Here’s what I’ve been reading:
- Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erikson
- Deadhouse Gates, Steven Erikson
- Memories of Ice, Steven Erikson
- House of Chains, Steven Erikson
- Midnight Tides, Steven Erikson
- The Bonehunters, Steven Erikson
- Reaper’s Gale, Steven Erikson
- Toll the Hounds, Steven Erikson
- Dust of Dreams, Steven Erikson
- The Crippled God, Steven Erikson
Yes, Virginia, that is all one series: The Malazan Book of the Fallen. At 3.5 million words, it clocks in at about seven time the length of War and Peace. That takes even me a while to get through! Fortunately, reading these never felt like a slog. If anything, the opposite was the problem. I didn’t want to put them down. When my partner went away for the weekend, I stuck my nose into these for fourteen hours at a stretch, with occasional tea and cat-petting breaks. It was lovely!
What I really appreciated about Erikson’s work is that it’s successful on multiple levels. The books are immensely entertaining and well-crafted, but they also address sophisticated issues in grown-up ways. It’s fantasy I don’t feel vaguely ashamed about liking*.
On the entertainment front, Erikson hits all the buttons that make me happy. His characters, first and foremost, are great. He’s quite economical about establishing character – he’s got to be, as the cast lists are huge! – but he does it without resorting to cliche. He sometimes starts from a cliche, like “gruff veteran,” but he doesn’t stop once you’ve got a basic idea of who a character is. Instead, he keeps elaborating on them and deepening them every time they’re on stage. He’s able to do this because he has a lovely eye for plot design, with plotlines that are interesting in their own right and that simultaneously give the characters opportunities to develop. He’s not afraid to do really awesome, hard-core things involving his characters, and he’s not afraid to let those things change who his characters are. I also really liked his world. He avoids the pseudo-medieval-Europe trap; the series’ main societies are Roman-ish, Pacific Northwestern American Indian-ish, early modern Dutch-ish, and Neanderthal. Did I mention freaking Neanderthal?
In terms of craft, I’ve been following a friend’s craft-oriented Wheel of Time re-read, and it’s given me a lot of insight into things Erikson does right. The books don’t quite stand alone, but every book has a clear rising action that ends in a dramatic, satisfying, often unexpected resolution. Each book has a set of focal characters that you get to stay with long enough to care about, and Erikson is good at keeping characters meaningfully involved in the story even when they’re not present. For example, the first book of the series follows the Malazan Empire’s attempted conquest of the last Free City on the continent of Genabackis. The second book shifts to another continent entirely, where the threat of rebellion is exacerbated by the Empire being focused elsewhere. A few characters leave Genabackis at the end of the first book and are focal characters for the second, but even the characters who aren’t present exert influence through their absence. Somehow, he manages to keep this juggling act going across dozens of characters and thousands of pages. It’s very impressive.
At the end of the day, though, what hooked me was the depth of the problems his characters grapple with, and the degree to which he takes them seriously within the world. For example, one of the central questions of the series is, “When gods are manifest in the world, why is there still evil?” Terrible things happen to good people in his books. (Seriously, I have seen few authors this willing to kill beloved characters en masse!) The characters grow more and more troubled by this issue as the books continue, and in some ways the entire action of the series is driven by this problem. Climate change is another major theme. So’s xenophobia, and the nature of power, and how people survive trauma, and the horrors of war. The problems he addresses don’t have easy answers, and his plots don’t always resolve happily, and that’s part of what makes the books work so well for me – because the story can’t, doesn’t, shouldn’t end neatly, or it’s too clearly a fantasy.
This is not to say that the books don’t have problems. For example, you will find yourself trying to explain why the scene where zombie Neanderthals fight cyborg dinosaurs is really not jumping the shark. In context, it isn’t. But man, does it sound really silly! My partner refers to many of the main characters as “walking nuclear bombs,” and yes, if you’re bothered by high-magic settings this is definitely not the series for you. Personally, I found most of the magical elements to be grounded in human and political relationships, which is all it really takes to sell me.
More seriously, Erikson tries to walk a difficult line between having a satisfying series, and creating a world that’s bigger than the series itself. The first half of the first book is his worst failure on this front; he doesn’t explain nearly as much as he needs to for you to understand what’s going on. Also, if dangling plotlines drive you nuts, this is probably not the series for you. The main plots of each book, and the larger plot of the series, resolve in very satisfying ways. However, he’s got many sub-plots that he leaves in non-cliffhanger but also non-resolved situations. For example, an important character is kidnapped and set up as the high priestess of a crazy cult … and that’s more or less where she stays. I can imagine him writing a short story or even a novel that wraps up her plotline, but it isn’t in this series.
You should also be aware that there’s a lot of rape in these books. I’m still not sure how I feel about this one, because, well, people do rape and get raped. Even in our so-called “civilized” society, one in six women will be raped (attempted or completed) in her lifetime, and the world he portrays is far more violent and abusive than ours. Of course, we all have read books that use the ‘realism’ argument to treat fictional rape in deeply unethical ways. Erikson doesn’t! He uses rape as part of his larger argument about (hu)man’s inhumanity to (hu)man, which also includes violence and slavery and institutionalized suffering and more. It’s not pornographically described, he doesn’t blame the victims, and he makes his moral stance on rape quite clear. He even includes a variety of victims – male and female, adult and juvenile – who get to react in a wide range of ways without him judging them. In general, he handles it remarkably well. I think that’s why it bugs me so much when he uses it as an easy narrative out. For example, he puts one of my favorite characters into a metaphorical refrigerator, making her rape as a motivator for other people to take heroic action. Your mileage may, of course, vary.
He also has one writing tic that drives me absolutely crazy. He’s an enormous fan of ending a scene with a hanging question, like “He started to explain his plan” followed by a cut away. Unfortunately, you-the-reader generally don’t have enough information to predict what’s going on; instead, you have to wait until he feels like telling you. Personally, I want to feel clever when I figure out what the character’s insight is, or identify the person who walked into the room, or realize what’s wrong with the plan. I almost never had enough information to do so, and in fact sometimes I didn’t even have enough information to understand things after he explained. He doesn’t use this technique all the time, but when he does it, he often gets it wrong. Grr.
Overall, I’d strongly recommend this series. (I wouldn’t suggest anyone read it on less than a strong recommendation – after all, there’s a lot of it!) It has problems, but you’ll laugh and cry and think and talk to your friends about it, and wonder which character you’re the most like, and, if you’re anything like me, want to read it again.
* Meaning: a lot of fantasy espouses deeply problematic ideas about society. There’s a great rant on this that I can’t seem to turn up, but here’s a decent example of the kind of critique I’m referring to.