So I am going to do something I swore I would never do: review my favorite fantasy series of all time – The Malazan Book of the Fallen. The reason I am breaking my self-promise is the lovely people at Tor sent me copies of the new Malazan spin-off stories to review, Dancer’s Lament and Deadhouse Landing, and I didn’t think I could do them justice without first establishing my feelings on the original series. Unfortunately, writing this piece took forever, so I ended up already talking about the prequels here and here if you are interested.
As to why I promised myself not to review them in the first place, The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a very hard series to talk about simply due to its size, which makes it impossible for a short review to do the series justice. So if I am going to break my promise, I am going to at least go big. This will be the first part in a five part review/overview on what is possibly the greatest fantasy series ever written. Sit down and dig in to find out why.
Malazan – An Introduction
Before we even start talking about what’s in the books I want to talk about Malazan abstractly in the fantasy medium. The Malazan setting is a place that was collaboratively designed by Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont for a roleplaying game they were making in 1980’s (which is how a surprising number of series came about in that era). The core 10 book series are written by Erikson with a number of spin off stories and series written by both Erikson and Esslemont. As of now there are over 20 books in the series when you combine the core and spin offs, and while it may not have the highest book count in fantasy, the size of each mammoth novel more than makes up for it to make Malazan one of the largest fantasy undertakings in existence.
If the end of the last paragraph was intimidating, I have done my job. You should be a little intimidated. I never recommend the series to anyone, not because it is bad, but due to its size and scope. Reading Malazan is not for the faint of heart and I often see fans psyche up their friends to read the first book, Gardens of the Moon, only to watch their friends bounce off Gardens like hitting a concrete wall at full sprint. I prefer to wait for people to find the series on their own, develop their own desire to read it, and then encourage and coax them as they read the first book. But why do people bounce off?
Erikson’s writing style has about as much hand holding as my first middle-school dance. That is to say: none. At the start of Gardens you will feel like you picked up the second book in a series and missed all the backstory. In the first few pages you will be neck deep into global conflicts, espionage, divine machinations, the day to day lives of regular citizens, and more cultures and peoples than you could shake a broken fiddle at. To say that the book starts off at a run would be an understatement; it’s more like trying to tuck and roll during an airplane landing. Imagine, if you will, that you were given a 10 book series about the events of World War 1, with book one starting at the First Battle of the Marne. The level of information you are missing at the start of Gardens is similar to the level you would be missing by not knowing any of the buildup to that battle. There are reasons for everything that is happening that you will learn as the series progresses, but you will lose track of names, places, magics, countries, allegiances, agendas, and weapons (lots of weapons) every few pages in the beginning. You will finish Gardens and only have a vague understanding of what actually happened and an intense feeling that despite having little-to-no grip on the events, they were fucking awesome.
So why am I selling a book so hard when I just spent several paragraphs describing it as mildly-to-severely unpleasant? Because while you won’t have any idea what is going on, you will meet a cornucopia of unique, memorable, compelling, and lovable characters (I am talking HUNDREDS of characters). You will discover a world that leaps off the pages and into your imagination with such high quality prose that you will forget that you are sitting in your bed and read until 4 am night after night, wondering what you will see next. You will hold the power of gods and magicians in you hands and see the lives and stories of countless heroes and villains pass by both regaled or unnoticed. You will read stories that make your heart break with despair, burn with anger, burst with excitement, and heal with wonder and beauty. You will likely finish the series as a different person than the one who started it, a better person. There are a lot of good fantasy books out there, but none have affected me more deeply and profoundly than Malazan.
I gave Gardens of the Moon a hard time, partially because I think it is unfortunately the weakest of the 10 book series, but you know what? For those that power through the confusing and complex tapestry that is book one and say “you know what, that was pretty good – maybe I will check out the next book Deadhouse Gates”, something magical always happens. Things start to click, systems start to make sense, and you will start to get it. Once you find your ground and start to understand the depth of the plot and themes of this story you will never let it go. You will understand why it is considered by many to be the best fantasy series ever written. Hopefully in my upcoming parts I can give you a peek at what makes this such a powerful series and inspire you to pick it up. Next up, we’ll talk plot.