Background: The Malazan Books of the Fallen is a mouthful to say, but really that’s for the best, because it’s also a whopper to read. Currently on book eight of ten, the universe also encompasses a bunch of novellas (which I have yet to read) and an entirely different author writing novels in a shared world. Steven Erikson was an anthropologist by trade and boy does it show. Everything about the different races and cultures encountered is impeccably realized and fleshed out in a story that’s scope is epic on a level of the Illiad. Elder Gods, Immortal Ascendants, Ancient Races, Dragons, and even humanity are engaged in a multifaceted struggle across three continents (thus far). For instance, the second book of the series only has a small group of five characters from the first book while the rest (at least 80% of the text) is devoted entirely new characters. The fifth book introduces an (almost) entirely new continent, cultures and plot-lines. For me, the series has yet to disappoint as it avoids the common epic fantasy pitfall of nothing happening (see Wheel of Time) and uses some genre savvy tropes to cleverly explain the common aspects of the genre while it turns some others on its head.
Setting: The series begins with a focus on the Malazan Empire, a newish aggressively expansive political body and its unique brand of soldier. From there, the reader is treated to the T’lan Imass (undead that swore an eternal vow of GENOCIDE against an ancient powerful race of creatures called the Jaghut), the Pannion Domin (perhaps the most horrifying ‘evil empire’ I’ve ever read about), the Lethererii Kingdom (an interesting combination of capitalism run amok and the old Chinese notion of empire), the mysterious Anomander Rake and his brooding ennui-riddle Children of Darkness, along with countless others. Magic is drawn from magical realms called warrens (the more modern manifestation common amongst humanity) or ancient holds (elder magic). The power of various factions is one of constant flux and even immortals fear the strongest amongst humanity. The series deals a lot with the foibles of humanity and history, but also with the helplessness of the divine in the face of demands and actions of their followers in the name of their religion.
Story: With the scope of the series it’s hard to pinpoint a single plot, but the main thrust of the series focuses on the newly re-emergent Crippled God and his destructive machinations. Readers get to see the maneuverings amongst the divine, the headstrong and clever mortals that intercede and the soldiers that just end up caught up in conflicts a bit over their pay grade. Sometimes the link to this overarching idea is tenuous at best, or even non existent, but it is the most clearly identifiable thrust common to all the stories. The characters are numerous and mostly well developed, but Erikson’s fetish for the infantry grunt can get a little tiresome when you have upwards of thirty marines traipsing around a novel (all with cute little nicknames like Blend, Smiles or Picker), it’s hard to keep them all straight. That being said, every reader is sure to find their favorites amongst a rich cast of heroes, scoundrels, and outright evil bastards.
Overall: A-. The strength of the books in their scope, depth and imagination in a way serves as its weakness as well. Accessibility and plot structure suffer a bit as a result. While not easy to pick up as a book like Mistborn, it’s a project committing to the series, but well worth the effort.