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.
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.
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.
I found myself unusually nostalgic this Memorial Day weekend. The nature of the holiday feels like one of reflection and remembrance, and it made me start thinking of books and movies I enjoyed a long time ago. A item that was in both those mediums was Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. While most agree it is a phenomenally good book, feelings about the movie are a little more controversial – but I am a big fan. HBO has it in their movie library for free (if you have the service) and you should check it out if you haven’t.
I don’t usually revisit a lot of media. The nature of how I read and watch things revolves around an ever growing pile of new things to experience before I die. This unfortunately does not leave a lot of room for revisiting old favorites – something I am finding I want to do more and more. I got into the fantasy and sci-fi genres about 20 years ago, and the first books I read are starting to lose their crispness in my memories. Hitchhiker’s was one of those books, and all I could really remember about it was a couple of key plot points and that I had a profound and life changing experience when I read it. So I decided to rewatch the movie and see if it recaptured the spark I felt a long time ago, and unsurprisingly it metaphorically lit me on fire.
Adams never gets old. He is quoted endlessly on clothes, laptop decals, and Facebook pages because it is so hard to read Hitchhiker’s and not feel something memorable. It is deliciously ironic that a book about “no one understanding the meaning of life”, feels like it was written by one of the few people who have the answer to life’s biggest question. Hitchhiker’s is just filled to the brim with witticisms that are funny and poignant at the same time, and rediscovering it after all these years just makes me like them more.
I have tossed The Guide on the pile of things to be read. No one needs to hear my thoughts on Hitchhiker’s Guide, because I doubt I need to convince any of you to read it. This means it will cut into my review time and put me behind my schedule of books – but frankly I don’t care. Hitchhiker’s Guide is worth the inconvenience and I am so excited to dive back into its wonderful and comforting pages.
On Monday, one of the co-writers of Quill (Alex) and I had a conversation about a slippery and hard to define quality of our favorite books that we nicknamed “authenticity”. We were trying to find a way to quantify and categorize this certain power that some books have, but were having a really hard time describing it. Initially I described it as “books without agendas”, but that isn’t right as all books have some sort of agendas. In the end, we realized that what we were grasping at was authors who were able to write books without investing their ego into the story. Alex and I both hate it when you get the sense an author is trying to show you “how clever and smart” they are in their book. Nothing breaks immersion in a story faster than feeling like events in a book are happening solely to prove how brilliant the author is. However, on the other side of the spectrum there are some works of writing that feel like they are more forces of nature than an author telling you a story. The best descriptive we could come up for this quality was authenticity, and it is an extremely rare quality to see in people’s work and the number of authors I find reliably authentic I can count on both hands.
I say all of this to put into context the level of my despair on Tuesday afternoon when I learned of the passing of Ursula Le Guin and to help contextualize the size of the beacon of inspiration that just went out. Ursula Le Guin was a paragon of science fiction and fantasy and is, in my mind, probably the single most talented author I have ever read. I have only read five of her many novels and was in the middle of planning out time to read more of the Hainish Cycle when I found out she passed away. In some ways it is easy to see how powerful a writer Le Guin was, it feels like almost every single one of her books won every award that they qualified for when they were published. But I don’t think the awards honestly do justice to the power and emotional depth of her stories. I wrote a piece a while back on “Masters of Prose”, talking about a number of my absolute top authors and why their prose is considered some of the best. You can click on that link to see my words on her, but the important part of it is the attached short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. At just four pages, this is better than most novels I read in a given year.
There are lots of reasons why her works are so good. For starters she was astoundingly smart and had a better grasp of human nature and behavior than most people on the planet. Le Guin was able to transcribe her advocacy of art as a form of political expression for a more just world to the pages of her novels in a way that feels more conversational than most other authors. She wrote in a way that allows readers to feel enlightened at the same time her characters did, exploring the conversation instead of beating them over the head with high minded oration or teachings. Her writing is beautiful and poetic on the level of any of the other prose masters around, while also being direct and easy to understand. And she is incredibly authentic. Circling back to my first thoughts in this post, if I had to pick a single author who represents authenticity in writing it would be Le Guin. She always wrote like her one and only goal was to make the world a better place by fostering understanding and communication between people who need both. Her works are profoundly inspirational, without feeling pretentious or elitist. You don’t gain status by reading a Le Guin book, you gain enlightenment.
It was hard hearing of her loss, and if it is hard for me I can only imagine what it like for her friends and family. I hope they are coping as well as anyone can with the loss and I hope they know that their pain is felt worldwide. One of my dreams was to meet Ursula le Guin and talk to her about the nature of writing. When I heard of her passing I selfishly thought about how unfortunate it was that I couldn’t fulfill that dream. But then I realized, all I would have to do is read one of her novels and I would be inspired with several more.
Today’s post is more of a thought piece than a review, because no one needs another positive review of The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin. It is one of the best science fiction books ever written, has won a number of awards, and is considered one of the most iconic books ever printed – if you haven’t read it you should. I will say that I have been making my way through a number of iconic sci-fi novels this year, and have had a few that didn’t quite live up to my expectations like Stranger in a Strange Land. However, I am happy to say this was decidedly not the case with The Left Hand of Darkness and it is definitely worth a read.
For those of you unfamiliar with the book, Darkness is a part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, a series of semi stand alone books that catalog the stories of the lives of ambassadors for the Hainish empire. The Hainish are a consortium of planets who possess methods for instantaneous communication, but not instantaneous travel. This means that planets can talk to each other to trade ideas and technology, but visiting other planets is a colossal effort. For this, and a number of other reasons, when the Hainish discover a new planet they want to bring into the alliance they send a single ambassador to study the planet and convince it to join. Darkness in particular tells the story of Genly Ai, an ambassador to Winter. Winter is a cold and icy planet with a very interesting adaptation from the humans who live there – they can freely switch between male and female genders, but mostly remain androgynously between them.
Darkness tells a wonderful story that is worth reading, but it also contains a large thought experiment on the meaning of gender and our unconscious assumptions about both genders. I will say right off the bat I have not read a better book at helping me discover some of the unconscious biases for both genders I apparently personally hold and clearly need to work on. Before reading this I would have said I didn’t have any bias at all, but Darkness has a way of digging deep and, ironically, letting the light in. The power of Darkness is in its subtlety. The book doesn’t focus on the genderless aspect of the story, instead treating it as almost background information that occasionally gets brought up – usually by the narrator Genly Ai as he reacts to people flipping genders around him. Le Guin instead takes the characters, who have been wiped clean of any gender identity, and put them into situations that have traditional gender roles and identities attached to them. She then pulls apart our expectations about those roles and how it influences how we think of the genders. I know that seems confusing as an abstract so let me give you a concrete example. One of the eye opening things for me was the monarch. Winter has a royal ruler, a king/queen. While there are of course any number of queens, a monarchy is something that I (and I assume others) associate as a traditionally male role. In addition, the monarch is arrogant and stubborn which are two additional things I apparently associate with being male. Using these primers, Le Guin got me to think of Winter’s monarch as a man, but then as I got to know the monarch I found I was uncomfortable and confused when they both revealed themselves to also be nurturing and motherly, in particular when the monarch eventually gets pregnant. Darkness is just clever and subtle in its gender manipulations and it is something I really appreciate about it.
While reading Darkness, my mind often jumped to two recent popular sci-fi novels that both play with gender politics: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, and Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer. I have talked about both before, and like both of them. Both books have clearly taken some of Le Guin’s ideas and taken different directions to explore the reader’s assumptions about gender (I am oversimplifying but Justice is told from the perspective of an AI who can’t tell gender apart and Lightning constantly lies to you about what gender people are). However, I found I liked Darkness’ take on gender most because of the previously mentioned subtly. With the two newer books the gender discussion is at the forefront – always present. The Left Hand of Darkness’ clever use of it as a subconcept hidden in the noise in the story allowed me to have a much higher degree of self discovery than in Justice or Lighting. As such, if you have not read The Left Hand of Darkness yet, I definitely recommend that you do. You might learn something about yourself.