I have been neglecting the topic of books I’ve been reading on this blog and I’m going to rectify that immediately. As of now, I will be making regular blog posts about the fiction and non-fiction books I have been reading.
Today I’m going to talk about the most magnificent fantasy series ever written.
I said most “magnificent.” I didn’t say “overall best.” Lord of the Rings probably still holds the title of overall best fantasy series ever written. However, the series I’m going to talk about today, in terms of sheer magnificence, blows Lord of the Rings away. It’s blows away Game of Thrones too. While it’s not perfect, it’s blows away everything else in terms of scope, complexity, detail, and skill. No other fantasy series comes close.
This is Steven Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. It is unlike any other series you have ever read. It is also likely more difficult than any other series you’ve read. But if you can slog through the difficult parts, you’re in for a once-in-a-lifetime treat.
Malazan Book of the Fallen is a series of ten very thick (~1000 pages each) books. I list the book titles at the end of this article. I am only halfway through the fourth book, and already it’s an experience I haven’t had since reading Lord of the Rings. I have also been extensively reading bits and pieces at the Malazan Wiki, which is almost required reading if you read this series, as I’ll explain in a few minutes.
The Malazan series covers hundreds of characters, spans an entire planet, multiple continents, several different historical eras, scores of different cultures and nations, and many different races, none of which are the standard human-elf-dwarf-halfling races that most fantasy readers are accustomed to. No, everything in Malazan is 100% unique, and that’s one of the many reasons its so amazing. On top of that, there are multiple worlds (called “warrens”), a huge pantheon of gods that are actual characters in the stories, and a massively rich history that dwarfs anything ever written by Tolkien. If you’ve read Tolkien extensively you know that’s saying a lot.
Erickson is an anthropologist and archaeologist, and man, does it show. Every item, every culture, every race, every character is rich and detailed. He doesn’t say “he took a swig”, he says, “he took a swig from an iron mug” or “she laid the map on a sheepskin cloth.” The cultures are so intricately described, it’s like you’re reading something real, or historical, rather than fantasy. It’s crazy good.
Malazan is a very adult tale. There is serious violence, gore, rape, weird sexual stuff, just like in Game of Thrones, if not more so. There are times this makes it hard to read. At the same time, unlike Game of Thrones, Malazan is extreme fantasy. Game of Thrones has almost no fantasy elements and mostly reads like medieval or historical fiction, which is one of the reasons I’m not a big George R.R. Martin fan. But Malazan is jam-packed full of action, sorcery, monsters, dragons, gods, magical weapons, floating mountains, cybernetic undead lizards (yes you read that right), giants, entire oceans teleported in from other worlds, wizards, demons, shapeshifters, swords with entire pocket dimensions within them, and on and on. It’s fantasy, but presented in an ultracomplex, very adult manner. Its exactly what I had been seeking for a long time.
Main and important characters get brutalized, maimed, and often killed, which is great. You won’t find comic book-like unkillable heroes here. Main characters are also flawed, sometimes downright terrible. Often you will be shocked at what happens to the characters you read, and equally shocked at what they do, or how they change.
Unlike so many other fantasy series (like Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones), the Malazan books actually have a plot that actually moves forward. Every book in the series is a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and climatic end. Yet all the books weave a greater tale. After reading so many damn books with great writing yet horrible plotting (George R.R. Martin again!) this is such a welcome change.
So if it’s so great, what’s the problem with it? Why isn’t it the “best?”
It’s because Erickson doesn’t believe in exposition. That means he pretty much doesn’t explain anything. As soon as you start reading the first book (Gardens of the Moon) he starts right in with the story as if you already know everything, which of course you don’t. It’s hugely confusing, and you seriously have to read about 400 pages before you more or less understand what the hell is going on. That’s tough. Erickson doesn’t even start explaining things in the usual manner until around the fourth book in the series…that’s almost 4000 pages in.
Why the hell does he do this? It’s just his weird style. He’s been quoted as saying he well understands he will “lose many readers within the first 100 pages” because of this bizarre writing style. This is true. The Malazan books are not for everyone. Many, if not most people who try to read Malazan will eventually be tossing the books in disgust because they’re too damn complicated and because they don’t explain anything soon enough.
It’s a problem, and I agree it’s a huge flaw. However, if you enjoy huge, complicated stories like I do, and you have the fortitude to stick through many pages of stuff you don’t understand yet, the rewards are worth it. By the time you hit the third or fourth book you’ll be hitting a stride where you more or less get everything and really enjoy it.
I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the first book; I did. It’s one of my favorite books in the series. I’m saying it was a slog to get through the first half.
You’ll also have to keep your smartphone handy so you can look up names of characters you forgot at the Malazan Wiki. Just be careful not to read too far or else you’ll see spoilers.
So if you love vast, complicated fantasy stories, I can’t recommend Malazan Book of the Fallen enough. Just be prepared to put in the work.
Below is a list of the ten Malazan novels in the series, listed in order. (There is another series set in the same world written by Erickson’s partner, Ian C. Esslemont, but my understanding is they aren’t nearly as good.)
Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erickson
Gardens of the Moon
Memories of Ice
House of Chains
Toll the Hounds
Dust of Dreams
The Crippled God