1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9  |  10  |  11  |  12  |  13  |  14  |  15  |  16  |  17  |  18  |  19  |  20  |  21  |  22  |  23  |  24  |  25  |  26  |  27  |  28  |  29  |  30  |  31  |  32  |  33  |  34  |  35  |  36  |  37  |  38  |  39  |  40  |  41  |  42  |  43  |  44  |  45  |  46  |  47  |  48  |  49  |  50  |  51  |  52  |  53  |  54  |  55  |  56  |  57  |  58  |  59  |  60  |  61  |  62  |  63  |  64  |  65  |  66  |  67  |  68  |  69  |  70  |  71  |  72  |  73  |  74  |  75  |  76  |  77  |  78  |  79  |  80  |  81  |  82  |  83  |  84  |  85  |  86  |  87  |  88  |  89  |  90  |  91  |  92  |  93  |  94  |  95  |  96  |  97  |  98  |  99  |  100  |  101  |  102  |  103  |  104  |  105  |  106  |  107  |  108  |  109  |  110  |  111  |  112  |  113  |  114  |  115  |  116  |  117  |  118  |  119  |  120  |  121  |  122  |  123  |  124  |  125  |  126  |  127  |  128  |  129  |  130  |  131  |  132  |  133  |  134  |  135  |  136  |  137  |  138  |  139  |  140  |  141  |  142  |  143  |  144  |  145  |  146  |  147  |  148  |  149  |  150  |  151  |  152  |  153  |  154  |  155  |  156  |  157  |  158  |  159  |  160  |  161  |  162  |  163  |  164  |  165  |  166  |  167  |  168  |  169  |  170  |  171  |  172  |  173  |  174  |  175  |  176  |  177  |  178  |  179  |  180  |  181  |  182  |  183  |  184  |  185  |  186  |  187  |  188  |  189  |  190  |  191  |  192  |  193  |  194  |  195  |  196  |  197  |  198  |  199  |  200  |  201  |  202  |  203  |  204  |  205  |  206  |  207  |  208  |  209  |  210  |  211  |  212  |  213  |  214  |  215  |  216  |  217  |  218  |  219  |  220  |  221  |  222  |  223  |  224  |  225  |  226  |  227  |  228  |  229  |  230  |  231  |  232  |  233  |  234  |  235  |  236  |  237  |  238  |  239  |  240  |  241  |  242  |  243  |  244  |  245  |  246  |  247  |  248  |  249  |  250  |  251  |  252  |  253  |  254  |  255  |  256  |  257  |  258  |  259  |  260  |  261  |  262  |  263  |  264  |  265  |  266  |  267  |  268  |  269  |  270  |  271  |  272  |  273  |  274  |  275  |  276  |  277  |  278  |  279  |  280  |  281  |  282  |  283  |  284  |  285  |  286  |  287  |  288  |  289  |  290  |  291  |  292  |  293  |  294  |  295  |  296  |  297  |  298 

October 19, 2011

Review: Steven Erikson's ten-volume Malazan series

I've just finished reading Steven Erikson's ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen series and I'm at a loss at to how to talk about it. Epic fantasy has had a certain taint about it since Tolkien, for some readers. Elves. Dwarves. People given command over millions just because they have the right blood. Authority being an inborn trait among the upper classes. Quasi-racist depictions of orcs and goblins (some people are just born evil). And the endless fucking endless trudging through woods. The Malazan series is the opposite of all that. It's the beginning of the 21st century and Epic Fantasy (forgive my capitalization) is at an odd place. Sure enough there are the series and straightforward epics firmly in the straightforward Tolkien vein, or with just enough changed to make it feel different. But there is also a firm streak of contrariness, that maybe you can trace back to Poul Anderson if you try. But I'd prefer to think of it as being a reaction to the straight fantasy narrative. George RR Martin has put in admirable work dismantling the tropes of classic epic fantasy while simultaneously telling a complex human narrative firmly grounded in his rat bastard characters. Martin's circumventions come in the mechanics of plot: nothing goes as it should, if the world were a proper fantasy land. Good is punished and evil gets laid all year long. Heroes fall and villains find themselves elevated. The language and characters are rich enough, but the contrary twists lie in the plot. Patrick Rothfuss likewise is writing a trilogy, the Kingkiller Chronicles, that is an epic fantasy but which manages to flipmode the whole story by playing with the tropes of storytelling. To wit, the story begins in an inn with strong and noble farm boys arriving, but the innkeeper is the protagonist and the farm boys are just farm boys. Rothfuss tell a gripping story by constantly shifting the atomic basis of the fantasy story. The result is one part epic fantasy, one part Dickensian college drama, and one part unrequited love. Hell, you could toss Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos series on this list as well, seeing as how it's epic fantasy disguised as crime novels. But Erikson's Malazan series is different from all these because in its very fiber the language Erikson uses is different. Erikson was trained as an archaeologist and then schooled in minimalist short story writing in the crucible of the Iowa writers program. It shows. His books are obsessed with the detritus of history, the legacy of Man. And the writing is dialogue heavy and unique. Let's get this out of the way. There are ten books in the series and most of those are pushing a thousand words each. Across the saga Erikson says there are more than 3.5 million words. I just read this. It took me two years, off and on. And I don't regret it for a second. This is the most extraordinary series I have ever read. Hands down. The characters Erikson has created are some of the finest in all of literature. Fuck you, I mean it. He manages to craft hundreds of POV characters and to make their voices distinct. It allows him to tell several different kinds of stories across the epic. The tone ranges from serious and humorless, when the characters are, to a flippant and doomed military camarderie that is like nothing so much as Joseph Heller's Catch-22. There is horror and romance. Love and glory. And a scheming genius who reads like the second coming of Groucho Marx. David Simon, creator of the Wire, once said his mantra while working on the Wire was, "Fuck the common reader." David Foster Wallace, when showing Infinite Jest to his closest friends and family was said to have received a note from his sister that said, "So just how much reader annoyance are you going for anyways?" Narratives mean more when we have to work for them. When we are forced to slow down and pay attention and to figure things out. There's no reality show editor bombarding us with clips of what we just watched and what we are about to watch and what we are abou to have just had watched, etc. It's just you and the text and the text is a bastard. It's nearly impossible to say what the Malazan books are about without diminishing them because, like the Wire and Infinite Jest, they are fundamentally about characters. I can say the Wire is about the drug trade in Baltimore, but that would entirely miss the point. I can say that Infinite Jest is about exploring addiction at a tennis academy and a halfway house in Boston, but that would entirely miss the point. It's not *what* they're about, it's *whom*. The Malazan books are about the characters. The marines and wizards. The lovers and savages. The undead tyrants. The scheming gods. The normal people thrust into dangerous circumstances. Yes the plot is shockingly and complex and has more twists than a Chubby Checker cover band but the characters are what anchor and propel the books. I'm not going to forget these characters. I want to just write their names here, as if by seeing the names you will remember as well the great times we had together and you'll nod and smile and say, "Yeah, Fiddler was pretty great. I miss that guy." Or, "Anomander Rake, I was totally sure he'd be this ridiculous gothy cliche of a tortured dark elf but he turned out nothing like that." Quick Ben and Kalam. Icarium and Mappo Runt. Tehol Beddict and his manservant Bugg. But that doesn't work, does it? Reviewing these books is an exercise in frustration. Either I give away details and risk spoiling everything, or I'm maddeningly vague and just rattle off the names of awesome characters. I'll say this: the Malazan books are subversive epic fantasy about compassion, sacrifice, and the futility of war. The language belongs to the stories of literature, not drama. The characters are painfully memorable. The world Erikson builds is not a world you'd want to visit, ever. Much like Martin's Westeros, the Malazan world is a brutal and inhospitable place full of schemers and predators. But while I'd never want to visit Seven Cities or Lether or even Daruhjistan, I'd love to get a beer with nearly any character here.