We return with our final installment of our Night’s Dawn audio reviews! For those of you still listening, thank you for sticking with us. We know this is a bit out of the ordinary for our content and we are learning a lot. This time we are doing book three, The Naked God, in The Night’s Dawn trilogy, by Peter Hamilton. The goal of this discussion, once again, is to dive a little deeper into the book to better explore what makes them good, bad, and unique. There are a lot of spoilers for the books in these discussions, so if you wish to remain ignorant I recommend you skip today’s post. Otherwise, here is the discussion of book three (PS., we are extremely loud so you might want to turn down your volume):
We are back with another audio discussion. This time we are doing book two, The Neutronium Alchemist, in The Night’s Dawn trilogy, by Peter Hamilton. You can find the spoiler-free written review here: Neutronium Alchemist review. The goal of this discussion is to dive a little deeper into the book to better explore what makes them good, bad, and unique. There are a lot of spoilers for the books in these discussions, so if you wish to remain ignorant I recommend you check out the written review. Otherwise, here is the discussion of book two:
And if you are looking for the discussion of book one, it can be found here: The Reality Dysfunction
Nearly two years ago, I sat in Chicago’s beautifully ornate Music Box theatre at the peak of the venue’s 70MM film festival eagerly waiting for the lights to dim and for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to begin. Next to me sat Ian Simmons, a friend, a coworker, and a movie critic/superhero capable of producing three or more podcast reviews per week for his site, Kicking the Seat. Just a few months prior, Ian and I exchanged a few messages about possibly partnering on a podcast series that paired my blog (the now-defunct ColeTries.com, where I posted about my adventures into the unknown and the uncomfortable) with his site. Our first toe-dip into the waters of the collaboration was a viewing of The Fate of the Furious, which we both enjoyed, though for my part (and hopefully Ian’s), not nearly as much as we enjoyed the prospects of our joint interests in storytelling and what makes something “good” or “bad.” Enter Late Screening, a monthly podcast series in which Ian would subject me to a movie I’d never seen before and, by most accounts, should’ve seen long ago. I’m talking classics like Jurassic Park, The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and countless others. We cooked up a list of missed movie opportunities and started scheduling showings.
That first experience led to a cavalcade of horizon-broadening movie-binging that completely changed my outlook as a reader. Game-changing literary or cinematic favorites appear with such irregularity that it’s easy to dismiss new experiences as “not my thing.” On one night I’m tempted to call fateful, 2001: A Space Odyssey, both the film and its prosaic treatment, looked me dead in the eye and overhauled my entire bookish world for the better.
Kubrick’s sci-fi epic fell somewhere within the first few months of our moviegoing calendar, and I distinctly remember sitting in the Music Box’s butt-numbing chair hoping desperately that the film wouldn’t bore my brains out. 2 hours and 45 minutes later, I walked home fueled by an insatiable appetite for fan theories, reviews, any piece of content that would tell me more about 2001. The following day, still jarred by Kubrick’s cinematic journey into deep space and what lies within it, I spoke on the podcast and came to the determination on-air that this was a storytelling masterpiece.
And then I read the book.
Perhaps out of sheer aggravation that I wouldn’t shut up about 2001, my then partner bought me Arthur C. Clarke’s unique prose treatment of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unique is probably an understatement here–Clarke wrote the novel as he and Kubrick developed the film, so neither is a true adaptation of the other. Instead, they exist as slightly different expressions of the same idea. Kubrick’s film boasts incredible scope paired with audiovisual mastery. Clarke’s novel paints a stunning panorama of space’s enormity relative to the human race and somehow makes it entirely relatable.
For me, this one-two punch of near-flawless filmmaking and delectable writing sparked a hunger for a first-class ticket to the massive pantheon of science fiction.
Clarke’s prose in 2001 delicately orbits perfection, often to the point of leaving characterization in its lyrical wake. World-building through resonant and poetic descriptions of space takes control from start to finish. It’s not the best book ever, and it’s not my all-time number one, but it’s damn close. And to me, what matters more is that Clarke’s work left a permanent mark on my bookworm psyche and busted open a page-devouring stargate in the part of my brain that sees a book on a shelf and demands it be read. 2001 ushered me on a personal interstellar maiden voyage into a genre I would previously avoid for no good reason. While Kubrick’s film made a meteoric rise to the top of my favorite movie list, Clarke’s book ignited a completely new reading frontier. I explored other classics like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to fill the HAL- and Bowman-sized void on my to-read shelves. I’ve plunged headfirst into Peter F. Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn trilogy (thanks to an added push from the rest of the QTL staff).
Immediately after I came down from the interplanetary high of movie and novel alike, I devoured the remainder of the series in a matter of weeks (regretfully in the case of 3001: The Final Odyssey–stay away at all costs).
Like some of my other favorite stories–Harry Potter, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Fables among them–2001: A Space Odyssey provided me with an endlessly chaseable adrenaline rush. I knew the film was special even as I was watching it for the first time, and I knew the book would change me from the first page. And the results are tangible. Ian and I launched a second series, Page2Screen, to showcase and discuss book-movie adaptations. Notably, A Space Odyssey earned a slot on the schedule, and more recently, that same podcast series opened up yet another genre to me with Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.
My fantasy-filled world opened up to include a pillar of the literary world I was content to leave unexplored. To imagine a world without 2001 feels impossible now, and the series of events that brought me there felt like a story worth telling to fellow readers. If you’ve held off on that off-kilter, unread, unfamiliar book, pick it up. It may be your next game-changer.
On March 1, 2019, I metaphorically set aside my library of 300+ physical books to prepare for a deep dive into the world of digital-only reading. Spurred by genuine curiosity, I read strictly on my Kindle for a full quarter of a year, ending on June 1.
As a former paper-only apologist, my 90-day excursion into Jambly McReadalot’s (I had to rename my Kindle after discovering I had about 50 different Kindle-enabled devices connected to my Amazon account, all with generic names) paper-white screen left me shaken to my core. Quite frankly, I enjoyed the whole experience with a few hesitations. Making the abrupt switch–and sustaining it for three months–fueled my newfound appreciation for digital books while simultaneously reminding me of the wonders of physical editions.
Along the way, I read a grand total of three books: Pet Sematary, There’s Seamen on the Poop Deck, and The Neutronium Alchemist. Typically I’d chide myself for low productivity after seeing those numbers, but 1) The third book was more than 1000 pages of dense Sci-Fi prose and 2) I never wanted to set a productivity goal for the project; instead, the point was to see whether good ol’ Jambly acted as a stimulant or a hindrance. Turns out I ended up at about the same reading speed in either medium.
I understand there are factions of digital evangelists that rival paperback purists, but I want to be clear that this piece isn’t meant to sway anyone from one side to the other. I wrote this for the reader who has a Kindle gathering dust, subject to occasional utterances of “Maybe I’ll try that out sometime.” I wrote it for the other reader who’s afraid to bring a beefy paperback on that morning commute but won’t take the digital plunge. It’s an exploration of the ups and downs that inevitably accompany your chosen reading medium, and if you’re wavering even slightly, I hope I can give you the nudge you need open up to the best of both literary worlds.
The Coffee Table Effect (Or The Kitchen Counter Effect)
I devoured Pet Sematary just two weeks after embarking on my adventure with Jambly McReadalot, bolstered by the high of reading in a new way and reading my first Stephen King book. Following that binge and leading into April, I’d look down at my coffee table and see Jambly sitting there, idle, destitute, unused. During a three week stretch, whenever I had a bit of free time, I’d reach instead for my PS4 controller or the TV remote. Simply by virtue of being a device, my Kindle had a distinct disadvantage.
When I’m reading any book, it has a near-permanent space on my coffee table or kitchen counter. Somewhere visible, so it begs for my time. With physical books, this keeps me accountable and effectively steers me away from other content that fights for my attention. There are times when I stare at my bookshelf and just think about the possibility of reading all the tales within. My Kindle? Different story. That mental draw, almost a calling, to read a book contained within the Kindle’s plastic walls diluted to the point of near non-existence.
Eventually, this limitation subsided, perhaps sparked by my growing interest in The Neutronium Alchemist. Still, the psychological roadblock hindered my early interest in my little e-book library.
Train (or Car, or Bus, or Plane, or Boat, you get it) Brain
My morning commute usually gives me 25 to 30 minutes of built-in reading time that I previously used to play mobile games and listen to podcasts. As soon as I switched to digital-only and started reading on the way to and from the office, I doubled my productivity by filling my otherwise free time with a book.
As an added bonus, reading on the train conditioned me for shorter reading spurts than I was used to. I’ve always been a “big chunks” reader, plowing through books in irregular 100+ page bursts. Now, Kindle in-hand, I can easily knock out 20-40 pages during the time I’d otherwise frivolously waste on Clash of Clans. That shift has seeped into my other reading habits as well; now I’ll sneak a quick chapter before dinner or flip through a few pages while I wait for a friend at the movie theater.
The most challenging aspect of this monumental shift in how I read is returning to physical volumes during my commute. I’m just starting Peter Hamilton’s The Naked God, which, at 1300 pages, is a brick of a book. Reading on the train is comparatively clunky and taxing, but my longing for paper currently outweighs my need for convenience.
Progress At A Glance
I’m stuck in the mental purgatory of constantly wishing to know how far I’ve read while also hoping not to see unwelcome reminders of said progress. A physical book’s page numbers offer the tried-and-true solution.
The Kindle offers various methods of progress tracking. The percentage measure seems to reign supreme based on my limited research, and I assume the option exists to turn off any progress meter completely.
During my readings of Pet Sematary and There’s Seamen on the Poop Deck, I welcomed the percentage meter because it rose steadily at a reasonable pace. When The Neutronium Alchemist entered the fray, the soul-crushing reminder that I hadn’t even ticked that meter up by 1% after what felt like 20 pages wore me down. It’s simple math, of course, but seeing my progress felt more like an obstacle than an encouragement.
Purchasing a novel on a Kindle is the book-buying equivalent of a one night stand. It happens quickly, gives you a fleeting jolt of satisfaction, then leaves you feeling empty.
This gripe, in all likelihood, is personal to me, but buying any book on Jambly McReadalot left me feeling vapid. Half of my love for reading stems from trips to the bookstore with the anticipation of a new literary discovery. I can remember where I bought most of my books, the others I considered purchasing, and why I chose the book at hand. The Kindle makes this experience robotic, and I felt drained, rather than excited, after buying a book and waiting for the download meter to reach 100%.
Best of Both Worlds
By no means an expert after three months, but now seasoned enough to make some sort of judgment, I’m happy I’ve started to explore the possibilities of digital reading. I’ll put it as simply as I can: reading Kindle-only for three months took me from my extreme paper-only point of view and opened up a new, convenient option with its own inherent benefits. I may not be an e-book radical, but I’m certainly warming up to the possibility.
Fresh content is coming your way!
“But where have you all been?”
Andrew, Chief Contributor/Supreme Quill To Live Leader had an important wedding to attend…and plan. Last week, he tied the knot! And most of our readers/writers have been on the East Coast to celebrate his next chapter. So we’ve been a bit behind, but the good news is we’re back on track!
Starting tomorrow, we’ll be back with new content on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“What have you been reading?”
Most of us are still head-down in Peter Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn trilogy. Check out our discussion about the first installment here, and read Andrew’s review of the second one here. Plus, sneak peek—we’re MUCH more divided on book two than we were on book one. More on that to come.
In between the long reading sessions required to plow through a 3000+ page epic sci-fi trilogy, we’re catching up on our personal TBRs. On top of all that, one of us took a three-month plunge into a Kindle-only reading schedule after years as a paper-or-bust apologist. Expect a write-up of that experience in the coming weeks!
What we’re really going for here are a few points:
- Thank you for your patience as we were away for a while.
- Great content to come, and we can’t wait for you to share your thoughts with us!
The Quill To Live Staff
As I mentioned back in my Reality Dysfunction review, we are trying something a little different this year. Here is the first of a series of audio discussions that we will be putting up on the site. The goal is to dive a little deeper into some books to better explore what makes them good, bad, and unique. If you have some time and fancy a listen, take 45 minutes and check out the first ever Quill to Live discussion:
…and the punchline is an 850-ish word essay about his inaugural experience with The King of Horror, which Google tells me is one of Stephen King’s nicknames.
It’s admittedly difficult to kick off a piece like this knowing full well that Stephen King has a body of work large enough to be called a pantheon (58 novels!) and a following loyal enough to produce curated meme listicles, “read this if you like Stephen King” listicles, and other clickbait about the guy’s storytelling prowess. Case in point: Stephen King has a fanbase that rivals the likes of Tolkien or Rowling, and for good reason. As a first-time Stephen King reader, Pet Sematary (review to come) acted as the Jud Crandall to my Louis Creed, leading me into a world of creepy spooky stuff that I don’t fully understand.
I closed out Pet Sematary with a newfound appreciation for an author whose work I should’ve started reading years ago. And it’s still early, but to borrow some corporate jargon, I have three key takeaways.
Practice Makes Perfect Prose
There’s no way around it: the dude can write. Pet Sematary boasts a heavy plot and complex themes, but King navigates those rough waters with breezy prose. His writing bears telltale signs of a seasoned veteran. King can describe human thought and stream of consciousness with unmatched skill. When you write as much as King does, you’ll inevitably learn a few tricks of the trade, and that firm grasp on the craft of writing radiated throughout my first foray into King’s work. I won’t belabor the point here, but check out my coming review for more on the technical aspects of his writing.
On a more conceptual level, King’s wordsmithery does wonders to destroy barriers of entry into the horror genre. Despite the wishes of Will, The Quill to Live’s resident horror expert, I’ve steered wildly clear from anything remotely scary because one time I watched The Conjuring and couldn’t sleep for three days. Pet Sematary may not have prepared me for a deep dive into the vast pool of horror writing, but it’s moved the needle from “Absolutely not” to “tentatively excited about the genre’s prospects.” King’s prosaic guidance into an unfamiliar branch of literature opened my eyes to new possibilities. Perhaps more importantly, he convinced me that the horror genre can play host to meaningful explorations of difficult concepts and lofty themes.
Motifs, Mo’ Problems? Not Quite
Speaking as a reformed Fantasy purist with a years-long preference for Young Adult writing, I’ve read my fair share of books that simply present ideas without deeply exploring them. Now, following my reformation, I’ve ventured into new literary territory and learned the difference between merely presenting concepts and actually grappling with them. Pet Sematary fortified my relatively recent love for complex adult (no, not that kind of adult) fiction thanks to King’s thematic prowess.
Reading Pet Sematary, I felt the crushing weight of death on my shoulders. It’s omnipresent through the novel, and it rears its head in unique, intriguing ways. The doctor protagonist’s no-nonsense attitude toward death balances exquisitely with his wife’s terror at a minuscule hint of it. His young daughter’s reluctance to accept it as a possibility rests in the middle of her parents’ views, neatly filling in the spectrum.
When death rears its ugly head, which happens at various points in various ways, I feel prepared to analyze the events through the lenses Stephen King so elegantly builds. His motifs rise in volume chapter by chapter in a deft crescendo of prose that feeds directly into the novel’s climax.
King treats all of his motifs with equal care. And while death plays a starring role, others join the fray to create a food-for-thought tapestry that’s punctuated by the terrifying story that lies beneath.
It’s one thing to make me jump in my seat with a well-timed scare, and it’s another thing to inject a sense of looming dread and doom into every paragraph. In Pet Sematary, King does both quite well, but his appreciation for balance makes this one of the most powerful tools in his arsenal.
There were three very specific moments in Pet Sematary that scared me enough to raise my heart rate and compel me to look around the house for intruders. These scares are spaced out and surprising, even when I sensed something scary around the next narrative corner. I literally hesitated to pet my own cats as I read the book.
The story that resides in between these scares, though, is violently eery. King weaves a narrative that’s laced with horrifyingly unsettling moments, concepts, and occurrences that had me on edge, turning digital pages as fast as I could.
This probably boils down strictly to personal preference, but King’s foundation of creepy atmosphere sprinkled with truly jump-worthy scares is a recipe for page-turning greatness.
(Read the) Rest in Peace
Pet Sematary expanded my literary horizons into the realm of horror, and I have King’s skilled craftsmanship to thank for it. Reading one of the lauded author’s titles has me amped up for more, seeking that next rush of adrenaline, thought-provoking concept, and layered prose. If you’re somehow on the fence about Stephen King, do yourself a favor and jump down to the “I’ll give him a try” side.
Previously – Part 4: The Characters
While the ten core Malazan books are filled with tons of awesome plot, memorable characters, and more laughs and tears than you know what to do with – Erikson also made sure to pack in some consistent themes and messages that are ever present. There is not enough time left in the year to go into all of these themes, so I am only going to talk about a few of the most impactful for me personally – but know that there are a ton more beyond the handful that I list in this post. These themes are what elevate Malazan in my mind from just a fun read, to a piece of literature, and some of them I have incorporated into my personal identity. So without further ado, let’s first talk about one I already mentioned in the last characters post.
Equality without reserve, strength from diversity – Malazan has an interesting take on equality that I find fascinating. In a lot of fantasy books out there you will read about things like female soldiers or armies made of different races and species, and the tensions that these groups create in their surroundings. In the books, the Malazan Empire is founded on the idea of strength in diversity, and that every single culture and people is welcome. You are a culture that has developed advanced explosives? Bring them in, we can use those. You are a species that has wings? We always wanted an aerial unit. This creates an atmosphere were they are almost no outgroup tensions, and an army that is made up of hundreds of different kinds of people. You will have female soldiers, but unlike other books you don’t have anyone saying “oh that soldier is pretty good, for a girl.” You get tons of races working side by side, but no one making bigoted comments around a campfire about a different group of people. There is plenty of bigotry outside the Empire itself in the series, but the fact that the Malazan people think of bigots as laughably stupid (because their lack of bigotry is why they have the greatest military force in the world) creates the atmosphere of true equality where anyone can be who they want.
The meaning and importance of cultural identity – One the biggest reasons that Malazan feels like a smart, on top of enjoyable, series is the fact that questions raised by the themes are explored. For example, a direct result of the equality theme is a new conversation about cultural identity – if an empire draws its strength from consuming and incorporating cultures, does that destroy or maintain that culture’s identity? Is cultural identity even important? Are some cultures inherently better than others? Does having a cultural identity catalyze bigotry and hatred towards others? All of these questions are explored in the story, but you will have to read it to hear the answers.
Who you are is never set in stone – Malazan is about change. Changes to the world, and how people do and don’t change with it. The characters in the story go through an incredible amount of evolution throughout the series, but this theme is most present in that no villain is ever presented as unredeemable. There are a few selfish sociopathic megalomaniac villains in Malazan, but most of them are hurt and scared people who are backed into a corner. Some of them refuse to waver from their paths of destruction, some of them rise to the occasion and become better people, but either way their actions are always shown to be a choice and not a certainty.
Life is full of sadness and tragedy, but it is still worth living – Holy god these books are sad. You will see so many people make incredibly hard choices, incredibly unfair things happen to good people, and unbelievable actions of love that will break your heart. If I told you some of the things that happen to the people in this story you would think it an incredibly depressing book (and it can be in some sections). Except, despite how sad Malazan makes life seem, it also always shows the good that comes out of every hard choice. It shows how five minutes of happiness can outweigh years of work and suffering. It shows the incalculable value of doing good and how you should never let life defeat you – it is always worth living.
And you should never lose your sense of humor – You wouldn’t know it from everything I have said so far, but these are incredibly funny books. There is something magical about the propensity of these characters’ ability to laugh in the face of tragedy. From everything from bad puns to bleak humor, there is no situation where a joke is inappropriate in the world of Malazan. The series is a showcase in the healing power of humor, and the juxtaposition between its laughs and tears only make both categories resonate stronger with the reader.
And finally, here are my three favorite themes of Malazan:
The tenacity of heroes, and hope as a tangible action – This is a big one for me. The heroes of Malazan are not those who were born with a myriad of special abilities and the powers of gods in their hands. The heroes of malazan are usually small innocuous people who refused to break under pressure and kept standing and fighting when everyone else gave up. They are the ones who looked at hopeless situations, and instead of sitting there and praying for a solution, got up and did something about it. Even if that something seemed small and inconsequential, they still tried their best to help. This is where the second part of this theme, hope as a tangible action, is present. A lot of Malazan boils down to gods having magical showdowns and the general populace hoping they don’t die. However, many of these conflicts are decided by the actions of a small individual, who looked at a situation way outside his control and tipped the scales by trying to do something about it. These books taught me that everyone can change the world for the better, all you have to do is keep trying.
The power of love, compassion, and friendship – You know that cheesy line that is in so much of media, “hatred never solved anything, only love can fix the world” … or something along those lines. I have always agreed with it, but never had it driven home until I read Malazan. There is so much god damn love in these books that it makes my heart hurt. You will see so many acts of love, compassion, and friendship that will just emotionally shatter you. On top of this, the power of friendship is so overwhelmingly present in these stories that you will want to call your own friends just to tell them how much you appreciate them. One of my favorite subthemes of this is that friendship can happen anywhere. There are so many weird and unlikely friendships in this story that will uplift your spirits. This theme made me a more friendly and outgoing person because it taught me the fact that you can find friendship anywhere, and how everyone is worth befriending.
The collective good of humanity – The biggest, and possibly most important, theme of Malazan. It is simple, direct, and wonderful – people are mostly good. Sure, there are definitely some bad eggs out there. There are people who cannot be redeemed, and do not want to be. Despite this, Malazan claims that the massive majority of the world is filled to the brim with good people who will do the right thing in the end. It is through this that the world slowly changes for the good, because people are inherently good. It is such an incredibly powerful and uplifting message, especially in the face of so much human tragedy in the series, and I love it. It’s a theme that’s hard to believe or agree with sometimes, especially with our current political climate, but if you give Malazan a chance, it will teach you to give humanity a chance. I think that both will impress you in the long run.
Well that’s it guys. You have now read my full review and recommendation of the Malazan series. I started this series, with a lot of help from members of the Quill team, to help pump up and ground a reader about to jump into the series. I hope that it was able to do both of those things for you, or if you have already read it I hope you think I did a good job in my brief break down. Enjoy the books, and if you ever want someone to talk with about how great the series is, you know where to find me.
Rating: The Malazan Book of the Fallen – Best/10
-Andrew and The Quill to Live team
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.
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.