OK, look. I’m just going to put it on the table early on. I had a tough time with the beginning of Fall of Light. And by “beginning,” I mean the first 150-200 of its 800-plus pages. It wasn’t just the pace (though it was admittedly more than a little slow). Or all the new characters (though really, one wonders at some point how many Tiste we haven’t met, not to mention Jaghut, Azathanai, Jhelken, Dragons, etc). Or that there was a lot of table-setting going on (though given how book one had spent a good chunk of its 600 pages laying out the plates and silverware and glasses, I confess I’d expected the food to come a lot more quickly than it did).
All of those issues contributed, yes, but mostly what made this more of a struggle than I think I’ve ever had with a Malazan novel was the monotone nature, or so it felt to me, of those first few hundred pages. Where nearly every character seemed to speak in the same fashion and so many monologues/dialogues felt like grad school seminars—a few people talking in weighty tones, complex sentences and world-weary voice about big issues: Human Nature, Violence and War, Society, Vengeance, Love, Self-deception, Faith.
Now, I’m all for deep explorations of the human psyche, individually and in the conglomerate we call civilization. And certainly nobody who reads Steven Erikson is going to be blindsided by these sorts of conversations; we’ve seen them many times in the past. But in the prior novels these moments were more spread out and were leavened by a good amount of humor or by much more simple human interaction (you know, the way most of us talk). It didn’t feel like every character was reading from the same script with the same accent in the same emotional tone. In short, there was a balance in those earlier novels that seemed to me to be lacking here.
Individually, or even several at a time, these monologues/dialogues would have been an enthralling and meaty bit of intellectual stimulation. Just what I come to the Malazan novels for and why they so stand out amongst much of the genre. But in their omnipresence, these moments began to feel not stimulating but unrelenting. Not just weighty in their nature but weighty in that they were creating a drag on the reading experience. I didn’t think much of it for the first 50 or so pages, began to note it around page 100, and began to start getting seriously concerned about 50-75 pages later. Here I was almost 200 pages into a novel I’d been anticipating for some time, by an author whom I consider one of the best in the business. And I was not enjoying myself.
Oh, there were had been a few of those typical prequel frisson moments—those recognitions of characters or phrases or images in their originating forms that would echo out into the original series and couldn’t help but provoke a smile or shivering thrill: The Watch! Korabas! The Shore! Acorns! But those moments just weren’t enough. And then. Well, and then.
The novel opened out. Instead of walking and talking, or riding and talking, or sitting and talking, characters began doing (and talking). Events moved apace. Dialogue dropped a bit out of the esoteric. We were treated to simple conversations, moments between characters on a human scale rather than a societal or galactic one. The abstract became concrete. The cosmic became personal. This man loving that woman. That woman loving this man. That man loving that other man. This father struggling with that daughter. That seriously warped and bratty sister fighting with the other seriously warped and bratty sister. This person struggling with their past and their conscience. And this one. And this one. And this one (lots of pasts to struggle with in this novel).
The novel’s tone broadened as well. Now those dissertations/debates on the inevitable corruption and downfall of civilization or the general suckitude that lies way too often at the heart of the human soul were broken up with some fiercely tense action scenes or with lighter moments of camaraderie or humor. And Jaghut. Oh thank all you gods for Jaghut. For Gothos. And Gethol. And Hood. And Haut. And Varandas. And Raest (Raest!). It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Erikson has spoiled other books for me, because a novel (or a world) without Jaghut I have come to believe cannot help but be a dull and lifeless thing, lacking both their dry, dry wit and their sweeping, heart-swooping audacity, and oh how I have come to bemoan their dearth in our own Jaghut-less world.
Now granted, some of the attempts at humor are more successful than others, though that will be a matter of individual taste—the sexual hijinks of Thel Akai didn’t do much for me personally. But whether they work or not for you, they still serve to let the reader breathe a bit. And that is a very good thing in a novel so dense with those aforementioned weighty debates. Because time to breathe means more time to think. And that, as I’ve said many a time, is one of the aspects of this creative world that sets it apart from so many others—the way it makes you wrestle, and wrestle deeply, at length, with big ideas.
Many of them will be familiar to readers of the main series arc. What is it that makes us human? How can we call ourselves “civilized” considering our list of atrocities—not just the big “historical “ones, not even most importantly those—but our list of daily domestic ones: the day-to-day hunger of a child, the day-to-day violence, the day-to-day degradations. Why/how do we so glorify violence, war, vengeance? Why do these—our most base, most ugly attributes—lie so often at the core of our “hero” tales? Why do we foul our own nest, despoil the world we live in? Why does our greatest superpower seem to be self-deception? Or perhaps self-justification? Why can it not be love? Or empathy? Or compassion?
Sometimes these themes are evoked, as noted above, in rarified, intellectual debate between characters, or between two voices within the head of a single character. They’re evoked in symbol and metaphor and recurrent imagery: all those allusions to masks and faces, all those references to bridges (and what is empathy if not a bridge?). And most powerfully and effectively, they’re evoked in the gut-punching moments when a thousand rapists and murderers are robbed of their self-made veils, when a desperate man finds his cause in a child’s dream, when a soldier walks away from a battle, when a child pokes a spear at a body, when a host of gods weep in envy, when an army departs to make its stand against Death itself.
As easy as it is to note Erikson’s epic scale (uber-epic might be a better term)—his multiple worlds, the millennia of history, the cast of thousands—I think sometimes his attention to the micro-level of writing often gets passed over. Those recurrent images, that constant attention to language on a sentence by sentence, word by word level. I had noticed some of this on my first read through, but I was stunned at how much there was when I read Fall of Light the second time (here’s hoping I can read my notes the third time around when our Malazan Reread gets to it in a year or two…). It’s perhaps no surprise as well that such an attentive writer gets more than a little meta now and then, most obviously when Gallan, our narrator, interrupts to offer the poet’s point of view. Or when Erikson appears to be speaking directly to the reader, or even more specifically, his readers, as when we’re told, “So I sense you manning still the ramparts of your admiration for the Son of Darkness. Will I never scour that romance from your vision? Must I beat you about the head with his flaws, his errors in judgment, his obstinacy?”
Or when, perhaps in a nod of commiseration with his audience, he has a character say of two others: “Theirs was a wit too sharp of her, and even to witness it was to feel one’s own mind as something too blunt, likely to stumble should it seek to keep pace… Still, it proved a modest wound, given how entertaining they often were.” Or, even more to the point: “It was a wonder that no one had as yet killed this Azathanai, so frustrating and infuriating was his conversation.” (I confess to nodding in agreement with this one.)
So yeah, that whole “struggled with the first 200 or so pages” thing? Forget about it (plus, they actually read a whole lot better the second time around). Fans of the series will thrill, if only briefly, at seeing first or very early incarnations of classic Malazan aspects: our first sky keep, our first Mortal Sword and Archmage, Emurlahn, the rise of Tiste Edur, our first (I think) veering out of dragon form, the first Jaghut tyrants, a glimpse of the world’s biggest wagon, and the like. Over longer periods we get to see the slow development of the Shake, of the Shore (and I don’t want to give spoilers, but the complexity of what Erikson does with this plotline is absolutely brilliant both in terms of plot and writing craft), of the rift between Rake and Draconus, between Rake and his brothers. We get some, well, I hesitate to call them “explanations,” so let’s say “further exploration” of big series plotlines—what happened to Sandalath, the creation of the warrens, the role of dragons in the world, and others. It’s a book filled with wonderfully thoughtful, intense, and I’d argue important examinations of the world we live in. I could easily quote passage after passage that I’d want to grab someone off the street and say: “Read this. Think about this. Act on this!”
But really what’s at the core here, what lies at the heart of the novel is, well, the heart. In a setting ruled by atrocity and civil war and violence and rape and murder and vengeance as a driving force, and pride, a world filled with Powers—immortals and near-immortals and gods and elemental forces—the power that stands all too often unremarked, unwitnessed, unworshipped (save by a select too few) is love. That such a writerly choice in our slick, sophisticated, ironic, snarky, cynical “civilized” world might be sneered at or denigrated as “sentimental” or “melodramatic” I’d argue says more and worse things about our world than about the writing. Or, as Rake says, “Sentimental, am I? Is love so paltry a thing, to be plucked and dropped to the ground at the first breath of contempt? Man or woman, disparaging love is a crime of the soul, for which the future will turn away its face.” Coming near the very end, believe me when I tell you that there’s a whole lot of context to add true weight to these lines. But if you’ve read the main series, let me just add this. One of those “firsts” or “introductions” we get in this novel is to a young child named Korlat. And we know where that goes.
We’re not to the end yet, obviously, with a third book still to come in the Kharkanas Trilogy. And that’s nicely set up by a killer ending, one that in good writerly fashion both stuns and is wholly inevitable (and that second read showed just how inevitable it really was). It’s a testament to Erikson’s work that not only did I want to immediately pick up that third book, but I also wanted to go back and start reading the Malazan series all over again. As in seriously had to resist picking up Gardens of the Moon. (I didn’t. I’m a fan; I’m not insane.) So if, like me, you struggle through the opening sections, just give it some time. You’ll be well rewarded. And when you get to the end, if, like me, you start eyeing your bookshelves, particularly that “E” section with all the big thick books, have a friend on hold to talk you down. (Or maybe we can start a support group here at Tor.com.)
Bill Capossere writes short stories, essays and plays; does reviews for the LA Review of Books and Fantasy Literature, as well as for Tor.com; and works as an adjunct English instructor. In his non-writing and reading time, he plays ultimate Frisbee (though less often and more slowly than he used to) and disc golf.