Previously – Part 3: The World
So, a long time ago when I was only just beginning to think about making The Quill to Live, one of my co-editors (Will) asked me to make a list of my 100 favorite fantasy characters of all time. I started making my list, but then turned to him and asked “Wait, do you want me to include Malazan characters in the list, or make them their own separate thing? Because over half of the list will be coming from the series otherwise”. Will thought I must me exaggerating, he thought that the 50+ characters from Malazan I put in my top 100 must be a joke, and then he read the series and put roughly the same amount of Malazan people on his list.
An important thing to understand about this series going in is that it has what I call a “decentralized cast”. There isn’t really a protagonist in Malazan, unless you count the empire itself as a protagonist. Instead, the series reads more like a history book and treats its characters like members of a psychotically complex relay race – each passing the story to one another, carrying it in a race to the finish. That doesn’t mean you won’t have favorites. If you are curious, my absolute top person is Tehol from books five and seven – he is my everything. However, while I did get to spend enough time with Tehol for him to be fully fleshed out and go through a significant character development arc – he still only exists more or less in a fraction of just two of the ten books. In that small amount of time (which probably still boils down to hundreds of pages in his POV) he managed to change me as a person and impart some of the most valuable life lessons I have received from fantasy. While Tehol is my number one, this is true of tons of characters in the series and is what truly makes Malazan the best of the best when it comes to the fantasy genre.
On top of the hundred or so characters you get detailed POVs from, Erikson also does an incredible job of exposing you to characters from outside their heads (in fact he conveniently wrote a great article on what I mean this very week that you should definitely read). So on top of the hundred of POVs you receive, you will also get to know, love, fear, and respect literally THOUSANDS of other characters. I know this sounds like either a) an exaggeration or b) a negative aspect of the book – but it is neither. Malazan is a series that seems to live by the creed of letting everyone have their cake and eat it too. It pushes boundaries and covers new ground in every possible way. For example, its thousand plus cast has this incredible balance of variety and similarity at the same time. By this I mean first that in Malazan you can find literally every kind of character you can imagine. Everything from the classic tropes (like surly assassins, wise old mages, eccentric geniuses, and masked elite fighters), to stuff you have never seen before (like crippled gods, kind devils, new takes on alcoholism, and humor in unexpected places). Yet despite this ethos of “one-of-every-kind-of-character”, Malazan never feels like it is pandering to anyone or that it is a fake world designed to appeal to all. This is because, despite their differences, there is still this incredible organic overlap of the massive cast that makes the world feel like it is actually alive. The characters and their personalities fit their roles and surroundings and they do this amazing job (one of the themes I will be diving into next post) of reflecting the real world’s complexity, and celebrating it.
Another way that Erikson brings his world to life through the characters is in his diversity of world importance. So far we have spent a ton of time talking about the gods, kings, and mages that walk the earth – bending the world to their whim. But Malazan is not just about the gods, it’s about the little guys as well. There are tons of perspectives from potters, janitors, foot soldiers, handmaids, and every other kind of role that is normally overlooked in a fantasy story. These people are incredible and do a great job of immersing you completely in the Malazan world, telling meaningful stories of their own that will move your heart, and helping aggrandize the gods and kings to give you more respect and awe for some of the other characters. I will not go into spoilers, but there is a minor mage in one of the Malazan books who only got a little bit of page time. They lived a quiet and simple life, but their story left a huge impact on me and I still think about them (and the lessons they taught me) about once every few months.
Finally, I implied this a little in some of the other things I have said in this post, but the last thing I want to tell you about the incredible Malazan characters is their diversity. The fantasy genre is undergoing a change these days where many have realized it is a little more straight, white, and male than it should be. Perspectives from other genders, sexualities, and ethnicities have been lacking in older material and great strides are being made to produce material to include people from more backgrounds. Initially, I had a slight difficulty understanding that there was this imbalance in the diversity of fantasy writing – because Malazan is such a pillar of effortless inclusion. Eventually I realized that Malazan is a beacon of love for every type of reader and that it is a serious outlier. There is a “main” POV for every kind of reader in this story. Erikson’s and Esslemont’s decision to craft a new world from scratch means that the baggage of a medieval Europe setting are left at the door and everyone is welcome. One of the main tenets and strengths (and another theme I will go into next post) of the Malazan empire is that bigotry is the enemy of progress. A lot of fantasy novels project this as a theme, but none I have read depicts it in the same manner as Malazan. The origins of the empire (learned in the two prequel books I reviewed last week as well as the early core books) are ones of struggling for survival where the founding members did not have the luxury to look down on someone because of their background. Thus the empire was founded on the idea that while everyone is equal, and that different backgrounds just provide new skills and ideas that Malazan can benefit from.
If you have ever felt that you can’t find a character that you can identify with, I encourage you to try the Malazan series. There is someone for everyone in this series, and I am actually sure there are many someones. You will find yourself relating to, and understanding perspectives of, people you never imagined over the course of this series. Its characters will pave the way to a place of higher empathy and understanding of your common man (and woman, and child, and things that can’t be as easily defined), and you will love every moment of it as you live a thousand wonderful and interesting lives.
For me, Malazan’s greatest strength will always be in its characters. However, there is one more aspect that I want to brief you on that Malazan does incredibly well: themes. We saved it for last because this is the hardest and most nebulous part of the series to describe. Tune in tomorrow to hear about some of the running ideas and concepts that Malazan presents to the world.