Book Series Review: The Malazan Books of the Fallen

malazangardensofthemoonBackground: 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.

Comments

  1. I tried reading Gardens of the Moon and I couldn’t get very far into it. It felt too much like I was starting in the middle of a series with no point of reference. I’ve heard lots of good things about it, though, so I might give it another shot. I’m always in the mood for good fantasy.

    Mike´s last post: Review of Draconomicon

  2. TheMainEvent says:

    @ Mike: You are definitely not alone feeling that way. Erikson’s storytelling is somewhat reminiscent of the TV Show “Lost” in that you are just thrown into the action and not all plot threads are explicitly explained. What happens though is he cleverly doles out information to raise your hackles and answers important background questions throughout the books. For instance, some of the major questions from the first portion of “Gardens of the Moon” do not get a definitive textual answer until book 3! This can be maddening for some, but I have thus far thoroughly enjoyed it.

    This is in contrast to say, Wheel of Time, that seems to just be (basically) generating questions up to the very end leaving Brandon Sanderson to tie up just about everything.

  3. I, too, tried to read book 1, and made it about 1/4 through it before I realized that I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, didn’t have a clue where the story was headed, and didn’t really care about any of the multitude of characters the author had introduced by that point. I dropped it off at a local used bookstore.

    There are far too many good books in this world to suffer through poor plot structure. If I don’t care about the characters, and don’t have a grasp of the story that far into a book, I drop it in favor of something else.

  4. In contrast to some other commenters, that “pushed off the dock” immersion is one of the many things I love about these books. Erikson’s an author who trusts me enough not to lead me around by the hand–or the nose.

    Christopher´s last post: Triple Feature

  5. TheMainEvent says:

    @Jeremy: The ‘poor plot structure’ is a bit harsh… every book introduces and resolves a major conflict. Now issues from the past, underlying conflicts, and origins are definitely a slow burn.

    That being said, my review conceded that the scope of the series isn’t for everyone. So while its certainly worthwhile to read its not everyone’s cup of tea.

  6. Christopher,

    I totally agree. The series is the first “adult” fantasy series that I’ve encountered where I’m totally invested in the characters and the world and can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner. I’ve been reading fantasy for over twenty years now, and I can’t point to another author that has the vision to see that deeply into the past and present of his world and that deeply into the scope of characters and story. Truly amazing.

    I still think about some of the events from House of Chains (the brutal Chain of Dogs). One of the best books I’ve ever read. Fantasy or no.

  7. Toscadero says:

    I agree that the books might not be for everyone. However, both friends I’ve started on the series are loving it. A third friend has granted that he will start when book nine comes out (July of this year if you order from the UK). Apparently Erikson has committed to getting the books out quickly with book ten being the end of the series.

    If you liked Cook’s Black Company you will probably like the Malazan Book of the Fallen.

    While waiting for book 8 I went back and read Gardens of the Moon (book 1). I did find that I was much more aware of what was going on having had some of the background explained in books 3 and 4.

    Give them a shot. They are worth your time.

  8. This is one of my favorite fantasy series. But then, I’m a really, really fast reader who likes epic scale, lots of characters, and I have experience in historical studies and archeology. So it’s basically written for me. It’s hard to get into though. I made my friend promise to read the first 3, if she was going to read them at all.

    Sometimes the alternating structure gets annoying, though. I thought the Deadhouse Gates was probably the best fantasy book I’ve ever read, and was annoyed to have to get through Memories of Ice before I could get back to the characters from Gates. But that’s a nitpick, because Memories and the Pannion Domin are excellent of themselves.

    I think the best way to approach this series is to do it from the perspective that it is a major investment of time and energy, and the payoff might be a ways off. But the payoff is huge. I’ve never encountered a series as re-readable as the Malazan Books of the Fallen, which is important to me, cause I don’t have much money, and a regular paperback lasts me about a day.