale of a conquering Malazan Empire that has overextended itself. In Gardens of the Moon (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) the reader is dumped strait into the middle of it all without the typical build-up. This can be exhilarating, overwhelming, and off-putting, though I found it immensely rewarding. We get a feel for a mix of races and species that is huge and a rich world history with gods and other powerful immortals that literally walk the land, interfering with mortal lives. Though some mortals interfere right back, for gods can die too. It’s through this complex tapestry that Erikson focuses on humanity. Every soldier is a philosopher, every person an everyman (or everywoman, though even with numerous female characters, the series has an overwhelming male-ness to it), with the view of it all is just as often through pawns as kings and queens.

‘These Malazans, they shame the gods themselves…’
An important point the series is put right in the series title, perhaps the most important point: The Malazan Book of the Fallen. It’s the word fallen that focuses it all. For this series is not (necessarily) about those that live to fight another day, to see another book, who survive the ultimate convergence of power – this series is about the people who fall along the way. The price, the toll, the compassion, the sacrifice, and eventually, the reward. This is a series where the dead tend to not go away and the fallen may not die. Each book itself shows something new, a new style, a new theme within the overall series, but in the end there is a method to the madness of it all.

I will remember this. I will set out scrolls and burn upon them the names of these Fallen. I will make of this work a holy tome, and no other shall be needed.
Hear them! They are humanity unfurled, laid out for all to see – if one would dare look!
There shall be a Book and it shall be written by my hand. Wheel and seek the faces of a thousand gods! None can do what I can do! Not one can give voice to this holy creation!
But this is not bravado. For this, my Book of the Fallen, the only god worthy of its telling is the crippled one. The broken one. And has it not always been so?
I never hid my hurts.
I never disguised my dreams.
And I never lost my way.
And only the fallen can rise again.
It’s in his ambition, this response to epic fantasy that Erikson gets in trouble. Yes, it’s epic fantasy in the extreme – the magic and powers overblown, the gods both more and less than they should be, the grunt suffering through it all somehow becomes the most powerful of all. It chafes fans of epic fantasy. It’s supposed to. Fans often decry the seeming over-emphasis on suffering, marching, the camp-fire conversations, the little people. While the action is incredible, it is interspersed with long and tedious ramblings that become philosophical and at times down-right didactic. While Erikson certainly over-indulges himself, many fans seemingly miss the point. Or perhaps they don’t care about the point. Many will fail to complete the journey of the series, many will be upset, disappointed, even angry with Erikson for what he writes. The criticisms often wielded only show Erikson how much they missed the point. Erikson plays with this in the text – often proactively for areas he knows that will bring especially pointed criticism. He knows these books aren’t for everyone, and that if everyone likes what you are doing, you are doing it wrong. But it clearly it stings, and sometimes Erikson seems to lash out in response.

‘Sad truth,’ Kruppe said – his audience of none sighing in agreement – ‘that a tendency towards verbal excess can so defeat the precision of meaning. That intent can be so well disguised in majestic plethora of nuance, of rhythm both serious and mocking, of this penchant for self-referential slyness, that the unwitting simply skip on past – imagining their time to be so precious, imagining themselves above all manner of conviction, save that of their own witty perfection. Sigh and sigh again.

Ultimately, there is a hope to it all – this is not the nihilistic proclamation so many claim. It’s a grand plan for the better of humanity. Only at times the darkness, the faults and flaws, and humanity itself seemingly deserve no hope.

Hedge was waiting, seated on one of the tilted standing stones. ‘Hood take us all,’ he said, eyeing Fiddler as he approached. ‘They did it – her allies – they did what she needed them to do.’
Aye. And how many people died for [it]?’
…’Little late to be regretting all that now, Fid.’
‘…They used all of us Hedge.’
‘That’s what gods do, aye. So you don’t like it? Fine, but listen to me. Sometimes, what they want – what they need us to do – sometimes it’s all right. I mean, it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes, it makes us better people.’
‘You really believe that?’
‘And when we’re better people, we make better gods.’
Fiddler looked away. ‘It’s hopeless, then. We can stuff a god with every virtue we got, it still won’t make us any better, will it? Because we’re not good with virtues, Hedge.’
‘Most of the time, aye, we’re not. But maybe then, at our worst, we might look up, we might see that god we made out of the best in us. Not vicious, not vengeful, not arrogant or spiteful. Not selfish, not greedy. Just clear-eyed, with no time for all our rubbish. The kind of god to give us a slap in the face for being such shits.’
…’Ever the optimist, you’
This review both coincidently and intentionally reads like the series itself – perhaps full of insight, perhaps full of bullshit, always seeming a bit of mess. It’s overly long (at least compared to what I tend to write), it’s defensive, dismissive, disagreeable and likely to piss a few people off. The review is journey, a misinterpretation, and it gets it right. And it’s ever self-aware, perhaps to a fault. It’s the most ambitious review I’ve ever written.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen isn’t for everyone, and in many ways it may not be for fans of epic fantasy. While it is absolutely for the fans. And it’s the most ambitious epic fantasy out there – period. Though the Malazan series by Erikson is over, something of an epilogue remains to be written by Esslemont and Erikson has promised two more trilogies and a continuation of the novellas set in the world. The dead don’t stay dead. The fallen may not be who you think they are and can rise again. Perfect.

And now the page before us blurs.
An age is done. The book must close.
We are abandoned to history.
Raise high one more time the tattered standard
Of the Fallen. See through the drifting smoke
To the dark stains upon the fabric.
This is the blood of our lives, this is the
Payment of our deeds, all soon to be
We were never what people could be.
We were only what we were.

Remember us
Untitled poem at the end of The Crippled God


B. Silver said...

I admire Steven, I still had a few parts of this epic saga, is one of my favorite writers of fiction. Wonderful that you wrote this post, well done! Greetings :)

Anonymous said...

I'm still half way through the series but I too think that it is probably the most ambitious work of epic fantasy that I've read so far. I'm just stunned by how complex the story is and I love it. Erikson really makes you work!

Larry Nolen said...

You could just say that one of the many facets of this series is that of the tragedy and that in tragedies, humans end up being portrayed as being at their best in terms of virtues, flaws notwithstanding.

Ted Cross said...

I've had these books on my to-read list for ages, but the very length of the series keeps me picking other books to read instead. I often take time for philisophical ramblings in my stories, so maybe I will really like these.

D-man said...

I still have three books to read before finishing the series, but it is without a doubt some of the best stuff I have ever read.

Beautiful post, Ken. Well done.

Todd said...

A great review of the series. I'm only less than 2 books in so far, but I can relate to your thoughts on the series as a whole after the little I've read. It really gives a new meaning to epic fantasy, that's for sure.

I also enjoyed Gardens immensely. It was quite a treat for once to be, as they say, thrown in the deep end... with sharks, at night, handcuffed, blindfolded, and with weights on my ankles.

Thanks for the write up, well done!

Jacob @ Drying Ink said...

Great review, though I'm not sure the series is as much a deconstruction of epic fantasy as one part of your review portrays it: it does share a lot of the genre's tropes, but does bring a more flawed element into it, I admit. Thanks for the post!

Michael McClung said...

It's a big, sprawling complex series that has as much to do with philosophy as genre. Nice review.

(Still waiting for a copy of the last book in the series to arrive in bookstores here in Singapore, so thanks for no spoilers!)

Neth said...

Thanks for the comments

@Larry: true, but that is too simplistic. In the review I tried to give a good flavor of what I feel the series is about without spoiling things and without going into too much detail. I think volumes of true criticism could be written about this series (though not by me).

@Jacob: oh, I wouldn't call this series a deconstruction of epic fantasy. There may be a few elements of it, but really I think it's more of a response/reaction to epic fantasy than a true attempt to desconstruct.

However, I do think that if there is an argument to be made for any epic fantasy series to be post-modern, it would be this series. I think that would be a very interesting discussion, but one that I'm not really knowledgeable enough to dive into.

Aelthain said...

I would say the question of whether it is a deconstruction of epic fantasy or not is not less important than the fact that the book talks about so many themes of humanity and life such that it transcends genre. The one thing that fantasy allows Erikson to do is to take extreme examples of themes and personify them.

No other fantasy author can lay claim to that - GRRM, Jordan, Rothfuss, Lynch etc may tell a great yarn but not like Erikson whose stories talk about a greater picture. Probably Bakker is the other one that comes close, but much darker.

@Michael: I got my copy from - I think Sunny Bookshop at Plaza Singapura may be able to order new copies too if you ask.

Neth said...


I can't agree with you saying that the series 'transcends genre' and frankly I find that a bit isulting. By saying that, the implication is that the rest of fantasy doesn't deal themes of humanity and life. While some may not, a lot of fantasy really does - just because something is genre doesn't mean it can't have thematic depth. And just because a book deals with themes of humanity and life doesn't mean it can't be genre.

That's probably not what you were implying, but it's a real pet peeve of mine about how defensive SFF fans and writers can be about how genre relates to literature, even moreso than when literature gets all snobby and superior in regards to SFF.

I also disagree the ascertian that no other fantsy author does this. Many, many do. Sure, few do it as well or powerfully as Erikson, but that doesn't mean they can be completely discounted either.

Unknown said...

Boy, isn't it the best review i have ever read?
Best for TMbotF, for sure.
I agree with Neth, the series does not transcends the genre- it cannot, however, it gives a whole new dimension to epic fantasy.The only author who comes close to SE, is, i think, Glen Cook.
The series will never gain commercial success is also true,again-it cannot.It's too complex for that.

Pugnax said...

Excellent review. I have been telling my friends and fellow admirers of fantasy that this enormous series is indeed postmodern. That other than the subject matter, Erikson has more in commone with say David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon rather than GRRM, Sanderson and Jordan. Myself being a lover of literary fiction first with SFF coming in at a close second, I couldn't have asked for a better combination. By far the Malazan series is the best thing I have ever read.

Anonymous said...

I just finished the first one. Boy is this book hard on the newcomer... It took me two weeks to go through the first few chapters, and then when the characters became familiar I finished it in one night. The story and the writing is truly exceptional. I look forward to the next books, but this time I'm buying the paperback version. This book is not for ebook readers. Right in the begining you get pelted with a s*it load of names, places and cultural references with no real explanation of who or what they represent, so having the glossary handy is a must.

Arun Chaganty said...

I quite agree with you; The Malazan Book of the Fallen is the most amazingly complex, diverse and comphrensive novel I've ever read. Erikson address so many existential queries, and his characters display an excellent growth and maturity.

He also covers such an admirable range of characters (from Whiskeyjack, the Bridgeburners, to Trull Sengar, to Kruppe, Tehol and Bugg, and of course, Karsa Orlong...). The series has been fantastic so far.

However, I have just the last 2 books left, and I already feel the impending void that finishing the series will leave; any suggestions for a series of comparable richness/complexity?

Neth said...


that is far from a simple request. There are a number of other epic fantasies that are rich and complex, but not really any that I would call very similar to Malazan.

However, some of the common names that would come up are below. Which one(s) (if any) that would work for you will depend on your personal tastes.

A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin

The Prince of Nothing by R Scott Bakker (and follow-up trilogy)

The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

The Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson

Stephen said...

I just finished The Crippled God and it was very good. Not perfect, you know? But still a good enough ending for the MBotF. I am currently reading all the books again to get a grasp of the whole story. I look forward to the prequel trilogy.

stephen said...

Thanks for this great review, I'm not normally one for posting comments but in this case will make an exception. I'm currently half way through the Bonehunters and am really enjoying the ride. Sometimes the story does get bogged down sure, but man the whole vision of the thing is now becoming visible and it's just layers on layers.

One thing about not being for ebook readers - I read it on my iPad and have the Malazan Wiki open in my browser for a quick swap to for referencing - works well for me!

Right enough writing - more reading to be done!

RA said...

I love and respect the series for many of the reasons you so deftly present. However, you did neglect what to me is its greatest failing: the increasing shoddiness of the prose and plotting which threaten to turn the project into a jumbled blur. Logorrhea is an occupational hazard for fantasy authors and Erikson is not immune. As the series goes on, the books start to seem more hastily written and less well edited.
My other critique is how sentimental he becomes over his favorite characters. The bloody ruthlessness of the first novel is one of the things that separated it from the genre.


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