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Malazan Book of the Fallen, The by Steven Erikson
Submitted by Tom K
(Jan 22, 2010)
Steven Erikson's "The Malazan Book of the Fallen" is, like the captions on the back of at least one of the books proclaims, "truly deserving of the accolade epic". This series presents the largest and most complicated story I have ever attempted to read, both in terms of the sheer number of places, races, characters, and plot threads, as well as the variety and weightiness of the philosophical themes that underlie them.
Let me start by saying that Erikson's writing is top-notch. His style is more gritty and terse than most other fantasy authors, such as Tolkien, which is well suited to his style of military fantasy, but somehow he still manages to pull off a certain poetic elegance, in the style of Stephen Donaldson and fellow Canadian fantasy author R. Scott Bakker. He is one of the best, if not the best, fantasy writer today IMHO.
As mentioned in the above paragraph, the Malazan Book of the Fallen is, at its core, military fantasy. Interestingly enough - and perhaps this is mainly a matter of personal preference - I found the military aspects, which are present to some degree in every book of the series, to be the most boring parts! This is in part because I didn't usually care much for the minor characters that comprise the squads of the Malazan armies; I found too much homogeneity among these soldiers and their invariably dry senses of humour to find much in them to like! As such, when these minor characters - and even a couple of major characters - are tragically killed in battle, I felt little if any sympathy for them. Consequently, Erikson's efforts to elicit such emotions in the reader come across as rather forced. Thankfully, tMBotF is much, much more than your standard military fantasy. There are distinctly spiritual and paranormal elements to these books that help to infuse some genuine emotion into the story, balancing the stark (and typically dull) realism of strategy and battle with the awe and wonder of spirits, sorcery, Gods, and demons. In short, when he's not writing annoyingly wry dialogue for nondescript soldiers, Erikson is one heck of a creative writer! ;)
In addition to this veritable plethora of mostly banal and one-dimensional soldiers, the cast includes a host of main (and minor) characters who ARE actually interesting! Many of these are enigmatic Gods or powerful ascendants, while others are more ambiguous but entertaining nonetheless. The pantheon of Gods is reminiscent of Greek mythology in the way that they literally exist and meddle in the affairs of mortals. The concept of ascendants is also very cool as it helps to level the playing field between Gods and mortals (mortals can 'ascend' into god-like power and immortality, while Gods can be cast down by the actions of mortals).
The sorcery in these books is kept deliberately vague and mysterious (although we gain a much better understanding of what it is and how it works in Book 3: Memories and Ice, and man is it ever cool!), and Erikson leaves much to the imagination in his descriptions of not just the nature and use of magic, but of the world at large. This pervasive mysteriousness adds to the allure of the world, while simultaneously benefiting the story by making the actions of characters and events highly unpredictable, which to me is one of the greatest strengths of this series. I am currently reading book 6: the Bonehunters and I still continually find myself surprised by some of the events that take place. It is also worth noting that this unpredictability is rarely nonsensical or simply there to provide shock value; rather, it is realistic in the way that real life is unpredictable, and more often than not, each unexpected event adds new depth and meaning to the already immense world.
The amount of history poured into this world is staggering, and as one delves further into the series, Erikson's background in archeology becomes increasingly evident. It is a place that has existed for thousands of years in which countless civilizations, entire races, and even Gods have come and gone. Bits and pieces of the world's history are revealed to the reader in brief flashbacks or explanations that typically leave one itching for more; such is the awe and wonder that the Malazan universe inspires.
Aside from the size and complexity of the series, which is bound to result in a fair amount of confusion and distress for any new reader, my only real quirk is that sometimes its vast scope is detrimental to quality characterization. The constant shifting of perspectives, from one character to another, and the continual introduction of new POV characters means that many of them aren't fleshed out as well as they could have been had the story taken a more focused approach. Also, given the sheer number of characters featured in these novels, even some of the more unique and memorable ones seem to have overlapping personalities with other characters. Furthermore, a couple of the more prominent romantic relationships that develop over the course of the first few books are poorly done, if not entirely unbelievable. I found the one inter-species relationship to be particularly disconcerting, not to mention unnaturally forced, and as a result my appreciation for the major character involved in that affair was definitely compromised. These things being said, the characters have never been the focal point of tMBotF, as they are in, say, Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Rather, the series has, in the vein of Tolkien, always been primarily about the world itself.
And what a world it is!
Submitted by Inx
(Sep 04, 2009)
Of all the authors I have read, Tolkien, Gemmell, Martin, Jordan, none have influenced my ideas as greatly as Erikson and his Malazan tales.
It is the most uncompromising, brutal and unforgiving series I have ever read. The cast is massive, the plot is convoluted and the stakes are high.
When I first forayed into the series with Gardens of the Moon, I was struck by the fantastic imagination of the author, how visceral and real everything felt. I grew to enjoy all the characters, and cared for them. When I finished the novel, I was eager to pass it on, only to find to my dismay that only one person read more then a few chapters. And that one loved it almost as much as me.
Since then I have read the entire series at least twice, a feat only one other series has done (wheel of time) and enjoyed it even more the 2nd time round. Erikson treats you not as a reader, but as a commoner in the world of the Malazan empire, trying to understand whats happening as an observer, giving you glimpses into how things work allowing you to piece the worlds intricacies togethor yourself.
Erikson also has an unapproachable grip on reality, he understands that world chaning plots are not caused by a handful of people, but my a cast of hundreds, each adding to the melting pot which is his world. He also knows that the world changes normally, as time washes through it. Ruins of long dead civilisations, races, even gods litter the book. The onslaught of time is made very apparent, causing his characters that weather it (Icarium, Rake and Kallor) to become that much more awe inspiring.
If you enjoy thinking about what you are reading, dark visceral action and gallows humour, then this is the series for you.
Submitted by Madder
(Aug 14, 2009)
I feel that everyone should love the series, but I know it is not for everyone; for some it is undoubtedly too complex, the style makes it too difficult to follow, it is too macabre or too gritty. Perhaps some will say it is too long, but I am convinced only bad books are too long, and this does not apply to the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Others would much rather (and not unjustifiably) a story with a single or at least more manageable number of lead characters, where there exists a confined story arch that is predictable enough to have a well calibrated twist. Erikson doesn't deliver many twists, if only because there is little to twist off of - predicting what is going to happen is an impossible task when you don't even know all the characters yet. The series also offers little sympathy for bleeding hearts, it is cold and political, and this gives it a realness lost in many fantasy works. I know if I were a fantasy author I would want to imagine myself as the lead character, and I would want to come out on top (perhaps I would kill myself in a vain salute to the artform, but only begrudgingly) - thankfully Erikson (and many other authors) write with much more integrity.
That the Book of the Fallen isn't conventional is one of the reasons I like it so much. The other is that it is hugely engaging, funny / sad, and plays around in my head (the hallmark of any respectable fantasy). I grew up with an unquestioning loyalty to Tolkien, but now I have no qualms about saying Steven Erikson and Esslemont are my favourite authors in the genre.
Submitted by novagold
(Jul 08, 2008)
The Malazan Book of the Fallen is probably one of the most ambitious and original fantasy series in recent years and for the most part it reaches the heights it aims for. The series is meant to be a ten book epic and considering each book is pretty long, the sheer scale of the series is pretty daunting. What's more, Erikson and his fellow writer Esslemont have mapped out not only a plot, but a complex world with its own politics, geography and a hell of a lot history. Nothing about the series is simplistic and few of the normal genre tropes need apply.
There is no easily identifiable main protagonist to the books and the main antagonist is only revealed several books in to the series. Instead the narrative is separated between various characters and it jumps between them, adding more to each book (even up to the seventh book more are being added). This style makes for great cliff hangers and ensures that the books don't get boring, but they can make the series very confusing as the action jumps to characters you've never heard of before or were only in one of the other books. This confusion is apparent throughout the book with the characters often magically ending up in other places or other times and makes it very difficult to see some very important plot points among all the disconcerting changes. This is not a series for casual readers.
The characters are generally larger than life but there's always shades of grey. Some of the characters come over as a little too one dimensional (most frequently either the tragic characters or the 'down to earth' ones) or too similar to other characters in the series but for the most part they're memorable and individual. This is a good thing as the cast list runs into the hundreds. Each character has sensible motivations and all have their own histories and personal stories that define their personality. The books are quite brutal and the death count in the book of both unnamed masses and many of the characters is extremely high. The series has a definite tragic bent and expect to be taken on an emotional roller coaster during the various conflicts.
Where the series shines is in the setting and descriptions. Erikson's archaeologist profession shows as each building, ruin (of which there are a lot) and body (a lot of these as well) is described in memorable fashion. There's a wonderful use of language throughout the series and the civilizations and peoples seem only a little removed from those of our own past yet still very original. Considering the books make reference to hundreds of thousands of years of civilizations this is an extraordinary accomplishment. The world Erikson has created is absolutely massive. It's one where gods and mortals meet and massive empires clash, yet none of the detail is lost and each conflict comes about as part of a rich and detailed history.
Overall the Malazan Book of the Fallen is an epic tale, a story and setting as detailed as any you'll find. However because of the sheer scope of the story, it is undeniably disconcerting and confusing. If you're prepared to devote the time to try and understand the books its a series you can easily and happily find yourself obsessed with.
Submitted by AdCa
(Mar 07, 2008)
Steven Erikson is awesome. After finishing the latest installment in the series, I got the feeling that Steven Erikson didn't care about the readers. Now, I don't say that it was a negative feeling, but rather funny. He throws the reader into a world already developed politically and magically. Rarely does he elaborate on seemingly random conversations that take place, nor is the magick used within the series ever get completely understandable. Those features are what make his series amazing. It's life! Life in a universe that isn't our own. The people do not deliver moving speeches that make our heart warm, nor happy family moments that seem so common nowadays. It's the brutality and cold reality that is projected throughout the series that makes it an amazing achievement. Theres never a perfect ending, when someone threatens to attack another character, there isn't a climactic battle, or a crazy plot twist, but eventually that person will be killed. The heroes don't act like heroes, because they are usually afraid to the extent where they are not even aware of the drama around them. This indifference to the readers seeking a comfortable Hero vs. Villain keeps the series serious. Fortunately the seriousness is sometimes broken with characters who seem like an odd mix of insanity, power, and hilarity. Like nothing I've read before, and truly a masterpiece in the genre.