Saturday, October 8, 2011

Review of The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

(Note that this review is for the entirety of the Malazan series-no spoilers.)

Thematic at so many levels, poignant to such a variety of societal issues, and so complex in size and structure – on top of being filled to the brim with action and magic - it’s difficult to begin describing Steven Erikson’s decade-long project The Malazan Book of the Fallen.  Literally and physically epic, whole forests were undoubtedly destroyed in printing the ten volumes of this completed series.  The result is that scope, depth, and world building have perhaps never seen and never will again see such a massive, sprawling story populated by such a variety of characters and cultures.  Fantasy literature has been redefined. 

The first book, Gardens of the Moon, sets the tone.  Thrown into events as they are happening, readers do not get any soft, fluffy background, slowly easing them into the world of Malazan.   And the series does not relent.  Though satisfying closures to individual storylines can be found, the last book, The Crippled God, finds the series ending as ongoing as it began.  Much the same as being dropped into the middle of Europe’s attempt to colonize the world and plucked out as the events of WWI draw to a close, Erikson has said that the overall effect is something like “We edge in to observe a slice of history, then, ten books later, we edge back out.”  Relative background filled in only as necessary, readers expecting easily accessible explanations as to why things are happening will immediately be put off.  Like our real world, little is spoon fed in Malazan.

Writing in such a mode begs the question: why should I read the series if it’s so complex?  Like the works of Gene Wolfe, the answer lies in the themes that are unveiled upon closer inspection.  While on the surface Malazan appears to have it all, action, comedy, romance, tragedy, the supernatural, etc., at a deeper level, more complex and poignant ideas exist.  For example, the name of the series comes from an idea Napoleon had to create a Book of the Fallen to honor all who died in the name of his cause, thus ensuring history did not forget them.  With this idea in mind, one of Erikson’s main goals is to bring foreground the lives of ordinary soldiers and the difficulties they have living subject to leaders whose interests are not always altruistic, as well as the uncertainty of living with war.  Unlike much of modern fantasy which tells the story of the hero – the undefeatable warrior championing justice – Malazan instead tells of the supporting cast, the little guys and the sacrifices they contribute to the overall effect.  Sticking with thematic content, the conflicts and bloodshed so visible in Malazan are not in fact nihilistic commentary on modern life, rather a key indicator of the precocity of life itself.  Those who read the series all the way to the end will be pleasantly surprised at the manner in which the themes of compassion, family, and love for friends are revealed both amongst and through the bloody battles and powerful displays of magic. 

Thus, in writing The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Erikson has pulled off the near impossible: a combination of Dungeons and Dragons with literary aspiration, emphasis on the latter as the series progresses.  As a result, those looking for fantasy entertainment with accessible storylines and rather typical heroic characters should read Abercrombie, Rothfuss, or Lynch.  For those looking for fantasy with depth and value, the rewards of sticking with this series – no matter how difficult it can sometimes be - are real.  (Check out the Malazan Empire forums for an idea of the fanbase and its devotion.)   Truly an investment, the series is open to numerous re-reads.  Ample room is available for gleaning details overlooked in previous sittings and wonder at the depth of the world created.  In fact, the more one allows themselves to melt into world of Malazan, the more the little treasures of wisdom and sheer humanity Erikson has planted reveals itself.  Tragedy and the fantastic have perhaps never been so well intertwined.  Recommended, but be warned the road is not always easy.

(For those who have read the series and are interested in further commentary, additional essays from this blog may be found here: Stepping Stones: The Ideas Bridging Malazan, and, A Slow Exhale: The Consistency of Malazan.)

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