Book Review: The Malazan Book of the Fallen

The Malazan Book of the Fallen

Author: Steven Erikson
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Books: 1-10 (complete)

I waited until finishing the very last book in this epic fantasy series before writing this review, but going forward, I am not entirely sure whether that is the best way to handle works of this size and scope. Especially series of this size and this scope.

At its base, The Malazan Book of the Fallen mostly follows the tale of the Bridgeburners, a special squad of marines in the Malazan army as they are tasked with acts of sabotage and subterfuge in a world with magic, undead warriors literally hundreds of thousands of years old, actually immortal shapeshifting dragon mages, gods, ascendant gods, elder gods, reality-destroying chaos magic, and good old-fashioned armies of human meat and bone and iron. While the Bridgeburners are an integral story arc, there are actually two more completely different ones that are of similar heft and importance.

The very first book, Gardens of the Moon, was perhaps one of the worst possible opening books in any epic fantasy series that I have ever read – it immediately tosses you into this new world, confuses the hell out of you with a cast of hundreds of individual characters, and doesn’t pause to explain anything. For example, the magic in this world comes from Warrens, which are a sort of pocket dimension aligned with certain traits. Thus, when the books says “they opened a warren,” it can both mean they are casting a spell or actually opening the warren as a means of physical escape. Or both, simultaneously. None of that is explained anywhere in Book 1.

I’m highlighting the failing of the first book because the rest of the series is so mind-boggling good. It does not have the cleverness of Name of the Wind or the timelessness of Lord of the Rings, but it’s close. Each book is designed to sort of stand on its own, following the world’s (suspiciously convenient) tendency towards a convergence of powers, but the weaving of characters and story arcs is tremendously good. While the internal monologs are consistent with the book’s fiction, they often bring up devastatingly good philosophical arguments regarding the realities of war, the existence of god, and the general ugliness of the human condition, all with not being too overt.

This is the sort of writing you can expect:

There is something profoundly cynical, my friends, in the notion of paradise after death. The lure is evasion. The promise is excusative. One need not accept responsibility for the world as it is, and by extension, one need do nothing about it. To strive for change, for true goodness in this mortal world, one must acknowledge and accept, within one’s own soul, that this mortal reality has purpose in itself, that its greatest value is not for us, but for our children and their children. To view life as but a quick passage along a foul, tortured path – made foul and tortured by our own indifference – is to excuse all manner of misery and depravity, and to exact cruel punishment upon the innocent lives to come.

I defy this notion of paradise beyond the gates of bone. If the soul truly survives the passage, then it behooves us – each of us, my friends – to nurture a faith in similitude: what awaits us is a reflection of what we leave behind, and in the squandering of our mortal existence, we surrender the opportunity to learn the ways of goodness, the practice of sympathy, empathy, compassion and healing – all passed by in our rush to arrive at a place of glory and beauty, a place we did not earn, and most certainly do not deserve.

And this (a piece of narration):

He hurried on, grimacing at the ache in his chest, still feeling the parting kiss of his wife on his lips, the careless hugs of his children round his waist.

He was a man who would never ask for sympathy. He was a man who sought only to do what was right. Such people appear in the world, every world, now and then, like a single refrain of some blessed song, a fragment caught on the spur of an otherwise raging cacophony.

Imagine a world without such souls.

Yes, it should have been harder to do.

Still gives me chills. Maybe you have to have been there read the greater context. In any case, the series can feature both heavy emotion – there were three separate instances across all the books where I contemplated killing the author – but also welcome moments of great levity. Some examples from the latter:

‘Excellent, and your name is?’

‘XXXX. Er, we got references—’

‘No need. I am confident in my ability to judge character, and I have concluded that you two, while not to be considered vast of intellect, are nevertheless inclined to loyalty. This here will mark an advancement in your careers, I am sure, and so you will be diligent as befits your secret suspicion that you have exceeded your competence. All this is well. Also, I am pleased to note that you do not possess any parasites of a debilitating, unsightly sort. So, XXXX, go yonder and find us one, two or three additional guards. In the meantime, I will attend to YYYY.’

And another (context: the female sergeant is an alcoholic):

‘That snake! I knew it, a conspiracy! Well, I’ll deal with him later. One mass-murderer at a time, I always say.’
‘This is madness, Sergeant! Let go of me – I can explain—’
‘Save your explanations. I got some questions for you first and you’d better answer them!’
‘With what?’ he sneered. ‘Explanations?’
‘No. Answers. There’s a difference—’
‘Really? How? What difference?’
‘Explanations are what people use when they need to lie. Y’can always tell those, ’cause those explanations don’t explain nothing and then they look at you like they just cleared things up when really they did the opposite and they know it and you know it and they know you know and you know they know that you know and they know you and you know them and maybe you go out for a pitcher later but who picks up the tab? That’s what I want to know.’
‘Right, and answers?’
‘Answers is what I get when I ask questions. Answers is when you got no choice. I ask, you tell. I ask again, you tell some more. Then I break your fingers, ’cause I don’t like what you’re telling me, because those answers don’t explain nothing!’
‘Ah! So you really want explanations!’
‘Not till you give me the answers!’

The bottom line is: if you enjoy fantasy novels at all, I highly highly recommend picking up the entire series. However tempting it might be to skip the first book based on my experiences, it would be a costly error – the characters introduced in the first book are integral in how the rest of the books play out. The first five books can technically stand on their own, but everything will be more meaningful if you know what the characters had to go through to get to that point.

Which, believe me, is a lot. I mean, Jesus, wait till you get to the Chain of Dogs. Or the Pannion Domin. Or what happens to your favorite characters in Darujhistan even though you can cynically see it coming from a mile away and yet you squirm and sweat and try to close your eyes but you can’t because you’re reading a goddamn book and the words were already written anyway and oh no, this can’t be happening… why do you do this to me Steven Erikson?! Why does your fiction both inspire and destroy my faith in all that is good and right in the world?

Ahem. Read these books.

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Posted on September 11, 2013, in Review and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I read this series up to book 9, because book 10 had not come out yet. I recently tried to pick up book 10, but since I couldn’t even remember who some of the characters were, let alone what they had been doing by the end of book 9, I decided to reread the whole series.

    Doing so, I found out I’m enjoying it even more than the first time around, now that I’m not so lost among all the “opened his warren” jargon.

    If you have the chance, I’d recommend you reread book one and see if you still believe it is “one of the worst possible opening books”.

    • I may have to do that, just for curiosity’s sake. I’m just so harsh on the first book because I had contemplated not reading any of the others because I wasn’t “feeling it.” Needless to say, Book 2 grabbed me by the short hairs and the series never let go. And actually, I’m still in a sort of post-partum funk having finished reading 15,000+ pages of this world and people and being so invested in their outcome.

  2. Thank you for writing this! Someone recommended this series to me some time ago actually, but I didn’t make a note and the next time I stood in a bookshop, I looked at the fantasy shelf and went: “I knew there was something I wanted to get here but I can’t remember the title of the book or the author… crap.” Now I remember. :D

  3. Huh. I didn’t even know this series had ended yet, let alone that it ended 2 and a half years ago.

    Personally I’m almost exactly opposite your opinions of the quality of the books. I think Garden of the Moon is a great book and don’t remember being confused by it at all. If any of the books is confusing that honor should go to bloody Memories of Ice imo. I don’t think I understood much of anything in that book. Though maybe it made sense at the time when I read it and it’s just become rather fuzzy because I found it particularly unmemorable.

    Though perhaps I’m being unfair to the series. After all I never did read all of the books since House of Chains was so abysmally annoying, boring, and anticlimactic that it poisoned the well for me. I’ve had the hardcover of Midnight Tides sitting on my shelf looking sheepish and unloved for uh, probably 6 years now I’ll bet. It’s right next to another book I can’t bring myself to read; A Dance with Dragons. It’s a shame too, because I really did want to know more about the uh, whatever the name for the various types of elf equivalents were called.

    I’m curious about what your 3 ‘author punching’ moments were. Because the only two I can recall so many years latter were both in HoC.

    • Hmm… reading the plot summary of House of Chains, I’m not quite remembering what exactly would have been so boring about it. Other than, perhaps, Karsa’s origin story. Or Karsa in general. He’s a cool concept, but out of all the characters, I felt like Karsa veered (har har) too far into the “I’ll write my favorite D&D character into a novel!” territory. Which, given the original purpose of the series, might have actually happened.

      In any case, without too many spoilers, the author-punching moments were in Toll the Hounds (alluded to in my Darujhistan rant), Memories of Ice, and… I don’t quite remember the 3rd one, now that I mention it. It is getting difficult to untangle the moments that devastated me, and the moments that made me angry and devasted me at the same time.

      • I can hardly remember any names atm. But if Karsa is the viewpoint character for the first 200 pages or so of the book like I think he is, then yeah, that’s one of the things I’m talking about. Such a boring twat of a character.

        That’s my first “fuck off Erikson” moment. The start of that book is horrendously tedious and as I recall doesn’t really pick up until probably the last quarter of the book. Which is where my second ‘fuck you man’ moment occurs with the bloody anticlimactic ending that doesn’t really seem like it’ll have any consequences at all.

        Though like I said, this was years ago and I have a hard time remembering all of the bits. Like I don’t remember anything particularly upsetting about Memories of Ice at all. Hell, I have a hard time remembering anything specific about that book at all. Except…charnel houses and crazy lizard sex I think?

      • (spoiler, don’t read if you haven’t read)

        Might the third author-punching moment be about Hetan in Dust of Dreams?

      • [Spoilers]

        @MaximGtB

        Oh, Christ, don’t remind me of Hetan. That entire portion of the book was horrendous, although I never really liked the Barghast anyway, so the effect was lessened somewhat. The connection between them and the Assail was pretty cool, but it didn’t make up for half a dozen books of their nonsense.

  4. A re-read of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is very much warranted. The subtleties that may have missed/glazed over are amazing. Karsa’s origin story is an amazing perspective changer; especially given his interesting non-static character changes over the series.

    I do not regret doing a re-read. I’d also plug the following website if you ever do think of doing a re-read, or considering external views/opinions during your first read-through:

    http://www.tor.com/features/series/malazan-reread-of-the-fallen

    • I didn’t hate Karsa, and I agree that he changed over the course of the series, but I also felt like A) his arc never really came to any conclusion, and B) he felt less… real than the other characters. As in, he felt more like a proto-typical fantasy character as opposed to the real human beings the other (also fictional) characters did.

      Thanks for the link. I bookmarked it for when I do a reread.

  5. I read the books as they came out…and loved all of them. I also recommend Esselmonts companion series, starting with Night of Knives…be warned Esselmont isn’t as good a writer as Erikson but he does improve with each book.

    I always recommend the books to anyone I think would enjoy them. Understand that I’m 62yrs old when I say this…I’ve never laughed as hard as I have in some places, nor have I been moved to tears as I have in some of the books, some parts left me unable to continue reading till I went outside and had a smoke and remembered some of my own experiences…

    The depth of some of the writing is extraordinary.

  6. The worst thing about these novels is, upon finishing, finding a new fantasy series to replace it.

  7. Interesting. I really enjoyed Gardens of the Moon and just rolled with the style of being thrown straight into the world without any explanations. Then I started Deadhouse Gates, supposedly this huge, breathtaking story where the series really takes off and hated almost every minute of it. It took me a good year to force myself through it. It was depressing, with characters I loathed. And yet, people keep raving about the series and I feel like I might be missing something.