Welcome to the final installment of the Malazan Reread of the Fallen! In this article, your hosts Bill and Amanda look back over the reread and share their thoughts on the entire series (with Amanda, new to the Malazan Empire, going first). Obviously this post will contain spoilers for the entire series, so beware! Join the discussion in the comments, and keep track of the previous comments here on our reread spoiler thread.
Amanda’s Whole Series Wrap Up
Oh heck. Bill has written five pages of considered and clever words for his series wrap-up. FIVE PAGES!
I have no idea what to write. Seriously. I guess I shall tell you the story of this reread for me.
It’s that long ago that I don’t know if you remember this was originally supposed to be a reread for Bill and Stefan Raets – two people who had read the series a number of times and wanted to go through it again in depth for Tor.com. Bill, Stefan and I were all reviewers for Fantasyliterature.com at the time and, when Stefan unexpectedly had to drop out of the reread, Bill asked other Fanlit reviewers if they were interested in taking part.
At the time I was an upstart young book blogger, trying to make a name for myself and get involved in the community, and I said yes, without thinking about it. I knew it was a series of books I wanted to read and, honestly, how hard could it be? I also found out I would be paid for every post I made, and basically my day was made – being paid to read fantasy fiction? What a dream, right?
And then we started the reread.
And I (sorry, Steven, don’t look) HATED the first few chapters of Gardens of the Moon. I genuinely thought about pulling out of the reread, because how could I possibly engage with TEN novels of this dense, wordy, confusing writing that didn’t tell me ANYTHING. I didn’t know who these characters were, I had no idea what events we had fallen into, and what the hell were warrens?
I was a reader used to being handheld through fantasy, used to my authors not trusting me to make it on my own and giving me everything I needed to immerse myself. Suddenly I felt like I did when I first learnt to swim – terrified of drowning at every point.
But I didn’t drown then. And I didn’t drown in the reread either (thanks a great deal to Bill, and being able to read his wise commentary and summaries). I was nudged in the right direction when I got completely lost and sometimes allowed to splash merrily in the shallow end to help me get my confidence back up if I’d been through a troublesome section.
Also? I didn’t realise how much work it would take. Truly. For a normal chapter post, I will spend at least four hours on it. For a post where I have to do the summaries as well, it gets even longer. This was never easy – it was something I had to fit into my week all the time. And, as someone who soon took on a job as a slushpile reader and then as an editor, it meant my life involved a lot of activities that took up a lot of my time. But I’m not whinging. Because I know what Bill juggles, while still fitting this reread into his life. And he has been an absolute hero for taking on the bulk of the chapter summaries.
Anyway, partway through Gardens of the Moon, something changed for me. I wasn’t understanding it much better, but I was learning patience and trust. And that is the first point I want to make in terms of what I have taken out of this series: I now have a lot more patience when reading novels. I allow a story to unfold. I enjoy language for the sake of it. I appreciate the building blocks of story. Erikson gave me that.
I then discovered my affection was growing for certain characters. It’s Anomander Rake for me, back then and now, and forever. He became the character I waited to see on the page all the time. His first entry into the series still sends shivers down my spine. When we see him as the mighty dragon in the last convergence of Gardens of the Moon, I was beside myself with love. You know you always have that character who, no matter what else happens, never get displaced from your number one spot? He’s mine.
And that is pretty incredible to say in a series that has such dominant, memorable and fantastic characters. All written in shades of grey; all with realistic reactions and motivations; all with moments of humour and tragedy.
And so we eventually reached the end of Gardens of the Moon, and embarked on Deadhouse Gates, and I was lost to this series. I cried at a book for the first time in a long time. I recognised the sublime storytelling, that was building in layers. But before all of that, I was frustrated anew at Erikson – new characters? What about the old characters who I loved? Who are these new characters and how can I possibly love them as much as the ones from…. oh, I do love them. I love them hard. I am crying for their lives and what they achieved.
Personally, as an army brat, a lot of the military aspects of these novels absolutely resonated with me. I don’t think I’ve read soldiers written as accurately as I’ve seen here. When I was in the audience of a panel where Steve spoke about his favourite novels, it came as no surprise to hear that they were more military in focus, particularly books dealing with Vietnam.
The gallows humour of these soldiers; their frustrations with their commanding officers; their attitudes to children (protecting them above all) – all of it was something I’d experienced while living the military life over in Germany. For that reason, the novels became very special to me.
During the time we have worked on the reread, I took up the position of editor as Strange Chemistry and, more recently when that came to an end, become a freelance editor. And I can safely say that Erikson’s writing has helped me be a better editor. For one, it has allowed me to take a lighter touch when required in some edits. Or recognised that particular storylines might not seem to fit immediately into the novel, but that, when taken with another plotline, are absolutely crucial.
Over the years I’ve been reading Malazan, I have been to a number of conventions and been a panellist a few times, and it seems that, no matter the subject, I have been able to bore at a world class level on exactly how the Malazan novels achieve what other fantasy novels don’t touch on. I’m on a panel about how classic myths can be utilised in fantasy? Malazan. I’m on a panel about how sex is portrayed in fantasy? Malazan (with the added extra that rape is not used as a gratuitous method of punishment, but is considered, and the consequences are represented). On a panel about magic systems in fantasy, and how there never seems to be anything new? Malazan.
When on panels about the quality of writing, and choice of words, and challenges in reading – I hold up Malazan.
Worldbuilding. Writing technique. How history can be presented in fantasy novels. Subverting tropes. Grimdark AND nostalgic fantasy in one series? All of this happens with this stunning series of books.
Yes, I have bored many, many, many people with my passion for these books. I’ve quoted from them. I’ve told other people they HAVE to read them. And I’ve put down money for the first three Subterranean Press special editions (yes, they’re gorgeous. Yes, I hate myself a little bit for not being in time to get House in Chains, thereby ensuring I will NEVER HAVE A FULL SET). Why did I buy these special editions? Because the books are special. Because the reading experience is special. And because this re-read has been fucking special.
Yep, I come to our motley gang of commenters. Without you cheering us on, Bill and I would not have had the same fun. Without you arguing, and discussing, and shedding light, and presenting possible new theories, I would have been reading in a vacuum – and that would have been terrible when dealing with the Malazan books. They are made for books clubs, for discussion, for sharing, as far as I am concerned. So I thank you all for your contribution.
Lastly, a few favourites:
- Favourite character: Anomander Rake
- Favourite Bridgeburner: Fiddler
- Favourite duo: Tehol and Bugg
- Favourite funny character: Kruppe
- Favourite tragic character: Beak
- Favourite dragon: Silchas Ruin
- Favourite god: Cotillion
- Favourite frustrating dick: Quick Ben
What do you mean, that is just a cunning way to get a whole heap of favourite characters, rather than just having to pick one?? I can’t do favourites, I’m afraid. Just know I love every part of every one of these books.
Bill’s Whole Series Wrap Up
Thank you and have a good night.
OK, I’ve been informed by our Tor.com overlords that if I expect a check this week, I can’t just write “wow” for my wrap. Bastards. All right, all right. So, I’m going to start off with just a few things that make this one of the pre-eminent fantasy works. Because if I don’t stop myself at a few, this will run on forever. But boy, am I looking forward to this discussion in the comments.
Character, character, character.
Character is almost always what grabs me in a book and holds me throughout. And I absolutely love these characters. They are so well drawn, so vibrant, so rich in detail, and they offer a spectrum of traits to charm you (even if it’s a kind of snake-like fascination/repulsion charm)—complexity, humor, thoughtfulness, and, what makes so many of them stand out for me and makes them integral parts of the theme of this series—compassion. The roll call for me begins with Fiddler, Cotillion, Itkovian, Rake, Tehol, and the list goes on and on and on. But what makes them stand out amongst favorite characters in other works is the sheer amount of time we’ve spent with them. Think of it—from GotM to here, we’ve traveled what, 8000 pages or so with these characters (varying on format of course)? That’s a heck of a long time to spend with a group of characters. Over so many years and so many pages, you begin to feel like you’ve been on the march and in the trenches alongside them. And of course, when you lose one (or more), or when they suffer some kind of loss, you feel that ache as well.
But then, it isn’t just the long-standing characters you ache for. I’ve said many times that I don’t know many, if any, authors who can make me feel the pain of losing a character I’ve known only for a handful of pages (maybe Guy Gavriel Kay). So short-form and long-form, I’m with these characters all the way, wholly invested.
As for a favorite, it’s nigh on impossible. Cotillion perhaps. Maybe Fid. Or Tehol. Possibly Shadowthrone, if only for his singular line about “Acceptable levels of misery and suffering!… Acceptable? Who the fuck says any level is acceptable?” Hmm, let’s throw them all in there, call it my Top Five Favorites, and let the fifth spot rotate amongst a slew of characters depending on mood and memory: Quick Ben, Rake, Beak, Mappo, Gruntle, Iskaral Pust. Do I want funny? Do I want sad? Do I want thoughtful? Do I want brooding? Oh, the options…
Theme? We don’t need no stinkin’ themes!
“Compassion is priceless in the truest sense of the world. It must be given freely. In abundance.”
Oh, I love this theme, and its siblings: sympathy, empathy, justice, redemption, sacrifice. Start to finish it is expressed in so many ways—imagery, symbolism, action, dialogue, structure (what does a multiplicity of POVs do but almost force empathy upon the reader?). It drives the plot, it drives many of these characters, it permeates every book, every nook and cranny of this series, and one hopes it drips, drips, drips into the consciousness of every reader.
To everything there is a season.
How many times are our characters marching over the bones of another civilization? Crunching through broken pottery, walking over deserts that were once seas, climbing over ruins? I love the way time/history is used as a constant backdrop. And I can’t help but nod sadly at what often comes with that background—the idea that we just don’t learn from our history (Kallor of course being the seeming embodiment of that, as somebody I believe once told him if I’m recalling right—“you never learn”? Sound familiar anyone?). My own read as well on this (well, let’s face it, I’ve got no pipeline into Steven’s head, so this is all my own read) is that what this scope of time is telling us is that our in a very big, obvious way, our lives, our achievements, our tragedies, are all “meaningless” in the grand scheme of things. This too shall pass, after all. Pass and be wholly forgotten. But then, if one accepts that, then perhaps that is how we find—despite its seeming contradiction—that therefore every one of our moments has significance, every one of our acts, our petty cruelties and our moments of humanity, of compassion. That’s what I’m going with at least; I suppose, as Fiddler says of Hedge, I’m an optimist that way.
Never trust a historian.
How many times have we learned in this series to not trust what we “know” of the past? How many times has that knowledge been overturned? Think of the “history” of the Imass-Jaghut War that we get early on. Or of how Mallick Rel (I hate Mallick Rel) twists the history of the Wickans.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” –William Faulkner
A somewhat different take on the time/history theme, I’m thinking here of how the series portrays the reality that we are all products of our pasts (personal pasts and social/cultural pasts) and haunted by them regularly. I know people complain at times about the dead-not-being-dead aspect of this series, but I love it. I think it fits in the world-building first of all, so I’ve got no problem with dead coming back in a fictional world where that thing happens. But I love the way it mirrors what happens with our own dead—they never leave us. You don’t get “over” someone close to you dying. You might move “on,” but you don’t move “past” because that person is always right there with you. Hedge is the great example of that. But you can go down the entire list of characters obviously. Beyond that aspect, I also like how actions reverberate down through the ages, or, more literally in the reading, through these pages. Too often I read books and series where it seems the author has forgotten events; it’s as if they’ve never happened a few hundred pages later. But life doesn’t work that way, and this series is one of the best in portraying that.
War? What’s it good for?
My favorite war book of all time (and one of my favorite books of all time) is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. This series is my second favorite war book of all time, and the one that comes closest to capturing that (I’m assuming, since I’ve never been in war) soldier’s sense of the world. This is a grunt’s book, regardless of all the high and mighty figures that roam its pages. It’s not the Lord of the Rings; it’s the Book of the Fallen. And fall they do. And some rise again while others do not. But time and time again, we’re put in the heads of the common soldier and shown how none of them is, in fact, “common.” We see it all—the horror, the bonding, the boredom, the cruelty, the compassion, the absurdity, the complexity. What’s it good for? Nothing if it’s a genocidal war waged by one side only (Yeah, I’m talking about you T’lan Imass). But what about when it is to protect the innocent? It’s a wonderfully thoughtful exploration of this subject. And the hell with those who complain about all the deep thinking that goes on—I’m keeping my philosopher-soldiers, thank you very much.
The things we do for money. And power. And money.
I’m looking especially at you Lether. I loved the portrayal of that culture, its vicious take-down of our own society. Anyone tells me fantasy is “escapist” (something I just saw yet again in another “literary” review) and I’ll just nod my head and think of Tehol in his city of birth and think to myself, “Is it you’re too arrogant to acknowledge it, too ignorant to see it, or too lazy to bother looking for it?” As a corollary to Lether, I also like that the series doesn’t fall into the easy trap of portraying the “old” cultures—the pastoral ones, the pre-industrial ones, as inherently somehow more ethically/morally “pure.”
Ya gotta have faith.
It’s long surprised me how little significance/place religion has in many fantasy books (and I say this as a card-carrying atheist/apathist). Such a significant force in human history, and yet so often it is either wholly absent, portrayed in simplistic stock form (bad, bad white-robed fascists!!), or acts as mere window-dressing on the world-building. But too often people don’t discuss it, they don’t question it, they don’t interact with it, they have no relationship with their religion, their priests, their gods. Well, you certainly can’t say that about this series.
The power of Story.
We see this at the very beginning with Duiker—a historian and we see it at the very end with the Crippled God vowing to write a Book of the Fallen. Stories matter in this world, stories have an impact (for good and ill), stories are corrupted, stories inspire. What better theme for an author, eh? And what better character to drive that theme home than Kruppe?
Variety is the spice of life.
What a rich palette of creation we get in this series. Not your grumpy underground dwarves and lithe elves. Not your kitchen boy who is really a king. Not your basic horse people. We’re handed a slew of cultures (no surprise from an anthropologist) and of races. We’ve got our Andii, our Liosan, our Edur. Not one but two K’Chain sorts (made even richer by how they aren’t painted as typically “reptilian” but more insectoid in ways). Urban cultures. Nomadic cultures. Warrior cultures. A range of human sorts roughly akin (maybe) to our bushy evolutionary background. We’ve got our Soletaken and D’ivers. A plethora of gods. Zombie warriors. Funny Jaghut. Rather than a typical medievalist world, we’ve an odd mix—a move toward technology (the horrific imagery of a mechanized/industrialized warfare—the horrors of WWI come to mind), but also some sci-fi’ish kinds of things from the K’Chain Che’Malle. We’ve got several horses we care for via their characters. Stick-men. And dogs!
These are the jokes people!
Tehol. ‘Nuff said. (Though I could say lots more.)
Metaphor become real.
I’ve mentioned this multiple times, so I won’t belabor the point. But swords that scream! Chains that bind! A character who can literally never learn from his past! (OK, I’ll stop). Characters whose inability to forgive made them walking dead! (OK, I’ll really stop)
Turnarounds, slow reveals, overturned beliefs, and playing against tropes.
So many times we thought we knew something only to have it pulled out from underneath us. Jaghut bad—Imass good, for instance. Crippled God—uber-villain. Or we are given the usual surface tropes—dark and light—only to have them go the opposite way of expectations. Or we’re thrown into the middle of things and only slowly is the reality of the situation revealed—how many times have we noted that if the reader is simply patient, what was obscure will eventually become clear? (most times, not always, I’ll grant you). I loved the intellectual stimulation of all this.
Foreshadowing, call backs, and full circles.
We’ve mentioned a few from GotM. I think if you look back at Deadhouse Gates or Bonehunters you’ll see some neat parallels. And oh, the brick-building and foreshadowing. Here is a small, and I mean small, sample of items we filed away (and I’ll end with that and see you in the comments!)
Memories of Ice
Crone telling us the Ravens “have been honorable guardians of the Crippled God’s magic.” Then later Korlat telling WJ the ravens “carry with them fragments of the CG’s power.”
She half-believed this man [Karsa] could cut a swath through an entire pantheon of gods
“This family [the Paran family] so at war with itself.”
“Trust in Tavore, Ganoes Paran—your sister will salvage the House… Trust in your sister.”
Gruntle’s line in these musings, “why anyone would be interested in worshipping the Tiger of Summer is beyond me.”
“Your army will follow you into the Abyss, should you so command.”
“Fener was as good as dead… like a babe on an altar. All that was required was a knife and a wilful hand.
House of Chains
Tavore agrees, then asks Pearl about the Talon. He says they no longer exist and when Tavore challenges his honesty, he admits they do, digging in deeper whenever the Claw try to root them out. Tavore says they do serve a “certain function,”
To Cotillion about the Crippled God: “You should have stuck a knife in the bastard right there and then.”
“a low altar… Some lowlander god, signified by a small clay statue—a boar, standing on its hind legs. The Teblor knocked it to the earthen floor, then shattered it with a single stomp of his heel.”
“The power of your stone arrows”
On a tangent, he mentions the Forkrul Assail: “saving us the bloody recourse of finding a Forkrul Assail to adjudicate, and believe me, such adjudication is invariably bloody. Rarely indeed is anyone satisfied. Rarer still that anyone is left alive.
Fiddler carrying a child in a line of marchers, some doing the same. Save that image.
Did Sinn find salvation in sorcery? Shard held no faith that such salvation was in truth benign. A weapon for her will, and how far could a mortal go with such a weapon in their hands?
Dust of Dreams
Perhaps the strangest group of warriors Paran had seen was the Gilk. Their hair was cut in stiff, narrow wedges and they wore armour assembled from the plates of some kind of tortoise.
Amanda Rutter is the editor of Strange Chemistry books, sister imprint to Angry Robot.