So you’re looking for a new series to digest and have heard a lot of hype about Steven Erikson’s 10-book epic fantasy, the Malazan Book of the Fallen. You’ve heard that it’s huge and bewildering, or you’ve heard it’s an unforgiving slog, or you’ve heard it’s brilliant and sublime, or you’ve heard that it’s not nearly so impressive as everyone claims.
If you’ve heard none of these things, then, dear reader, I encourage you to quit this article, pick up the first novel Gardens of the Moon and begin your genre-warping journey through the high-water mark of modern fantasy. And if that single sentence of mine is not enough to convince you, read ahead regardless and I will explain what makes Malazan unique and worthy of your time. One thing upon which everyone can agree is that Malazan Book of the Fallen is dense as dark matter, and it is best to approach such epics knowing the full gravity of the undertaking.
Now, for those reading this who are keen on the Malazan Book of the Fallen, but might be stumbling over some inhibiting preconceptions, let’s get to the heart of whatever is preventing you from taking your shot at the series, exorcise it, and get you going. With any luck you’ll soon suckle from Togg’s teats like the rest of us. But first…
As book readers we seek one essential thing: an escape into which to feel.
Nothing is for everyone, but some works offer a far greater potential for engaging your mind. A far greater potential to inspire feeling. The Malazan series evokes a wide array of emotions in its readers because, in chronicling the history of an entire world rather than focusing on the story of a few select individuals, it brings with it a world’s breadth of passions and experiences: climactic convergences rife with dazzling magics, flashing daggers, brute strength and hectic action. Thoughtful moments of quiet observance, engaging philosophy, stoic wisdom and eloquent beauty. Brutal humanity. Animal ferocity. Humorous verbosity. Abject tragedy. With such formidable scope and a proven success rate at blowing people’s minds, Malazan should rocket to the top of your current To Be Read list, regardless of the commitment the series entails—it’s worth a read if only to find out what compels the legions of dedicated fans who’ve been converted over the years. (More on that later…) If this is not enough to convince the fickle among you, though, choose the quibble that’s holding you back and let’s start addressing some of the realities behind the series’ reputation…
You’ve heard it’s huge and bewildering:
Huge? Yep, Steven and Cam (Ian Cameron Esslemont, Malazan’s co-creator and author of associate novels) did nothing small when they created their world. In addition to numerous storylines roping across multiple continents, as well as an incredible number of worlds within worlds as found in the warrens (a chief aspect of the series’ magic system), they produced a land rich in history, where events thousands of years in the past still shape the present, both in terms of how decisions are made and in the very contours of the landmass. As an archaeologist and anthropologist by trade, Erikson brought a wealth of applicable knowledge to the project, using the growth of civilizations and the memory of the physical world as a backdrop upon which to depict the conquests of the Malazan Empire. Huge? Huge is good. Huge facilitates immersion.
Bewildering is not so good, but the term is not as much an overall assessment as it is a common reaction to the complexity of the novels, especially for beginners. It’s true that Malazan can be daunting for new readers, but here you’re in luck, because a whole community of fans have been working for years to build a supportive and incredibly helpful infrastructure online. Where theories once had to be pieced together by individual readers diligently digging through the text—working page by page like students researching homework back in the benighted days before the Internet—now these collective theories and research have been amalgamated into the Malazan Wiki page. The Malazan Empire forums are also a haven for debate, discussion, explanations, the communal piecing-together of information, hypothesis, and fact. You are in good hands. What’s even more exciting is that there are still depths yet to plumb…
One of the best aspects of Malazan Book of the Fallen, however, is that the series goes as deep as you want it to go. If you’re willing to gloss over moments where correlations are not always laid out in full, or the sometimes frustrating tendency of characters to avoid referring to one another by name, the series is still chock-full of rich action and inspired moments that keep the pace hurtling forward. Indeed, while reading the books, I came to realize that I lacked the mental gymnastics to keep everything ordered in my head—and letting go of this was freeing. I was staring up into outer space well past bedtime, awed both at the scope of what I could see unfolding and the awareness that there was so much more beyond the horizon. Life is not streamline. A moment in history cannot be fully understood without looking at what came before and what came after. A deeper conception of worldbuilding understands this fact, and then kicks it up a notch by insisting that such histories are often misinterpretations by unreliable narrators. Erikson knows history is bewildering, but you are the reader. You choose the level of detail you care to absorb. Let it go. Be of the world, don’t expect to grasp the world entire, and if you’re not determined to get to the bottom of every Easter egg and potential connective thread, give up any preconditions you have where you need to know. You’ll still have Caladan Brood and his massive hammer. You’ll still have ingenuitive wizard Quick Ben. You’ll still have the undead blademaster Onos T’oolan. And it helps to note that each book becomes less bewildering with each reread.
Of course, a lot of people say, “I don’t want to read a series if I have to reread it just to get it all.” It’s important to consider what kind of fantasy series inspires such rampant rereading in its faithful in the first place. Mediocre books reap no such devotion. Neither do a lot of excellent books where the story runs straight from beginning to end as the crow flies. So many fans of Malazan Book of the Fallen have read a wide array of other fantasy, and other genres, and yet they return to the series over and over in an effort to better comprehend the depth of the worldbuilding. To appreciate strands of the narrative web they missed before. Having reread books 1-9 myself back in 2011 (in preparation for the tenth book’s release), I can tell you from personal experience that the series shines upon revisitation. Loose threads become connections. Epiphanies uncover previously unidentified figures. Stray sentences and bits of interior monologue reveal themselves as dextrous foreshadowing. Some of these links and correlations are still being revealed, as a recent fan discovered an instance of foreshadowing from Book Two, Deadhouse Gates, that ties in to Erikson’s current Kharkanas trilogy—three novels set thousands of years in the series’ past that shed light on characters and races prominent throughout the Book of the Fallen. Those who love this series tend to cherish their rereads, and with no novel is this more true than Gardens of the Moon, where the action begins in media res and readers generally have a very different perspective on events the second time around, once free of what’s often considered “the slog”…
You’ve heard it’s an unforgiving slog:
The series is most definitely unforgiving. Whether it’s a slog is relative.
First, the “slog.” Yes, Gardens of the Moon in particular can be hard for some readers to get into. One of my closest friends tried three times before mustering himself to finish the book—and he had my enthusiastic guidance. Erikson himself admits this flat out in the preface to the republished Bantam UK mass market paperback edition:
Beginning with Gardens of the Moon, readers will either hate my stuff or love it. There’s no in-between. Naturally, I’d rather everybody loved it, but I understand why this will never be the case. These are not lazy books. You can’t float through, you just can’t. Even more problematic, the first novel begins halfway through a seeming marathon—you either hit the ground running and stay on your feet or you’re toast.
—Steven Erikson, Gardens of the Moon preface (xii), 2007
Some readers will hit the ground running and fall in love immediately. It happens all the time. The world resonates with ancient secrets and mysteries, whole races and various individuals flush with power. The novel is riddled with duels between rooftop assassins, cataclysmic battles, dreadful beasts and yes, even a few dragons. The core soldiers known as the Bridgeburners present a potent mix of witty quips and infamous efficiency. The deific presence of the Lord of Moon’s Spawn, Anomander Rake, Son of Darkness—who happens to possess Dragnipur, one of the genre’s all time bad-ass grimdark swords—is a palpable force that can easily draw a reader in without qualm.
Others will falter, and there is no shame in that. A slog is a slog if the novel doesn’t catch you right off. But Gardens of the Moon should be given greater leeway than your typical fantasy debut and here’s why: the story is vast, masterfully conceived, and it’s finished. The bigger the story, the bigger the potential payoff, and once you move beyond Gardens of the Moon that payoff becomes more and more apparent as you approach the final novel. This is a series that was conceived and plotted principally in the years before it was first published, meaning each novel progressively draws the readers towards a climactic end game. Unlike, say, certain hit TV shows—whose showrunners are forced to constantly expand and add to the premise of the first season, attempting to preserve continuity and create meaningful new storylines season by season—Malazan has always been, for all intents and purposes, pre-conceived and self-contained. This means that despite the weaving, challenging nature of the story, it rarely (if ever) gets tied up in knots of its own design or stumbles over plot holes or glaring omissions. Unlike many of the vast, sweeping epic fantasy series with no real end in sight, The Malazan Book of the Fallen is also satisfyingly complete; the stunning task of penning all ten books in a mere 12 years yet another indicator that Erikson is a special author. His commitment as a writer created a series more than worthy of commitment on the part of its readers.
Now, you might also be wary of the ‘unforgiving” nature of the series. That description is absolutely true. Erikson approaches his books with the attitude that if you are having trouble keeping up you should read harder, which can be disconcerting for many readers who assume, relatively reasonably, that the chief job of an author is to tell his or her story with complete clarity. As stated above, these are not lazy books. Erikson works at making you work. The thing is, there are a metric ton of books nowadays that don’t make you work at anything, and are chock-full of explanatory exposition. It is easy to fall into the trap of reading nothing but fluff as the years grow longer and our lives grow more complicated with age. It is too easy. As Tyrion Lannister once said, “A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.” Diverge too far from great literature and complex, ambitious works, like the many exceptional and challenging fantasy series uplifting the genre in recent years, and you go soft. It becomes difficult to find the time to challenge yourself. That’s why I praise the books’ unforgiving nature: in demanding attention and then rewarding that attention, they gradually build themselves into something both brilliant and sublime.
You’ve heard it’s too brilliant and sublime:
This is what’s staying your hand? You don’t enjoy brilliance? Sublimity perplexes and angers you? Relax. Dedication is required, far more than an impressive vocabulary or penetrating critical intelligence—you simply need the ability to see Gardens of the Moon as a stepping stone towards something bigger and read accordingly. And as I’ve noted above, if it turns out that you enjoy piecing together subtleties and foreshadowings after the fact, the series invites further investigation on any number levels once you’ve scaled the heights of all ten books.
You’ve heard it’s not so impressive as everyone claims:
First off, report the names of such rabble-rousers in the comments below! (Not really.) Second, a story:
I began reading Malazan Book of the Fallen in the early 2000s, around the time House of Chains was released. Despite impressive reviews and the support of Stephen R. Donaldson, it was relatively unknown—dwarfed by the success of A Song of Ice and Fire and (al)Thor-like magnitude of The Wheel of Time. Thus, when a stranger flat out insisted on the superiority of this newfangled series on an Internet forum, I was skeptical.
However, whose accolades are known are prone to challenge: we are creatures of habit, and we defend that which we love. One only needs to look at fandoms the world over to see how rooted we humans become in our choices, our favorites. These choices meld with our personalities. Fandom becomes a part of who we are and how we express ourselves. A stranger praises your favorite band? Instant connection. A stranger trashes your favorite movie? It feels like an unwitting attack on your ability to “correctly’” ingest media. But here’s the thing: when someone claims an unknown property is quantifiably better than your current favorite, everyone – everyone – gets their back up. As did I, along with a few other forum-using unbelievers.
So when these co-unbelievers opted to take this stranger’s challenge… only to come back utterly converted to Malazan Book of the Fallen… everything changed. That was not how it was supposed to work! What happened? How could they go and just prove the stranger right? What kind of series could walk all over my thrice-read favorite? Was it luck? Coincidence? Could it just be that good? The only way to find out was to start reading.
This is still true.
Seventeen years after Gardens of the Moon was first published, the accolades are numerous and well known. They are prone to challenge. The series has reached a level of fame where people who have not even read it nevertheless tend to have formed an opinion. Reddit forums like /r/fantasy are near sick to death with listening to the praise of faithful like myself, or filtering through the ongoing hype that refuses to die down. Understandable. There are lots of great fantasy series out there and very little time. We’ve probably all experienced this phenomenon before: the more dedicated a fantasy aficionado you are, the more tiresome and redundant the repeated endorsements of other more populist fans can become. This in turn leads to lower levels of tolerance and a kind of knee-jerk contrarianism. Boosters promote a book too enthusiastically, boo-birds attack a book too viciously, and newcomers are left to navigate the white noise. Don’t let this sway you. Such responses are both acceptable and inevitable.
See, it is typical that the more popular a property becomes the more detractors it takes on. There is a natural proclivity in people to discredit a work because they deem it disproportionately popular compared to their own personal likes and dislikes–the dreaded, dismissive “overrated.” But let’s not forget how a series becomes popular in the first place—particularly because Malazan is not like most series. Erikson’s popularity has risen at a steady pace over many years, the daunting nature of the series culling half-hearted readers early on until only dedicated fans remain. Its popularity should not be considered in the same light as series like The Wheel of Time or The Kingkiller Chronicle or A Song of Ice and Fire where success came relatively quickly, far-reaching and stratospheric. These series achieved exponential success. Malazan’s success is more linear, maintaining a gradual increase in popularity despite having started from an esoteric niche not necessarily conducive to immediate mainstream success. The elements that set the series apart, such as Erikson’s unorthodox incorporation of poetry and philosophy, serve to emphasize the magnitude of this anomaly, but also give us insight into the source of his staying power. Years later we faithful still crow! We still believe there is no greater success story in fantasy. We’re secure in our knowledge that Erikson has written a series that defies conventions, retaining the integrity and artistic merit of its most ambitious conception even as it grows in mass market popularity.
And this is all part of the criticism the series faces—whose accolades are known are prone to challenge. The difference between detractors and proponents may create a wider gulf with each review and discussion as new fans find their way to the series, but in the case of Malazan few who walk the walk find cause to disavow themselves. Of course, the only true way to expel inhibiting preconceptions or mixed messages is to pick up Gardens of the Moon and give it a whirl…
Joel Minty is the author of Purge of Ashes, Book One of his Imbalance series, and is currently seeking representation. He lives in Toronto with his wife, son and daughter, and can be found online at www.joelminty.com, on Twitter @JoelMinty, or anywhere good fantasy novels bring people together.