Previously – Part 1: The Introduction
Malazan’s plot is huge and sweeping, but let me see if I can help ground you. The first thing to understand about Malazan is that the protagonist isn’t a person, it’s a people. The Malazan Book of the Fallen follows the story of the Malazan empire – and their heroes. The “Book of the Fallen” is a historian’s record of the unsung heroes in Malazan’s history who died trying to make the world a better place – and when the name of the series is essentially “This is a huge eulogy”, I think it should be obvious that a lot of this series is heavy and sad.
The series plot revolves around two overarching subjects, the various conflicts that the Malazan empire is embroiled in all over the world, and a new god who has showed up and is creating tons of problems for everyone (both inside and outside the Malazan empire). The “new” deity, The Crippled God, has upset the delicate balance in the various pantheons of the world and they are deeply unhappy about that. Almost all of the plot of Malazan is driven by gods, and aspiring gods, making plays for power. See, Malazan’s gods are quite interesting in that some of them have divine origins, but others are just mortals who amassed enough power to ascend. I feel obligated to offer a brief explanation of what ascension is and means in the world of Malazan, as Erikson seems to describe it in an intentionally oblique manner throughout the course of the series. Let’s lay down some general ground rules:
- To become immortal, one must ascend, or be born a god, or come from another reality, or just be a member of one of a few elder races.
- To ascend, one must either amass a lot of magic power, survive a brush with a god, or become a member of a house of a Warren or Path (in brief: Warrens/Paths are essentially planes that are the home and source of types of magic practiced by humans and other races – this will be explain more in the next post).
- To become a god, one must become the ruler of a Warren or Path.
- Some gods have always existed as fundamental aspects of reality.
- Gods can be killed.
There are exceptions to all of the rules I’ve stated above, but you can operate in Malazan keeping those in mind and have a general understanding of what exactly is going on. In Malazan the relative power of everyone is constantly changing, so instead of having the gods on one power level and immortals/mages on another, the power structure is a lot more fluid. What it results in is a whole lot of powerful individuals and deities walking around in everyday life, and all of them view The Crippled God as a new opportunity to raise up their power or cast down their rivals.
This results in a metric ton of small, but dangerous, conflicts cropping up all around the world. The books bounce around to different locations and timelines, documenting events that seem unrelated at first but start to funnel towards one overarching plotline. However, not everything is intertwined, there are literally hundreds of fully fleshed out subplots in the books which is a part of why Malazan feels so much bigger than anything else you will read. The first book follows the stories of the Malazan empire closing out a campaign against the remnants of a rival kingdom, a group of friends trying to win back a title of nobility, a military officer who finds himself on the wrong side of the gods of chance, a covert operation to level a city with an enraged undead sorcerer and a commando insertion to stop said leveling. This is only about half of the plots (thought it covers the biggest ones) in the first book.
There are essentially three sets of stories that all eventually join together, but each cover different parts of the universe. The first you experience (in books one, three, and eight) are the stories of the core Malazan armies as they fight to unify the last remnants of their empire and put down some rebellions. These stories are more focused on military conquest, armed forces, and the culture and traditions of the Malazan empire and the people who inhabit it. The second set of stories (in books two, four, and six) follow a number of Malazan irregulars in foreign lands, the Malazan aristocracy, and focus more on outnumbered forces escaping pursuit. The third set of books (five and seven) follows a rival empire of Malazan, the Lether, and how events on a different continent shape the future of Malazan (while also telling the story of the Letherii people themselves). The final two books in the ten book series serve as a nexus point for all the plotlines to meet up, and are incredible. Although I’ve described the three major timelines in the book, and the story elements in each, there are still tons of subplots that don’t fall into these three buckets and many characters jump back and forth between the three story sets. The result is a tale that has no competition for size and scope, and a people and world that feel like they have real lives outside the small amounts of time we spend with each of them.
Telling you the general plots of the back half of the books would be considered spoilers, but I think I am safe to give you a very brief outline of the specific plots of the first five core books:
- Gardens of the Moon: An elite Malazan commando squad is dispatched to the city of Darujhistan to help/hinder an ascendant who has been baited to crush the city. A group of four unlikely friends in Darujhistan band together to restore the good name of one of them.
- Deadhouse Gates: An unpopular Malazan army loses their stronghold in The Seven Cities region to a mounting rebellion, called The Whirlwind, against their occupation. They are forced to flee across a desert with a train of refugees in tow and defend them from a much larger army in pursuit
- Memories of Ice: The elite commandos from book one return to the main Malazan forces for a new conflict. The strongest Malazan armies gather to team up with their long time enemies/rivals, Caladan Brood and Anomander Rake (and their respective forces), to stop an army of cannibals raised by the Pannion Domin. Tensions run high as these long time foes must decide if they can trust each other to stop the incoming hordes.
- House of Chains: The Whirlwind rebellion from book two has gotten fully up and running and is starting to devastate the land around it. A new army of irregulars is raised around an enigmatic leader, and campaign to suppress the growing unrest.
- Midnight Tides: Midnight Tides takes place on a new continent, Lether. A jarring transition point in the series, Midnight Tides features an entirely new cast of characters that will eventually meet up with the previous characters later in the series. Here an all powerful empire is quickly realizing that the rumor of a small coalition of seemingly barbaric tribes uniting under an Immortal king might be more than just rumor, and it is definitely a bigger problem than they realized.
While the scope of the plot is incredible, the real power behind Malazan’s uniqueness is the trinity of world, characters, and themes. In each of these categories I would argue Malazan is best in class by a large amount, and hopefully I can convince you as well. Let’s start with the world and culture.