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.