In the 90s, Canadian writers and archaeologists Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esselmont created the Malaz world to play a role playing game in. Erikson would go on to take the characters and history of the world and craft a novel out if it, Gardens of the Moon, the first in a ten book series collectively known as The Malazan Book of the Fallen.
Since then, Erikson has written a couple novellas also set in the world and Esselmont has joined him as an author by penning some novels of his own detailing other events and characters that help flesh out the world and the thousands of years of lore that define it. But I haven’t read those yet.
The ten giant tomes that Erikson scribed, however, are some of my favorite pieces of prose ever written. Often overshadowed by George R. R. Martin’s hugely popular A Song of Fire and Ice (another grim fantasy epic with a complex and well-defined history), the 3 and a half million words composing TMBotF are every bit as steeped in realism, every bit as filled with legacies and lore and ancestries, has characters every bit as conflicted and nuanced and evolved, and does as great a job of world-building in a fantasy series as any else.
It does also have the advantage, though, of being complete. All ten novels tell one story, starting with a motley soldier crew called the Bridgeburners in the aftermath of a failed siege at the city of Pale and a counter-attack by Moon’s Spawn, the massive floating city that rested above it, and ending with a multi-army battle to prevent the extinction of mankind and redeem the souls of those who fight for it.
I don’t need to tell you about how amazing A Song of Ice and Fire is. It’s the most-watched show on HBO, shattering records every year.
I do need to tell you about Ganoes Paran, the green commander who takes over command of the Bridgeburners from Whiskeyjack and his men, to their chagrin.
I need to tell you about stocky assassin Kalam Mekhar and his shifty mage friend Quick Ben, whose relationship is much more trusting and full of far less bickering than that of sappers (saboteurs) Fiddler and Hedge.
I need to tell you about the tragic stories of expert spear-fighter Trull Sengar the shorn and Toc the Younger who lost an eye when a piece of flaming rock fell from the sky and melted it out of his face.
I have to tell you about Coltaine and his army of tribal horsemen leading thousands of slaves across a desert for an Empire that hates him while being attacked by an army that dwarfs his own, and of Itkovian who brings peace to others by absorbing their souls into his own, and of Anomander Rake, who wields Dragnipur, a sword that collects the souls of those it kills and binds them in another plane to forever drag the carriage they are chained to.
And that’s just scratching the surface. Let’s go over a few things that make the series so great:
1. The World and Its History
Steven Erikson has worked for years as a professional archaeologist and anthropologist and he utilises both of his professions to resounding success here. There is a tremendous difference between the Malaz Empire and the Letherii Kingdom, with the first being an expansionist, disciplined culture and the latter centered around greed and debauchery. Each of the tribes have distinct rituals that they perform, from color-coded armors to masks where the number of black marks showing denotes their prowess as a warrior.
Each of the armies are different, from the mercenary and seemingly immortal Crimson Guard to the religiously devout Grey Helms.
Not to mention the varying races. There are humans, yes. But gone are traditional fantasy races like elves and dwarves. The closest things to the elves would be the towering, ebon-skinned Tiste Andii, the honor-hungry and shadowy Tiste Edur, and the righteous-minded, arrogant light-skinned Tiste Liosan. There are the elder races: the ogre-like and powerful Jaghut who have a surprising dry sense of humor; the T’lan Imass, an undead army that can dissolve and reform itself at will; the K’Chain Che’Malle and the K’Chain Nah’ruk, a matriarchal society of lizard creatures with bladed hands; and the terrifying Forkrul Assail.
There are the barbarian Toblakai and the Trell who descended from them into a powerful but more human culture.
And with ALL of these, these races and empires, kingdoms and villages, there is thousands of years of history. Civilizations that have risen and fallen, cities that are patchworks of different times, deserts that were oceans. Rivalries and genocides. And over it all, a complex pantheon of gods (Ascendents) that rule different warrens, each for a different kind of magic and some more unruly than others.
2. The Realism
Like A Song of Ice and Fire or any of Joe Abercrombie’s novels, these books are not for the faint of heart. There is murders borne of passion, and rape, and slaughters, and tortures. There are large-scale battles that dart from character to character as they fight and bleed and die. Victories come at a cost, and losses are felt deeply. There is emotional turmoil and character growth. Karsa Orlong, Ganoes Paran, Onos T’oolan (Tool) and many others are virtually unrecognizable at the end of their journeys from the characters they were when they started.
There is beauty in these books as love is found and friendships are forged. There is anguish in these books as lovers are driven apart or characters are brought to their mortal coil. You will find yourself caring more about a character in scant paragraphs than some characters in an entire novel written by a lesser author.
The humor is real, and the panic. The fear and relief. The jokes cracked in the middle of a desperate situation because what else can you do? The incredulity at the task before them or the miracles that save them.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of quotable lines that capture the human spirit perfectly, and others that echo the uncomfortable sentiments from cynics or zealots or the hopeless.
These books are compelling because though the settings are fictional, and the races are fictional, the world feels real and familiar. And a huge chunk of that is because of…
3. The Characters
There are a LOT of characters throughout the Book of the Fallen. A handy Dramatis Personae in the front of each book, organised by faction, helps keep them familiar and manageable. Each of these characters are unique amongst each other still. Take a look at two trios of brothers: the Beddicts and the Sengars. Hull Beddict is the eldest of his siblings and is a sullen man who feels betrayed by his city. He seeks to turn on his own people in order to make up for the ways he failed the more tribal peoples he had parlayed with. Tehol Beddict is homeless, sort of. He’s a quick-talking, ambivalent soul who seems to have no direction or purpose, which suits him as it masks his brilliant mind. Brys Beddict, the youngest, is firm with discipline and an unparalleled swordsman, but his youth makes him naive. The three brothers love each other.
Instead of just being carbon copies, the Sengars are different. Fear Sengar is proud of his family and holds to tradition. He tries to bring his younger brothers to heel. Trull Sengar, meanwhile, is outspoken and crass, railing against the traditions of his people. Rhulad, meanwhile, holds Trull in contempt. He is brash and impetuous and quick to action before thought.
From familial relationships to differing ideologies, from the changes these characters go through upon meeting the peoples they had long hated or disrespected or held in low regard, from the brash and hilarious commentary amongst the marines in the Bridgeburners, each character is given life. It easy to love and to hate, and thus to invest yourself in these men and women.
You’ll find yourself hurting for ever-loyal Mappo, chortling at fat man of mystery, Kruppe, cheering for jaded mercenary Gruntle, oohing and ahhing at assassin-god Cotillion the Rope, reviling Kallor, the immortal destroyer of empires, and being bewildered by the necromancer and serial killing duo of Korbal and Broach.
4. The ‘Holy Shit’ Moments
I have talked often about those moments that stand out in books and films, the moments that make you gasp and swear and that stick in your mind. The moments you tell your friends about or can’t wait until they get to so you can talk about it together. This series is FULL of them.
From the opening of Gardens of the Moon, surveying the burnt and bloody landscape in the aftermath of the siege of Pale to Coltaine’s labored Chain of Dogs, to massive battles in Letheras, Coral, the blue city of Darujhistan, to Ygahatan, a city that already held a dark military history. There are plenty of awe-inspiring moments, moments of bad-assery and displays of power, shocking deaths and betrayals and sudden routs and pained victories. There are moments that will make you weep for these characters and other moments that will make you pump your fist. I don’t want to go any further into detail. These are moments that should not be spoiled but experienced with fresh eyes.
5. The Complexity
These are not books that will spoon-feed everything to you. Steven Erikson has faith in the patience and intelligence of his readers and in his own work. With a world as rich with history and filled with deities and power structures and differing cultures, there is a lot left unsaid or only alluded to, or teased before paying off much further down the line. There are relationships that spur snippets of conversation that might seem strange or out of place until a piece of history is further revealed down the line. There are mysteries in the first book that aren’t solved until the tenth.
There is also a load of symmetry throughout the novels, and a lot of symbolism. The series is rife with details you might only notice on a second or third read. It can feel a little overwhelming.
Also potentially overwhelming is how his books skip around some. The first book introduces you to loads of characters that you become invested in over hundreds of pages. When the second book begins, you’re introduced to an entirely new cast with only a handful of exceptions. Your mind will want to wander, wondering what became of the survivors of Gardens of the Moon, but before long, you will have new favorites and be invested in this new story. As you continue through the series, it all draws together neatly.
Still, that seems like a lot, which is why I always recommend the novels but waited until now to write a blog post about it. Why now?
6. The Read-Through
The lovely people over at Tor publishing house do read-throughs of varying series. They take it a book at a time, one chapter at a time, updating one to three times a week. It’s read by Bill Capossere, who checked the series out for a second time, catching things he missed the first time around; and Amanda Ritter, who read it for the first time with fresh eyes, and whose reactions are as new and genuine as many of yours will be.
They went through all ten of Steven Erikson’s main Malazan novels (and three of Ian Esselmont’s: Night of Knives, Return of the Crimson Guard, and Stonewielder), and you can find the entire archives of their recaps, reviews and discussions here. Now you don’t have to wait until the next update, or feel pressured to catch up immediately. You can read at precisely the pace you want.
I implore you, if you love fantasy, or war, or great characters, or intriguing settings, or history, or reading to pick up these novels, read them a chapter at a time, and then check out those recaps. They’ll help you pick up on things you missed, appreciate the parts that stood out, and keep your head from exploding. Do yourself a favor.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen novels in order are Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice, House of Chains, Midnight Tides, The Bonehunters, Reaper’s Gale, Toll the Hounds, Dust of Dreams, and The Crippled God.