Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 5: The Themes

PreviouslyPart 4: The Characters

lrg3w0llmu

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 a 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.

midnighttides

Who you are is never set in stoneMalazan 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:

adjuncttavore1The 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

Advertisements

Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 4: The Characters

PreviouslyPart 3: The World

1e61c86e4de25936a97f5c448f211490So, 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.

4c2e900b1a8a25a5cd67d72673c2a57fOn 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.

2283468968_ea1be59bb7Finally, 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.

Part 5: The Themes

Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 3: The World

PreviouslyPart 2: The Plot

malazanbookofthefallencoolmap

Malazan world map by Sadist at the Cartographer’s Guild

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.

32fa7b14de3052a3f21fd529b3bee083

Jahgut vs. Soletaken by Michael Kormack

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.

chisomo-phiri-topper-vs-cowl-by-shadaan-d51x5za

Topper vs. Cowl by Chisomo Phiri

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.

Part 4: The Characters

Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 2: The Plot

PreviouslyPart 1: The Introduction

f13f4f7a5b4ed8c74bd32834ef6e9a6f

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. To become a god, one must become the ruler of a Warren or Path.
  4. Some gods have always existed as fundamental aspects of reality.
  5. Gods can be killed.

gfd9ikf_sti8nmf5d8ggv5qlmw4onvqglgku4wrtyb4There 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 7yiyg8al90b01number 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.

Part 3: The World

Why You Should Read Malazan – Part 1: The Introduction

817cteszxqlSo 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.

Part 1: The Introduction
Part 2: The Plot
Part 3: The World
Part 4: The Characters
Part 5: The Themes

Malazan – An Introduction

gardens_of_the_moon_limited_coverBefore 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.

200px-three_gardens_of_the_moonSo 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.

Part 2: The Plot

Shattered Sands At The Midpoint – An Interview With Bradley P. Beaulieu

veil-of-spears-front-cover-smAlthough it has been awhile since I read A Veil of Spears, the third book in The Song of the Shattered Sands by Bradley P. Beaulieu, it has stuck with me as one of the best things I have read so far this year. As such, I decided to see if I could talk with Bradley now that his series is half published and see how he felt it was going. He graciously responded to me, and now that I have my act together I have finally been able to get the questions and answers up! Enjoy:

So you have now finished Veil of Spears and are three books (published) into your six book series. How do you feel? Do you feel that you are on track? Relieved to be over the halfway mark? Worried about the ending?

As always, I’m roughly one book ahead of the publication schedule. I’ve just finished Book 4, Beneath the Twisted Trees, so it feels like I’m four-sixths of the way there instead of only halfway! But it feels good. In A Veil of Spears, It finally started to feel like I was providing more payoffs instead of always setting things up. So in that respect it’s satisfying. It’s nice to pull back the curtain on some of the things I’ve hidden for so long. And the series itself is on track. I knew where it was headed from the beginning, and it’s pretty much stayed on course the entire time. I’m really looking forward to finishing up the last two books and calling the series done!

After all this writing what is the thing you are most proud of in the first three books? Any particular scene that made you go “damn I am good” or a character you love?

One of the things I was really keen to explore is this notion of the loss of one’s family, the loss of one’s heritage, and the rediscovery of those things. I think some of it stems from loving things like The Lord of the Rings with all its hints of lost civilizations. Well, now I get to have my cake and eat it too! I hint at a ton of things from the past and get to revive them over the course of the books.

So it’s been a real pleasure to realize that goal. I’m not done yet. There’s still more to uncover and more for Çeda to do, but it’s been great to see it all unfold. And I’ve done it through the main character, Çeda, who has also grown up in the telling of this tale. It’s been very rewarding to see her blossom as the books have progressed. She’s been through a lot, but is coming out the other side stronger for it. Harder. At the same time, though, she hasn’t lost sight of what matters most to her: her friends, her family, her tribe.

What have you learned from each of the three books? Are there any areas you felt you needed to improve on the second half of the series or are you perfect in every way?

I think every writer is evolving. One of the things that I’ve tried to pay attention to in the past few books (with some stinging but very helpful comments from my editors!) is to be careful about over-explanation. Writers have to take care with past events, be they backstory, events from previous books, or even events in the same book that for whatever reason are being rehashed (usually due to some unfolding mystery). Explain too little and you confuse the reader. Explain too much and they feel pandered to, or worse, get bored. It’s always a bit of a challenge to decide where to draw the line, but often I was erring on the side of explaining too much, fearing the reader would get left behind. I’m adjusting a bit, trusting the reader more, and I hope it’s creating a smoother read for fans of the series.

I know this is like asking who is your favorite child, but who is your favorite character and which is your favorite book in the series (and why)?

Well the easy answer is Çeda, and it’s true. She’s the focus of the series. She’s the one who’s guided my choices the most.

That said, there is a close runner-up. Meryam. She’s someone who started off as a player in the game that’s unfolding in Sharakhai, but I didn’t envision her as being quite as big a player as she’s turned out to be. She’s bold. Driven. Much more than I gave her credit for initially. And while she’s ruthless, her actions are completely believable from her perspective. I’ve really enjoyed writing her scenes, and seeing how her story is starting to unfold. She’s become a wildcard in the series.

How much research have you done between books? Song of the Shattered Sand is some of my favorite Middle Eastern/Arabian inspired fantasy and as someone completely ignorant of the culture I am curious how much comes from their lore.

I tend to do the most research in the customs of the Middle East, traditions surrounding food and holidays. I also like to research garb and weaponry, sometimes fighting technique, either in single combat or in larger conflicts, just to get a sense for how those things would have played out in our world at that time. I also like absorbing stories, legends, mythology from that time period. One of my favorite acquisitions in recent years is Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights by Sergio Toppi, published by Archaia Press. It’s a stunningly beautiful book, filled with retellings from the stories in Arabian Nights (or A Thousand and One Nights). It’s well worth it for the artwork alone, but also if you’re interested in Arabic tales.

What was your inspiration for the series? Was there any particular ideas, books, or events that you experienced that led to it? In particular I would love to know your inspiration for a story involving hunting 12 kings with different powers using poem riddles. It combines so many of my favorite things and I would love to know how you came up with it.

The story had a really long evolution. It took me years to develop. The basic desert city was first. The asirim, the strange mummified creatures who steal into the city each month, came very early as well, long before I knew who Çeda was or that there were in fact twelve kings. Slowly, the city and its status as a great power in the world unfolded. And I found out who Çeda was. I knew by then that I wanted it to be a story about rediscovery, and what better way for that to happen than if her mother was taken from her and if she had almost no connection to her family and her people? But as I thought about it more, I wanted there to be some connection from Çeda to her mother. That was how the book of riddles was born. Her mother had secrets. Very dangerous secrets. And she and Çeda both loved literature. What better way to pass down her mother’s secrets than through a book they both loved? Once the idea came to me, I really embraced it. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the series: this one thing, a book of poems and stories, linking mother and daughter beyond death and setting this grand tale into motion.

In general, do you have any favorite fantasy/sci-fi books? What are you reading right now?

Some recent favorites have been Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, China Miéville’s The City & The City, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, and Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. Right now I’m reading Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines on audio and Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld on ebook, and really enjoying both.

The series takes place in a beautifully realized desert setting. What is the most thirsty you’ve ever been, and how did you draw from that experience when writing these books?

I’ve loved writing about this grand desert. I’d wanted to write a desert-based fantasy for a long while. It kept showing up in my short stories and even in my first published trilogy, where the characters traveled to a vast desert in part of the final installment. More than being thirsty, I’ve drawn on the times where I’ve been in really hot settings. Try Phoenix in summer. I also lived in Southern California for five years, and went on various hikes and excursions. It’s dry down there, and those experiences helped me as well. We’re always told “write what you know” but sometimes we forget that we can both write what we know and extrapolate from tangential experiences to create a whole new experience in our books. Perhaps “borrow from what you know” would be a better way to put it.

 

Thanks again to Bradley for stopping by!

Revenant Gun – Interview with Yoon Ha Lee

81s4snnvywlThe incredible author of Revenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee, agreed to answer some of questions of our about his complex and gripping The Machineries of Empire series. Thank you again Yoon for taking the time to talk to us, and everyone else enjoy our questions and answers below! Revenant Gun comes out this week and you can find our review of it here. There also is a blog tour happening right now, so be sure to be on the lookout for other interviews and articles about Yoon.

I deeply admired your ability to world build in the first book in a way that relied on the reader’s engagement and willingness to accept the gaps. How hard was it to leave a lot of the stuff open ended to the reader, while still getting general idea across?

Honestly, while I had an outline and a bunch of notes, in writing Ninefox Gambit I made up a lot of stuff as I went!  Patricia C. Wrede makes an interesting distinction between what she calls “iceberg” worldbuilders and “bubble” worldbuilders, and I definitely tend toward the latter.  “Iceberg” worldbuilders are people like Tolkien–they come up with the deep history of the world and its cultures and maps and everything.  “Bubble” worldbuilders make up things as they go and everything is on the surface–there may be hints but there aren’t 500 pages of backstory lurking in the background.  Of course, she says–and I discovered it to be true–that “bubble” worldbuilders turn into “iceberg” worldbuilders when they write a longer work like a series, because you start actually having to keep track of what you’ve said and you need to keep your world consistent within itself.  Leaving a lot of things open-ended was a natural side-effect of the way I built the world.

How did you elevator pitch this story to your publisher? I have been asked to give a short description of the series before and completely failed so I would love to steal your answer.

Fortunately, I was able to look up my query letter to agents, which is probably pretty close:

Captain Kel Cheris is ordered to recapture a space fortress whose takeover by heretics my disable her nation’s advanced technologies, which depend on the state religion.  The weapon given Cheris is a dead tactician, Shuos Jedao.  Jedao may be the only one capable of outthinking the fortress’s defenses.  But he went mad during a former life, massacring his own soldiers, and while he seems sane now, no one knows how long that will last–least of all Cheris, who has been made host to his spirit.

Um.  I’m not going to pretend that’s the best pitch in the history of pitches; it’s very definitely a skill I’m still working on!

What was your inspiration for the series? Was there some external force or did all of this series majestical weirdness solely come from the depths of your mind?

There were several inspirations!  First let me talk about Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), a collectible card game/roleplaying game originally created by Alderac Entertainment Group (it has since been bought out and rebooted as a Living Card Game by Fantasy Flight Games).  I started playing it in college, and one of the things that sucked me in was the lore.  Its setting, the land of Rokugan, is a sort of fantasy feudal Asia (mostly Japan) and one of its key features was that you could join one of several clans, each with its own specialties–for example, the Lion Clan was known for its honorable warriors and tacticians, the Crane Clan for its elegant courtiers and duelists, the Scorpion Clan for its ninjas and seductresses.

Fast forward a number of years.  A man named Rich Wulf wrote a modern-day, cyberpunk-influenced fanfiction series about the setting called Rokugan 2000.  Inspired, some friends and I conceived of a space opera version of L5R called Rokugan 3000.  (A number of people around the web had the same idea–we were hardly alone.)  I was really excited about writing fic for samurai in space.

There was a catch, however.  AEG was looking for another writer for its official Story Team, and I wanted to apply.  And I knew that if by some miracle I succeeded and joined the Story Team, I would have to stop writing fanfic for the setting.  As luck would have it, Robert Denton III and I were both selected for it (Robert is currently writing for FFG now, as it happens, among other things).  So I shelved Rokugan 3000.

I still wanted to write space opera, though.  I had a great experience working with folks at AEG but ended up leaving after a year, and decided that it would be a good time to try to write a space opera in a setting of my own devising.  The hexarchate has influences from Rokugan–the factions were loosely inspired by the clans.

There were other influences.  In high school I read Jack L. Chalker’s Spirits of Flux and Anchor series, and one of its features is magic-like effects caused by manipulation of math and computers, as well as areas where magic doesn’t work.  I’m not sure I would recommend the books to a modern reader, as they have some notable flaws (Chalker’s portrayals of female characters and sex changes were sometimes odd), but Chalker was a history teacher and I was fascinated by his explorations of historical processes.

Finally, there was ethnomathematics, which I learned of through Marcia Ascher’s Mathematics Elsewhere.  I never had the privilege of meeting Ascher during her life, but it turns out it’s a small world–I found out later that she was the godmother of a college friend’s brother.  In any case, the whole idea of calendars affecting the laws of physics in a magical fashion came both from Ascher’s writing and from reading Harlan Ellison’s “The Paladin of the Lost Hour,” which was the first time I really thought about differing calendar traditions in the context of fiction.  In real life, of course, I was used to lunar calendar celebrations vs. the Western calendar in South Korea (fun fact, you get to celebrate New Year’s twice!).

Considering there was so many cool and weird things in this series, I want to know, what came first, Jedao as a shadow, or the calendrical system?

The calendrical system.  Jedao as a shadow I made up on the spot.  I will own that as I approached the scene where he’s initially attached to Cheris I felt a stab of panic wondering how to make him sufficiently interesting…

The idea of the Hexarchate is extremely intriguing and the sort of weird self-propagation of its values through factional competition and prejudices feels very natural. The whole thing always feels like it is teetering on the edge, but manages to remain in control. Where did the Hexarchate/Heptarchate start for you? Why did it feel important to have separate factions as a coalition instead of a sole ruler with a feudal duchy like system?

See above about being inspired by clans in Legend of the Five Rings!  I admit that my feeling is that a system that precarious should only have lasted a couple centuries, tops, but I decided that strict plausibility was less important than having fun, especially in a space opera.  I went with coalition rule because I thought that had more potential for exciting infighting and also because I’m a little burned out on evil empires with sole rulers, so I wanted to do something a little different.

Of the six factions in the world, which do you see yourself belonging to?

I took the faction sorting quiz that Solaris came up with (http://www.solarisbooks.com/post/2065) and came out as a Nirai.  Since I have a B.A. in math, I suppose that tracks, although I didn’t pursue math further (ironically because I didn’t want to give up writing for six or seven years while doing a doctorate).  In real life, I see myself as one of the masses of unaligned citizens, a redshirt sort of person.

You decided to expand a lot of the world building and explain a lot of the science in the final book as opposed to the first (which I loved). Why keep your readers in the dark so long?

It was a controversial decision!  I often enjoy that kind of storytelling, though, so I wanted to give it a go.  One of my favorite examples of it is C. J. Cherryh’s The Faded Sun, where you learn about the different aliens (especially the mri and regul) as you go on.  (Obviously, I’m nowhere near as skilled a writer as someone like Cherryh!  But one ought to aim high, if one is going to do things at all.)

As for explanations in book three, one reason is that it seemed cruel to leave readers hanging in the last book of a trilogy.  The other reason has to do with choice of viewpoint characters.  In Ninefox, Cheris doesn’t really think about how things work if they’re a part of her everyday ordinary existence; when I read a book set in the modern day and someone turns on a light switch, I don’t need two paragraphs explaining power generation and distribution to me, I just need to know that flicking the switch makes light appear.  Even in a fantasy, if someone throws a fireball, I don’t need to know the grand unified theory of how fireballs happen; the name of the spell tells me it’s a ball made of fire, so why belabor the obvious?

In Revenant Gun, on the other hand, the main viewpoint is that of an amnesiac Jedao.  Not only that, but he’s a few centuries out of date.  So I explain things when Jedao learns about them, because it’s part of his process figuring out the world around him and what to do about it.

Not to spoil anything, but the conclusion to Revenant Gun leaves Jedao’s fate very open ended, would you consider doing another series about him or is this the end for your grand tactician?

Actually, I’m at work on a collection of stories set in the hexarchate, part reprints and part new materials, and one of the stories picks up after the end of Revenant Gun, with Jedao and Cheris going on an adventure together, quarreling all the way.  So stay tuned?  I’m not sure I have another series in me–I think I need to do something different for a bit, next–but I won’t rule it out.

What are your favorite sci-fi and fantasy books? Who are your favorite strategists in fiction and why?

Oh, you’d ask the hard question!  Iain M. Banks’ Player of Games, which I loved so much with its game-playing and metacommentary and double-crosses that I’m afraid to read more Culture books because how are they going to live up to it?  Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs is a fantastic exploration of magic, gods, and colonialism married to a spy thriller.  Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, of which my favorite is Memory, although you need to read the others first for it to make sense.  C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen with its brilliant and disturbing exploration of nature vs. nurture and genius characters everywhere.  Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which has an antihero protagonist who weaponizes economics, although it’s not for the faint of heart.  For something completely different, C. S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy, which is erotic fantasy.

And just because I’m a tease, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, which I read in ARC and which is coming out in 2019, in which an emissary from a tiny space station takes on a hungry empire based on a mixture of the Aztecs and the Byzantines; and S. L. Huang’s Zero-Sum Game, a near-future thriller about a female mercenary who is so staggeringly good at math that it’s essentially a superpower.

Favorite strategists or tacticians in fiction who we actually see doing their thing include Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, who terrifies the spit out of me.  If Miles were real, I would make it a point to live the next galaxy over because he’s dangerous.  Baru Cormorant from Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, one of the rarer female examples.  There’s also a great female chessmaster in Ilana C. Myer’s Fire Dance.  If you allow anime, then Lelouch Lamperouge from Code Geass and Kaizuka Inaho from Aldnoah.Zero, and if you allow kdramas, Misil and Seondeok from The Great Queen Seondeok.

What is up next for you now that Machineries is done?

I have a middle-grade novel coming out from Disney-Hyperion in January 2019, Dragon Pearl.  It’s a space opera based on Korean mythology–you should have heard my mom’s ? response when I asked her for help researching pungsu jiri, the Korean version of feng shui!–in which a teenage fox spirit goes on a quest to clear her brother’s name after he allegedly deserts from the Space Forces to search for a powerful magical artifact that can change worlds.

Currently, I’m wrapping up the hexarchate short story collection, and after that I’ll be writing a novel for Solaris inspired by the curious story of the paint pigment PO49 or Quinacridone Gold.

Often in military science fiction I find a lot of the writing transfixed by the technology of war, without considering the consequences of using it. However, a lot of the technology in your series was showcased with a sense of wonder, followed by an incredible feeling of foreboding before the full brutality of it was revealed. Was this a deliberate effort on your part? And if yes, why did you feel the reader should go through this realization with each new weapon?

I know that brutal depictions of violence and carnage are not for every reader, but that was deliberate.  I feel that the effects of terrible weapons should not be shied away from.  While I do not have a military background, my father spent some years as a surgeon in the US Army, so I grew up with an awareness that when people go to war, someone has to stitch the survivors back together.

Some people have stories of war veterans in their families.  I don’t have that, really.  But I’m Korean-American and we do have stories of the Korean War.  The one that I remember most keenly is the one my mother told me. Her mother–my grandmother–already had two small children plus a baby, and she was evacuating Seoul with her family a couple months after the war broke out.  Grandma made the hard decision for the family to abandon the baby by the side of the road so that the other children would have a better chance of survival.  But another woman picked up the baby and brought her back to Grandma and said, “You forgot this.”  Grandma didn’t have the heart to abandon the baby again.  That baby was my mother, and it is because of that woman, whose name we don’t know, that my mother survived, and that I am here today.  So I always try to remember that war has a cost, not just for the soldiers but the civilians, even though in this trilogy I chose to focus on the soldiers, who are no more and no less human than the people they are fighting for.

Thanks again Yoon, and be sure to check out The Machineries of Empire if you haven’t already!

REVENANT GUN BLOG TOUR -Poster