I’ve debated doing this for a while. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is my favorite series. I keep returning to reread it over and over again, even though it takes forever to do that, and it comes up a lot on my blog, both on Top Ten Tuesday lists and when reviewing other epic fantasy. But I finished the series for the first time before I started reviewing books here, so there aren’t any reviews for the main ten-book series on my blog, just reviews for the side books as I get to them.
Now that I’ve finished my latest reread of the main ten books, I’ve decided to do an appreciation-post-slash-review of the entire series, as a way to try and show why I love the series. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but there will be mentions of series-long themes, some of which might count as spoilers.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a saga of ten books that form the core of the Malazan World. Since their publication, Ian C. Esslemont, the second author to have a stake in the world, has published several novels filling in historical and contemporaneous gaps, with more to come. Steven Erikson, the author of the MBotF, has also since published more stories in the world of Malaz, including novellas about side characters and the first two books of a planned prequel trilogy (and by prequel, I mean WAAAAAY in the past). Both authors are also planning to write more in the world. This post will be focusing on the ten books of the MBotF saga, as previously stated.
A bit of series background before we start. The MBotF can be compared to George R.R. Martin’s ASoIaF in that there are lots of characters, any of them can and will die, and the P.O.V. is rotating third person. On top of this, however, death is not permanent – but often people come back horribly wrong. Magic plays a major part, but don’t expect it to get explained. There are lots of races/species running around, so don’t assume someone’s human or even looks it unless that’s explicitly spelled out. At it’s heart, this is, arguably, a war story. It’s so much more than that, but a lot of the characters are soldiers in various armies. Oh, and the shortest book is still over 600 pages with small font and thin pages. Most of the books are over 1000 pages. Yeah, don’t hit someone with these books, it’ll probably hurt them.
The MBotF opens with the Malazan Empire’s conquering of the Free City of Pale, leaving only the Free City of Darujhistan to be conquered (plus areas south of the Free Cities, but that’s for later). A squad of elite marines are sent to soften Darujhistan up while the Empress’s Adjunct sets forward on her own secret mission in Darujhistan. This is the start of what will become an epic quest to defeat the Crippled God, a character who isn’t even mentioned until the Third Book and who doesn’t even make an appearance until later even than that. Further, the book opens (well, sans the Prologue) at the end of the siege of Pale, showing us the final battle that causes the city to fall but nothing of what led up to that siege. That decision by Erikson sets the tone for the rest of the series.
What I mean by that is that so often Erikson will allude to conflicts, histories, meetings, and so much else that is taking place elsewhere in the world or that took place in the distant – or not-so-distant – past. But he will rarely expand on those hints. This makes for a very rich world but can frustrate a reader who expect to get to know EVERYTHING that comes up in a novel. This leaves a lot of loose ends, some of which are explored in other novels and some of which might never be.
In line with that, Erikson tends to twist people’s perceptions over the course of the ten novels (and the side novels, something Esslemont helps him with, making it very clear that these two KNOW this world and know what the other is doing with it). Basically, Erikson will introduce a conflict or a history from someone’s point of view and then, some time after – a bit later, a few hundred pages later, a few books later… – he’ll give a conflicting view. Or at least a differing one. Sometimes there are several different looks at a single event, all of them based on a different view point, viewed with different information and background, etc. I hesitate to give examples because I want to avoid spoilers, but I will say that we get, arguably, at last three different views of the T’lan Imass-Jaghut Wars, for instance (and yes, I know that doesn’t make sense to those of you who haven’t read the books – think of it as a war between Neanderthals-turned-Skeletons and ogres, even if that’s not quite accurate).
Speaking of the above description of two of the many peoples in this world, Erikson (and Esslemont) are very good at taking expectations of certain fantasy races and twisting them. Or at least playing with them. From dragons (eleint) to elves (the three Tiste races) to orcs (arguably the Trell or Barghast or even the Toblakai) to demons (Apt, the kenryll’ah, etc.) and even more, there are all sorts of interesting takes on nonhuman characters. And it’s not just fantasy races. It’s also the tropes you see over and over in fantasy, particularly epic fantasies – the ‘Noble Savage’ (hello, Karsa Orlong, as per word of Steven Erikson), the idea of a lost Golden Age (too many to count, most proved as bad/good as the current age), and more.
On top of the twisting of tropes, Erikson uses his books in one of the ways I think speculative fiction is particularly good at: commenting on real world problems and issues, but setting in a different world or time so as to place a thin layer of distance over those problems. Later books in particular talk about the effect of civilizing the wild by showing us the thoughts of humans sworn to a pair of wolf gods. There are deep philosophical musings and discussions on death, war, human nature, and so much more throughout the entirety of the series. Not every character does so, of course, but so many do. It’s not a MBotF novel without at least a couple of dips into philosophy, and usually we get multiple sides, often within a few scenes of each other but sometimes chapters or books apart.
And, of course, there are the series-long themes of empathy and compassion and uncertainty. Those whom we as readers are arguably most meant to sympathize with are those who show compassion, who are aware of others’ suffering. In contrast, we are shown again and again how those who are certain are so often wrong because they don’t stop to consider that they might have overlooked something or might not be in the right. The main army in later books has lots of people in it who constantly question just what exactly they’re doing and if it’s even worth it.
On top of all that, however, are the two quotes that I think show the true heart of the series: “Because the world was worth saving.” “It is not enough to wish for a better world for the children. It is not enough to shield them with ease and comfort. Lostara Yil, if we do not sacrifice our own ease, our own comfort, to make the future’s world a better one, then we curse our own children. We leave them a misery we do not deserve; we leave them a host of lessons unlearned.” The second one is said by Tavore Paran, one of the main characters in the latter half of the books. Except for one scene at the end, we never get her POV. The first quote, by contrast, is said by Mappo Runt, whose POV we see over and over throughout the books. But those two quotes are both, to my way of thinking, the series’ heart: it’s all worth it, and compassion isn’t enough – you need to act.
Erikson’s work has been accused of being dense, of being unfriendly to readers, of being too philosophical, of an entire book with an obnoxious POV (the character who serves as the background omniscient narrator in book 8, Toll the Hounds, is love-‘im-or-hate-‘im), and of so much else besides. But, really, a lot of mysteries are Read-and-Find-Out, because a lot do get explained if you’re willing to keep going. And the philosophy is part of what keeps drawing me, at least, back to the books. And he assumes the reader is paying attention and not leaving too much time between each book – or is taking really good notes. And, in the long run, I find his work is worth it. For the themes, for the sometimes beautiful prose, for the way he so often hits you in the face with emotions, and for everything else. There is a reason I keep coming back to these books, a reason why I will always count them up there on my favorites list.
*If you do plan to read the MBotF, I recommend making use of various resources to assist you in keeping track of things. Tor has a great Reread Series for all of the books, although it’s long past these ten. There are various forums around the web. And, of course, buddy reads or at least having a friend who’s read the books can help wonders.