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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.