This is going to be another long one
The Malazan book of the fallen is an epic fantasy series comprising ten main volumes, a related trilogy, another lengthy series by Ian Esslemont, and a series of highly entertaining novellas. (If I’ve missed anything, let me know). In a manner not totally dissimilar from the Dragonlance series, the Malazan books are heavily influenced by the authors’s tabletop role-playing game experience. Unlike the Dragonlance series, the Malazan books have one of the more unique settings in the epic fantasy genre.
Erikson, like O’Brian, refuses to patronize, assuming that his readers will be able to piece together the “rules” of the world and its surprisingly intricate history without lengthy explanations from the author. As a result, the series can be a bit daunting as the reader has to rely heavily on context to figure out what is actually going on. Erikson is an anthropologist by training, and that expertise heavily informs the series, making the world full of vibrant, diverse cultures that can’t be easily reduced to comparisons with real-world groups (à la Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Brent Weeks, or virtually any major epic fantasy author). Erikson is not above using his fictional cultures to make subtle jabs at popular anthropological theories, which provides extra fun for readers who enjoy that kind of poking.
Full admission: I haven’t finished the series yet. I got distracted most of the way through and set it aside for too long. I’ve started re-reading it but considering the length it’ll be a while. I’ve read the first 8 books of the main series and most of the Bauchelain & Korbal Broach novellas (to be reviewed separately). I feel like I’ve got a good enough handle on the series to review it collectively, especially since it’d be nearly impossible to examine the plot of Gardens of the moon without giving away way too many details.
Brief plot summary
Gardens of the moon opens with the aftermath of the apparent assassination of the emperor of the Malazan empire and his second-in-command by the head of their secret police, Surly. Seven years later, Surly is now the empress Laseen and the rapid expansion of the Malazan empire has caused the military to be overextended. The situation is further complicated by Laseen’s apparent attempts to purge the government and military of those loyal to the old emperor, as well as interference by the quasi-divine Ascendants, all of whom have their own agendas.
The series has three major plotlines that eventually converge and approximately 100,000 major characters. The first plotline takes place on the continent of Genabackis, where the Malazan military is attempting to conquer a group of massively wealthy city-states. The second major plotline focuses on a religion-fueled rebellion on a subcontinent that was (mostly) already under Malazan control. The third plotline, which connects to the first two significantly later in the series, involves the conflict between a capitalist empire and a tribal society.
If it sounds complicated, well, it is. But it’s also great and it’s not that hard to keep track of what’s going on. There are enough characters common to most of the books that it’s relatively easy to find an anchor.
So how is it?
As far as I’m concerned, the Malazan series is the unsurpassed height of the epic fantasy genre. Like Tolkein’s Middle Earth, the world was being developed long before the novels existed, so the authors had ample opportunity to create a complex history to underpin their fictional worlds and make them seem more “real”. According to the introduction to Gardens of the moon, the world was first developed in the early 1980s as the backdrop for Erikson and Esslemont’s role playing games, was eventually adapted into a movie script, and finally was adapted into its current form somewhere around the early 90s.
The Malazan book of the fallen looks like a “military fantasy” series, and that’s not too inaccurate of a comparison. Erikson is obviously heavily influenced by Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the black company (review forthcoming). Much of the series focuses on members of the Bridgeburners, a highly regarded company of combat engineers. It’s not a grim-and-gritty “war” series, despite the focus on members of the military and occasionally shocking moments. Many of the characters are more-or-less regular folks, and as the series progresses fewer and fewer of the main characters are actually connected to the military.
There are a number of things that sets the Malazan books apart from lesser fantasy series. There’s a surprising amount of humor involved, and the hodge-podge eccentrics that comprise the Malazan military are far more entertaining than they have any right to be. The cast of characters features is far more diverse than in the average fantasy series, with characters of various genders, skin colours, backgrounds, and sexualities all well represented and expertly portrayed.
Erikson also refuses to play to standard fantasy tropes. Yes, there are dragons, and what could probably be called elves, and other nonhuman races abound. But Erikson’s take on the standard Tolkien/Dungeons and Dragons influenced races is absolutely unique. The vast majority of races in the series have no clear counterparts in the standard “elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls” spectrum, and each group has their own history, culture, and religious views. What is perhaps especially great about the series is that each individual culture is internally diverse. No group can be easily summed up in a single sentence, which is a major factor in preventing this lengthy series from getting stale.
I’m not a fan of the Brandon Sanderson approach to magic, where everything has clearly defined rules. That seems, to me, to defeat the entire purpose of using magic in your books at all. Erikson’s writing seems to be set to flagrantly disobey Sanderson’s rules, especially his third law (“explain what you already have before you add something new”). Erikson explains nothing, an approach that is consistent throughout the series. He refuses to underestimate the reader and the world is far more interesting for it.
One example of how Erikson treats magic: in his world, it is possible to use magic to “force heal” a wound, but it’s clear that this isn’t necessarily a desirable outcome. Because while using magic to mend broken bones or other wounds might heal the body, the magic is unable to heal the psychological trauma of the wound. It’s an interesting little twist that and it’s one of many ways that Erikson prevents magic from becoming too much of a deus ex machina tool. It’s not the biggest way in which Erikson’s magic diverges from fantasy norms, but it has a big impact on the series and helps to emphasize how good he is at showing the psychology of his characters.
There’s one issue that crops up with the series. Gardens of the moon was written long before the rest of the series. It’s the weakest book in the series as it stands, but beyond that there are a number of inconsistencies between it and the rest of the books. It’s nothing that would destroy your enjoyment of the series, but since the Malazan books demand greater attention from the reader than a “normal” fantasy series it’s a bigger sin than it might otherwise be.
The Malazan books are a lengthy epic fantasy series in the style of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of time (although, selon moi, the Malazan books are far superior). Readers not interested in a series that’s close to 10,000 pages should stay away. Unlike the Vorkosigan books or the Sword of truth series, it’s not really possible to read them as standalone novels. They are far too interconnected and while they might be enjoyable on their own, too much context is missing and resolution is lacking.
Generally in my experience epic fantasy fans really enjoy the Malazan series. It’s not as dark as George R.R. Martin’s work but retains A song of ice and fire’s political and ethical complexity. As such it’s perfect for fans of Martin. It’s a more high-magic setting than Martin’s, and so should suit fans of The wheel of time series as well. I’d say it’s more violent than The wheel of time, but that’s not strictly true. It’s about on par with WoT in terms of violence, the difference is that the consequences of that violence are portrayed far more realistically. There’s a moment in the second book where a character, while preparing for a battle, observes that war and violence, no matter the righteousness of the cause, always result in incalculable losses.
One individual to whom I recommended this series wasn’t a huge fan. His issue was largely with a single, incredibly obnoxious character who is a major focus of the second half of Gardens of the moon. It’s totally fair, and he gave the series a second chance after I told him that there were no more sections told entirely from that character’s point of view.
As I said earlier, this is really a series for hardcore readers, and hardcore fantasy fans in particular. Others might enjoy the depth of characterization and the absurdly intricate plot, but I have a feeling there are too many casual violations of the laws of physics for those “outside” the genre.
Cross recommendations (all of which will probably end up getting reviewed here at some point):
Chronicles of the black company / Glen Cook