Why You Should Read The Malazan Book Of The Fallen (Or Not): Part 2
I recently finished Steven Erikson’s ten-book fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and have been finding it difficult to tell people about. How do I describe what the books are about? How can I get all my friends to read them so we can talk about them?
One of the main issues is that I know these books aren’t for everyone. There are major aspects of these books that some people will love and that some people will hate. In Part 1, I mentioned five reasons why potential readers may or may not like Malazan: it can be confusing, the magic is absolutely insane, it was written by an archeologist/anthropologist, there are a lot of characters and there are also a lot of female characters. But as I mentioned, I am not yet done, and here are five more reasons why you may or may not like Malazan:
Reason #6 why you may (or may not) like it: Every character is a philosopher.
If you’re a soldier in a war you don’t know why you’re fighting, killing an enemy you’re not convinced is “evil”, would you question the very nature of war? If you’ve lived a thousand generations and seen empires rise and fall, races being born and going extinct, wouldn’t you ponder the meaning of life and nature of death every once in a while? This series gets some criticism for sometimes being too philosophical, but to me, it would feel incomplete without its philosophical musings. Erikson explores several heavy topics through his characters, whether they’re gods wondering why their worshippers care about them or simple soldiers questioning the purposes of war. Religion, war and death are major themes, but also explored is capitalism, environmentalism, history and love to name a few. At times it can verge on preachy but I can respect Erikson for making the reader think… proving that fantasy isn’t just a genre of escapism.
Reason #7 why you may (or may not) like it: Holy shit does it get dark.
…Not that you’d particularly want to escape to the world of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. The series gets lumped in the “grimdark” sub-genre quite often and for the most part, for good reason (though my opinions on grimdark and sub-genres could be an entirely separate post). There were certainly moments that were tough to read. There were many scenes that I had to fight through – and that I could understand why readers would want to stop entirely. It’s The Book of the Fallen, remember? The characters fall. They suffer. They go through horrendous, painful shit.
But what separates Malazan from other “dark” fantasy novels is that it’s all earned. None of it feels cheap or frivolous. Erikson isn’t trying to shock us, he’s trying to make us empathize with his characters. Because our world is dark too. People in our world fall and suffer – and understanding others’ pain is integral for empathy. In fact, there’s one scene in particular about two-thirds of the way through book nine so horrifying that Erikson himself took to the internet (the Tor Re-Read of the Fallen) to defend why he wrote it. I won’t link to the post because spoilers, but those who have read Dust of Dreams will know the scene. In the comment, Erikson discusses the importance of portraying acts of violence in a non-gratuitous way, as something to read not for yourself – nor for the author – but for the real-life victims of violence and torture as a way to understand and empathize. He says:
Compassion is all about understanding, and understanding is all about seeing, clear-eyed, all the things we would, perhaps, rather not see.
Other fantasy novels can shock me with beheading main characters and force me to look away at the killing of children, but that can’t compare to what Steven Erikson asks of the readers of his “dark” and violent story. He’s not asking us simply to read his novels, but to grow as people.
Reason #8: You need to be patient.
Again, these books can be confusing. Very confusing. Complex may actually be a better word. Readers wanting direct answers and instant closure won’t find that here – these books are not for you. Those dark moments may take hundreds of pages to pay off. Plotlines introduced in one book may not be concluded (or even addressed) until eight books later. Characters who you may hate at first could become your favourite by the end of the series. Steven Erikson loves to subvert tropes and expectations. If we spend long enough with a “villain”, we usually end up empathizing with their motives, and if we wait patiently for the conclusion to a character’s arc, it will feel all the more rewarding. There’s one character in particular who’s knocked unconscious at the climax of the first book and wakes up partway through the ninth (if that’s caused frustration in any readers, I can’t imagine what Erikson’s editor feels…). Readers with patience will be rewarded; readers without will feel frustrated and eventually give up.
Reason #9: The overall theme is compassion.
Like I mentioned in Reason #7, there’s another layer to all the darkness and the violence of this series. The same goes for basically everything else in this novel – the cast of characters, the depth of the world’s history, the funny parts, the sad parts, the frustrating parts – it all points towards compassion. Erikson himself has said in multiple interviews that compassion is the series’ main theme. Maybe some people won’t like this; maybe they like their novels dark, nihilistic and existential. “A dark, violent fantasy novel about compassion? Pfft. Feelings? Nope.” (Again, those other novels are available for those traditional fantasy fans). But once I heard that he’d set out with this main theme in mind, I was able to appreciate everything a little more. It gave more weight to each death, more impact to each joke and more interest in the lives of these fictional characters. And being able to empathize – and even love made-up characters in a made-up world made it easier to do the same in real life. Again, I’ll let Steven Erikson himself chime in here:
The plot says ‘engage your brain for this: you’ll need it’ but the story says ‘now engage your feelings, and yes, if I can, I will make you cry, and grieve, and, hopefully, come out the other side feeling strangely elated, with life shining a bit brighter than it did before.’ It’s a big ask, because it wants your trust, and the only trust I could offer in return was this promise: It will work out in the end. We will end up in a place, open and solemn and brimming with love.
Reason #10: You’ll either love it or hate it
I don’t think there’s an in-between for Malazan. You don’t finish a ten-book series then shrug and say, “It was alright.” Especially not for a book that demands so much of its readers. If you’ve made it to the tenth and final book, you’re going to immediately want to go back and re-read the entire series (and then the prequel trilogy and the various tie-in novels). You’re going to love it.
But on the other hand, you could read the first book and hate it. You could even read the second book and still hate it. Fans have come to the conclusion that book three is when readers know if they’re in it for the long haul or not. For all the reasons I’ve listed in these posts, you’ll either love Malazan or hate Malazan. So if these reasons sound like something you’d want to read, then I would definitely recommend reading the series.
And (for readers of book four), witness.