Previously – Part 2: The Plot
One of the longest-standing go-to complaints I hear when I read fantasy book critiques is “lazy world building”. What this refers to is an author taking people and cultures that exist in either our real world (such as Russian or Middle Eastern) or popular established worlds (such as elves and dwarves from Tolkien) and slapping them into their own work with a fresh coat of paint. While I don’t necessarily agree that retrofitting existing people for your book is bad (they work in real life and works of fiction for a reason), there is something truly impressive about creating your own original people and places. For example, one of the most consistent compliments I often hear about people’s favorite fantasy books is how much readers loved diving into new places and cultures they had never seen before. It is a fun and thrilling ride to travel to a place where you don’t know the rules and customs and experience new wonders for the first time. If you are truly lucky, a good book might go beyond having a single new culture for you to immerse in, sometimes getting up to as many as three to five. These books often rise to the top of the recommended lists as they enable a core ideal of the fantasy genre, going to a new world. With all this in mind, let me tell you that Malazan has more than twenty original cultures and worlds for you to explore.
In addition, that number is only that low because I find it difficult to find an umbrella term for the magic, geography, people, places, technology, and races of Malazan. This is a big part of the reason that so many people have trouble breaking into the series, as you will find yourself in very unfamiliar settings where everything has to be relearned – and you don’t have an easy guide. While not every element in Malazan’s world building is original, the execution of all these elements almost always is. A great example of this is the Malazan people themselves. One of the major tenets of the Malazan empire comes from the Roman Empire: instead of wiping out defeated cultures, the Malazan empire accepts and absorbs every people it beats. The result is a country that encompasses the best of every culture and compensates for their individual weaknesses. However, this is where most comparisons to the Roman Empire end. Erikson is an anthropologist by trade and this comes out clearly in his writing. The unique people you meet in your journey with these books feel like functioning societies with governments, infrastructure, beliefs, traditions, magic, and identities.
On top of this there are at least 10 races, and that doesn’t count the splits among various human groups. Personally my favorite race from the series is the Jaghut. They are tall, broad humanoids with tusks on their lower jaws – often with darker jewel-toned skin. They are multi-jointed, long lived, and have duplicate organs to replace those that fail in their long life. As a people they are highly isolationist, with a tendency to only meet to court and give birth to the next generation. They have a preference for colder climates and a talent for magic. Though many of the other races think of them as calm, intelligent, cunning, vicious, and unkind – the variety of Jaghut you will meet in Malazan make it hard to categorize them. This is the best descriptive I can give you of the Jaghut as a whole, and it took longer than I expected to type up because I am not able to rely on analogies like I normally would. The Jaghut are not really like any people other than themselves. They don’t feel like they are just “trolls, but with a few things changed”. They feel like a distinctly new thing and they helped me find the joy of discovery I got when I read about things like dragons for the first time. On top of all of this, the Jahgut are only one example – there are tons of other races just as original. The people of Malazan are unlike any you have read about and that makes them all the more fun to read about.
Now let’s talk about the magic. I had to step away from this post and do some re-reading because the magic in Malazan is extremely complicated, and I will go into it in detail in a moment, but the key things you should know are its shares some similarity to Tarot cards/suits and it is massive in scale. If you are looking for subtle spells and small tricks you are in the wrong place. Malazan is filled with fire tornadoes, tsunamis of blood, swords made of lightning, undead armies, flying castles, hammers that cause volcanoes to erupt, and more kinds of magical explosives than I have time to list. The magic is big, flashy, and leaves a big impact on the reader. The magic of Malazan has to do with “warrens/paths” – parallel planes of existence with their own magic. If you have a connection to a specific warren or path (connections can be made through bloodline, bargaining with the realms ruler, or annexing a part of its existence to name a few ways) you gain the ability to use its magic. For example, the Path of Ruse is basically one giant ocean run by a mad sea god – and gaining a connection to Ruse gives you access to a complicated mix of water and wind magic that is super useful if you are on a ship.
The Malazan series is rare in that its figures of myth and legend can often be found just strolling around. Erikson and and Esslemont do an incredibly job of mixing gods and mortals throughout the series and making the most powerful figures in the world ever present. This is not a series where the divine sit in the clouds afar and judge those beneath them. No, the gods and kings of Malazan get their hands dirty and are on the front lines like everyone else. It makes them feel distinctly human, very relatable, and results in a lot of the previously mentioned flashy magic. Malazan avoids that annoying trope of “two all powerful figures sitting back and glacially accruing power to win a million year struggle”. Instead, Malazan prefers to provide answers to questions such as “what if the god of fire decided he wanted to prove that he could burn hotter than the god of volcanoes and they had a fire throw down?”. The answer to these kinds of questions are magical show downs that persist in my mind as some of the most memorable fantasy I have ever read.
It took me a long time to get a grip on the magic of Malazan, but after enough exposure you will start to see the method to the madness. The real key takeaway is that warrens and paths convey power unto those who hold high positions within their realms and that those positions are almost always in contention. Multiple books revolve around the occurrences of an opening in a warren or path hierarchy, and the ensuing power struggle that inevitably follows. These power struggles are one of the many ways that individuals in Malazan distinguish and endear themselves to the reader. So with that in mind let’s talk about on of the greatest things that Malazan has going for it: the characters.