Friday, November 11, 2011

A Slow Exhale: The Consistency of Malazan Book of the Fallen

(Be warned: this essay assumes you have read The Malazan Book of the Fallen.  Look here for my review.)

Dynamism is a fundamental aspect of individuals.  With time, people’s characters, habits, and skills develop, evolve, and revert.  A philosophy a person holds dear one year may be sacrificed at an altar the next, the same as one quickly forgets their French living apart from the language for too long.  Human nature so plastic, it is no wonder we admire those who are able to hold to the same doctrine or practice the same skilled techniques with grace over the years.  Brave enough to put their beliefs on paper, uncompromising writers would seem especially deserving of esteem.  One does not have to love Dostoevsky to respect the continuity and quality of his literature.  Most writers are not as consistent over a ten year period, let alone a lifetime. 

The importance of consistency in writing never seems so pertinent as when considering modern fantasy.  When choosing to write series that run three, occasionally five, and sometimes even seven books or longer, an unspoken burden is placed on the author to make the story as uniform as possible despite the years lived and life experiences during.  Decades are sometimes needed to write the epic length stories churned out today.  A cursory look at George R.R. Martin and his fifteen year ongoing A Song of Ice and Fire and one quickly sees certain incompatibilities that have crept into the five books to date.  Style, narrative structure, and overall quality have evolved at a level deeper than was undoubtedly intended—and there are still two books planned.  Other modern writers of fantasy have faired better, however, and to this point I would like to continue the essay.

A new book published roughly every year (1999-2010), Steven Erikson’s writing of the ten book Malazan Book of the Fallen ticked like a clock.  This is remarkable considering that book length is on average 900 pages.   Further technical consistencies of the series include new dramatis personae lists (each running several pages at the beginning of each book), maps (new locations for each book), poetry and prose (in the manner of Howard or Herbert) at the beginning of each chapter, and the basic structure of each book being four parts.  Throughout the series, Erikson never deviated from this pattern until The Crippled God, which varied only by being broken into seven parts—a departure obviously intended to deepen the impact of the concluding volume.  These consistencies lie, however, on the most superficial of layers.

Beyond presentation, Erikson’s preference for style also remained unswerving throughout the writing of the series.  Of particular note is the obscurity and uncertainty with which he writes.  Nothing fed to the reader on a silver spoon, even such moments as Quick Ben’s ‘forthright’ explanation of warrens to King Tehol in Dust of Dreams required the reader to think back upon all they had learned of the subject in previous volumes.  Furthermore, that Erikson so often uses the pronouns “he,” “she,” and “it” to introduce viewpoints throughout the narrative, the simplest of character thought and action requires the reader to cogitate upon exactly who or what is being spoken of.   That the connection is to previous details so easily overlooked is a testament to not only the closeness the reader must maintain when reading, but the overall value placed on the reading experience itself.  Thus like Gene Wolfe’s, Erikson’s is a literary style which fully engages and puts the onus on the reader for finding full value.  From the first page of Gardens of the Moon to the last of The Crippled God, a reader must maintain focus to fully make the series worth their while.

Regarding plot and narrative, each book in the series depends on the same idea for its climax: convergence.  Using the first three parts of a volume for world building, character development, and thematic layering, the fourth part inevitably features a drawing together of these elements.  Memories of Ice finds all of the characters involved in the Genabackis theater—the Bridgeburners, the T’lan Imass, the Tiste Andii, and others—coming together in Coral to fight the undead K’Chain Malle, flesh eaters, and the Dying One; Midnight Tides finds the Tiste Edur in what has seemed an inevitable confrontation with the Letherii; and Dust of Dreams and The Crippled God—the overarching denouement of the whole series—feature a fraught union of all the races, species, and groups introduced to date joining forces to fight the Forkrul Assail and their idea of justice through balance.  Nothing planned or intended (from a character point of view), these convergences serve to highlight Erikson’s idea that humanity as a group lacks control over itself and that confrontation is the inevitable result.  By concluding each volume as such, he never deviates from the belief.

I have not counted the number of characters who appear in the Malazan world, but certainly it would be in the hundreds, if not more than a thousand.  Some appear in the majority of the books (Onos O’Toolan, Toc the Younger, and Apsalar to name a few), while many receive only minor moments of stage time.  There is one person, however, that finds itself appearing in all of the novels: the common soldier.  Inspired by Glen Cook’s Black Company, the everyday soldier and the group dynamic they are a part of plays the most critical role in every book of Malazan.  And so while Cook comments on his own series that "The Company itself is the main character of the book. There're always more people; there's always a Black Company.", the same could be said of Malazan and its soldiers, no matter the name they carry, Bridgeburners, Bonehunters, Whirlwind Army, etc.  Wizards, mighty warriors, and gods do influence the story, but ever Erikson’s focus returns to this plight of the foot soldier. 

The pages Erikson writes using the voice of the soldier as a tool for philosophizing far outnumber any other category of text one might think of.  Ideas directly and (more often) indirectly discussed include: living with the constant threat of war, the camaraderie and bonds formed surviving battle, and the idiosyncrasies and quirks one adopts inundated with violence.  Encapsulating these ideas is Fiddler.  His paranoia, discomfort, and yet need for the organized life of the military are felt ever more deeply with each scene and storyline he is a part of.  Erikson naming the series after an idea Napoleon had to write a book listing the names of those who died fighting for his cause, Fiddler and the other soldiers best represent the common people history would be better for remembering.  If one doubts this point, they need only take a glance at the lists of dramatis personae to find how the common soldier dominates.  By doing so, Erikson ever ensured the series maintained focused on the lesser known individuals of his ‘history.’

The voice of the common soldier present in every book ties directly to another consistency of the Malazan world: the all-too-common result of their plight: death, and in particular, the Pyrrhic victory.  Beyond good and evil, Erikson portrays all sides of a fight with relevance.  His purpose in this, as he has stated in interviews, is that “Multiple points-of-view are for me a way of ensuring that no single world view, philosophy, or attitude dominates the story.”  Thus, by understanding the motives each have for war, the reader can sympathize with both sides—an idea especially relevant as each experience tragic and catastrophic losses in battle. “Everybody loses in war.” seems a fundamental idea from reality Erikson wanted to hammer home in Malazan.  (If only in reality humanity would listen.)   The myriad thematic uses of death in Malazan likewise warrant attention, but are perhaps best served in a more detailed essay.

Not as perfect as a circle or the stroke of midnight, the value of consistency often lies in the consistency of its inconsistency.  After all, it is possible to be routinely undependable, and therefore dependable.  Applying this to Malazan, when writing ten such large books, drumming a single theme out, tome after tome, would not lend itself to an enjoyable series.  Thus, despite the soldier’s viewpoint in each book, Erikson consciously and continuously varies the theme. Structured to function independently, the individual topics of each book simultaneously fit within a larger motif of the series.  By choosing deep and complex concepts to overarch the whole—compassion, history, sacrifice, cultural relativity and evolution, to name a few—the minor thematic elements within the individual books can be examined in finer detail.  Deadhouse Gates, for example, deals with the theme of honor and duty, particularly that exemplified in the single-minded seriousness in which Coltaine goes about divesting his responsibilities.  That it goes on to cost him his life connects to the larger subject of sacrifice which is a thread running through the series as a whole.  The devotion Mappo Trell shows Icarium in Deadhouse Gates likewise speaks of honor and duty.  In their case, however, the reader is led to believe the feeling is related to something more personal, that is, friendship, rather than obligation.  Thus while dealing with one theme—honor and duty—Erikson simultaneously ties into the larger goals of the series.  He summarizes his intentions regarding theme in Malazan in the following:

“I try to tackle specific themes in each novel, to give each work a distinctive tone and flavour -- it's not enough to hammer away on a single theme (like 'war is a terrible thing and here's why') over and over again. Throughout all of the novels, however, I try to explore the dichotomy between the individual and the forces of nature (including vast sweeps of history, civilization, and the human abuse of power). In a general sense, I'm writing tragedies, and this imposes another kind of pressure: namely, balancing the tragic events with gestures of humanity. If I was to tell you that Memories of Ice was a novel about motherhood, would you believe me?”

While many writers wax and wane through a three-book series, perhaps most impressive is the consistency with which Erikson improved his style through the ten books.  Like watching a masterpiece develop, the obtuse and often stunted narrative of Gardens of the Moon became thought-provoking, sublime prose tugging at the soul in The Crippled GodToll the Hounds in particular saw Erikson quietly taking a step into territory many writers of literary realism have yet to locate.  Fully showing rather than telling, there are no significant dips in quality in this subtle transition.  With each degree of refinement achieved, the individual stories burrowed deeper into the reader’s mind with the progression of the series.

There are, however, some minor discrepancies plaguing Malazan which render the latter volumes different than the earlier works.  One noticeable difference is strong language.  Aside from Erikson’s own creations, like “Hood’s breath” or “Beru fend,” virtually no four-letter words exist in the first two books.  Memories of Ice finds Erikson occasionally using salty language to strengthen dialogue, but on the whole, the first third of the series is more reminiscent of Tolkien from a vulgarity point of view.  This representation of dialogue changes, however, with the books leading up to the series’ close wherein there is more than the occasional usage of oaths.  Never overused, the strong language in fact lends realism to the dialogue among soldiers.  The attempts at playful insults early in the series become juvenile in comparison to the more adult discourse in the later books.  Thus, though the improvement was for the better, the lack of profanity in the opening tomes affects the overall consistency.

The second negative inconsistency in Malazan is the timeline.  Easily followed up to the end of Midnight Tides, The Bonehunters sees the beginning of a dissembling.  Traceable storylines begin to falter, and throughout the remainder of the series the reader must forego aligning the arcs of the various characters.  However, trusting Erikson proves effective.  The climax of each book unfailingly brings storylines together in convincing enough fashion to render the timeline plausible at a minimum.  The sheer number of characters, size of the world, and ambition for content seem to be the main causes for this problem; when one attempts to balance a world of such magnitude, it is perhaps inevitable that the threads will come loose.  This slow deconstruction could prove a hurdle to the enjoyment of some readers.

The negative points aside, the consistency of Malazan remains astounding given the scope of the series.  As was seen, the literary stars to which Erikson kept Malazan continuously pointed are many.  The cultural backgrounds of a dozen main societal groups plus dozens more minor groups remain solid and balanced throughout.  The storylines of at least a hundred main characters, despite being intertwined and leading in new directions all the time, are never lost.  The thematic focus—the most important aspect of the series—likewise does not lose its way in the march.   Thus it is my hope that by writing this article, Erikson can feel a degree of satisfaction at having his efforts recognized, for he has been quoted as saying:

“One of my early worries in devising a long series was the recognition that, over the years spent writing it, my perspective would change. I thought that would be a problem, as the thematic elements in later books would 'outdate' those of the early ones. I've since stopped worrying -- in some respects it's inevitable, and it's what assures me I won't be continually rewriting the same story -- just as characters evolve, so too should the writer. Interests flower then die away and that's just the way it is. I see that evolution now as a positive force.”

This mature outlook has indeed revealed itself in the text.  Few writers of modern fantasy have the focus and ambition to envision such a large project and see it through the way the Malazan series reads.  Like a slow exhale, the pleasure in the release was a worthwhile read.  I can’t wait to take a breath, and read the series again.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent commentary, I agree with everything said here!