By nature of the genre, the premise of every fantasy novel asks “what if” questions. What if magic was real? What if children went to school to learn it? What if a pantheon of gods walked among us? As an archeologist and anthropologist, Steven Erikson asked questions about the clashing of cultures and classes, about climate and capitalism, about the relationship between gods and mortals—and not just if magic existed, but if it was available to anyone. What if magical abilities could be learned by anyone, regardless of age, gender, intelligence or skill? As Erikson states, “It occurred to us that it would create a culture without gender bias so there would be no gender-based hierarchies of power. It became a world without sexism and that was very interesting to explore.”
In the same matter-of-fact, almost mundane way that magic simply exists in the Malazan universe, so too does equality among the sexes. It just is—and that’s refreshing.
With an egalitarian magic system as the foundation to the Malazan universe, the subsequent worldbuilding blocks logically fall into place, building upon each other and supporting that central idea. The definition of power extends beyond male physical strength, equalizing roles of authority. The availability of magical healing means less women and children dying in childbirth, and more opportunity for women to contribute to a society without medical or technological advancements. This creates an even playing field in the realm of power and influence, granting equal opportunity for everyone.
The very first magic user we meet in Gardens of the Moon is a woman. Another woman, Tattersail, is a respected sorceress who, although aged and overweight (“The fat lady with the spells” in her own words), enters a romantic relationship with the traditionally attractive male hero of the story. The Malazan Empire is ruled by Empress Laseen. Both her Adjuncts in the course of the series are women and one, Tavore Paran, is in a relationship with another woman. Throughout the books are storylines following sisters and female friendships, matriarchal societies, countless goddesses and queens, female assassins unmatched by their male peers, female pirate captains and several other women in high-ranking positions in different societies. And in a minor but fascinating detail, all military superiors in the series are addressed as “sir” regardless of gender. Erikson could have easily created a gendered honorific but he instead chose to keep “sir”, solidifying that, whether male or female, whoever holds the position is equally deserving of respect. And despite various cultural divisions that arise, these women in positions of power are never questioned by their male subordinates on the basis of their gender. Being female never equates with being seen as weak.
But this is the Book of the Fallen, after all. And though it’s a world of equality and diversity, it sure as Hood isn’t a utopia. Erikson presents his readers with some of the most reprehensible qualities of human nature—acts sometimes so degrading that it’s tempting to turn away. Horrible things happen to these characters, but it’s never driven by discrimination. Gender and sexual orientation are never used purely as plot devices. Of course Adjunct Tavore Paran is questioned and even resented by some of her soldiers, but using her gender or sexual orientation against her would never even cross their minds.
Neither would a common Malazan soldier hate her enemy simply because of their skin colour. Racism and blind hate certainly do exist within the series but it’s most often used as a foil to the diverse Malazan Empire, supporting the theme that diversity is strength. Inspired by the Roman Empire, Erikson explores themes of cultural and ethnic identity with his Malazans. The Malazan Empire doesn’t completely wipe out subjugated cultures, but incorporates them into their own (for better or worse). The Malazan armies are thus made of dozens of races, both human and non-human alike who, for the most part, manage to get along with each other. There’s significant effort made to show the racial diversity of the Malazan Empire, and the main themes of the series overwhelmingly express the idea that diversity is empowering.
“Diversity is worth celebrating,” says Malazan Imperial Historian, Duiker, “for it is the birthplace of wisdom.”
Diversity in a society brings wisdom and representation brings compassion. And this is what separates Malazan Book of the Fallen from the rest of fantasy. Steven Erikson has spoken at length about compassion being the main theme of his series. To feel compassionate to those who are suffering, we must first be made aware of their suffering. And throughout history, these suffering voices are always the ones least heard by the rest of the world—the forgotten, the outcast, the other. With a cast of characters diverse in their gender, culture and class, Erikson brings many of these unheard voices to the forefront of his work, challenging the reader’s worldview. How do we respond to suffering? How do we maintain cultural diversity while united under one country? How, in a world without Malazan’s magic, do we address the sexism of our own? For while fantasy often begins with a “what if” question, it usually ends with “what now?”
As far as representing every unheard voice in our society, these books aren’t perfect. Gender identity isn’t explored beyond a god who changes their biological sex at will (but with the thin lines dividing male and female roles in many of Erikson’s societies, there’s surely a place for those whose identity doesn’t perfectly align with one or the other). And while the gay male characters are few, their sexual orientation never puts them at a societal disadvantage. So often fantasy presents a perfectly reflective portrait of our own society to address its flaws rather than exploring an alternative. And while many of their contemporaries continue to write epic magic battles and fire-breathing dragons while defaulting to overtly sexist, heteronormative societies because of “historical accuracy”, Erikson has proved that worldbuilding that steps outside of a Eurocentric, patriarchal system can be used as a tool to promote and explore inherent diversity and equality—to show us what reality could look like. It’s a question that’s been asked before, but it’s worth repeating: if fantasy readers can suspend their disbelief to accept the existence of dragons, magic and zombies, shouldn’t they be able to stretch their imaginations far enough to embrace a world where women and minorities exist as active, accepted, and truly equal members of society?
Matt Bandstra is a writer and designer whose poetry collection, Birds in Aquariums, was published in 2018. He can be found sharing art on Instagram and talking about music and the environment on Twitter.