Why You Should Read The Malazan Book Of The Fallen (Or Not): Part 1
After two years, I finished reading Steven Erikson’s ten-book series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen. It’s been about a month since I turned the last page and it’s taken me this long to put my thoughts and feelings into words. I’m still not sure how coherent I can be describing these books but I’ll try anyways. To help both myself explain my thoughts and for anyone else reading this, I’ve listed ten reasons why you may or may not like Malazan.
Reason #1 why you may (or may not) like it: it can be confusing.
It basically takes three books to finally figure out what in Hood’s name is going on. And even then, probably only a few things. But that’s okay, because half the characters don’t know what’s going on either. And who’s Hood? You’ll meet him, but not right away. In the first book, Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erikson drops you in the middle of a story – with barely no introduction to the characters and the world. Unlike some authors, he doesn’t hold your hand and guide you through his world, introducing you to characters and concepts. No, he grabs you by the collar, pulls you out of your chair, and throws you into the middle of a city under siege. Where are you? Who’s side are you on? Why are you even fighting?
It can make some people disoriented and confused, but that’s what I like about Reason #1: Erikson respects his readers. He doesn’t force-feed anything down our throats (if anything, he leaves a barely distinguishable trail of breadcrumbs you can try to follow). It may sound backwards to some readers (and writers), but his world feels more real simply because he doesn’t outright explain everything. If someone asked you how you’re able to read this article right now, would you have an answer? Could you explain the internet to someone? Things like that are so commonplace in our world, we just accept them as is – and that’s the same way magic works in Erikson’s world.
Reason #2 why you may (or may not) like it: the magic is absolutely insane.
I won’t bother explaining the magic in the Malazan universe because that can be an entirely different article (or essay, or book). Erikson quite often describes magic attacks as “waves of sorcery”, leaving much to the reader’s imagination. But more specifically, we’ve got people shapeshifting into dragons, a group of dragons merging together to form one massive, multi-headed dragon, a sword that literally chains the souls of those it kills within it, and did I mention dragons? Some people may think the magic too epic, too all-over-the-place, too hard to follow but in my opinion, that’s what makes magic…magical.
Reason #3: it was written by an archeologist/anthropologist.
Before writing Malazan, Steven Erikson was an archeologist and anthropologist. He very clearly loves to explore ancient civilizations and cultures and it definitely comes through in the world he’s created. While most popular fantasy novels take cues solely from Medieval Europe, Malazan is inspired by the entire history of sentient life on Earth. We’ve got dinosaur-like species (raptors with swords for arms, to be specific), Neanderthal-like humans (again to be specific, undead skeletal warriors) and modern humans – who of course have been impacting the environment with their technological advances. Concepts also explored are ice ages, cities buried beneath cities, forgotten empires, evolving species and ancient books and poems. All this adds to how real Erikson’s world feels – but again, the sheer scope and size and history of his world may seem too daunting for casual readers. I can understand the people who feel overwhelmed by it all, but in my case it made me all the more engrossed in the story.
Reason #4: there are a lot of characters. A lot.
Most books have a main character. Some may have three or four. Others may have a rotating cast of point-of-view characters.
But in case you haven’t picked up on it yet, The Malazan Book of the Fallen isn’t like most books.
Someone on Reddit ran a script to count all the unique names mentioned just in book one and ended up with 126. Who you’d expect to be the main character disappears several times throughout the first book and the main cast of book one is barely even in book two. And book five – halfway through the series – takes place on an entirely different continent with only one recurring character from the previous four books. Most writers would be absolutely insane to do that and would risk losing most of their audience, but however he did it, Erikson ended up making book five my favourite of the entire series.
Despite the ridiculous amount of characters, quality is never lost for the sake of quantity. In fact, I think intimate character writing is Erikson’s greatest strength throughout the series. In each book you’ll find a character to relate to and latch onto (but don’t get too attached – it’s called the Book of the Fallen, remember?). There are lovable characters, badass characters, hilarious characters, heartbreaking characters and of course, despicable, terrifying and horrible characters. And not to worry about a lack of diversity, either – Erikson includes characters of various skin colours, genders, races and sexual orientations.
Reason #5: There are also a lot of female characters.
As a genre, fantasy is (in)famous for being very male-centric (some say there are no dwarf women) but again – Malazan isn’t like most fantasy. Women are at the forefront of most of the storylines here – from Tavore, Adjunct of the Malazan army (who’s also gay) to its Empress, to mothers fighting for their children, to sisters fighting side-by-side with their brothers, to powerful and terrifying goddesses. None of them are defined solely by their gender nor do they exist only to support their male counterparts’ storylines.
I would even describe Malazan as being feminist. There’s a great article about Malazan and feminism regarding its worldbuilding. To sum it up, with healing abilities so accessible through magic, women in the Malazan universe basically are able to spend less time with childbirth and childrearing, thus freeing them from a typical patriarchal system. Women with power and agency is never questioned in Erikson’s world – gender parity is the norm. In a cool minor detail, all commanders in the Malazan army are addressed as “sir”, regardless of gender. And if you’re worried about said female characters and rape – as is also common in a lot of fantasy – I’ll point you to another fantastic article discussing rape in The Malazan Book of the Fallen.
These feminist aspects could of course rub some traditional fantasy readers the wrong way. But those traditional fantasy readers have enough simple, boring, sexist books to read so I’m not sure why they’d be interested in Malazan anyways.
Well, this post is ending up being far longer than I thought it would, so I’ll continue Reasons 6–10 in Part 2. For those of you who have read book three, Memories of Ice… I am not yet done.