Back in Autumn 2015 I started reading the fantasy series that would, over the course of around 14 months, take its place in my estimation as the greatest series of books that I have ever read.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen, written by Canadian archaeologist and anthropologist Steven Erikson, is a 10 book long series that comes in at over 3.3 million words, and tells a story that covers years in the lives of countless interlinked characters, yet which is only a glimpse into the rich, millennia-long history of one of the most original, developed fantasy worlds that I have come across.
I’ve mentioned the series several times on Brightest Day over the past year. With so many hundreds of characters passing through the pages, the reader has access to any number of countless, wonderfully crafted points of view that can and will affirm, challenge and change the way they see the world.
You can’t read any of the Malazan books without being confronted with the painful, stark, beautiful humanity of it all. Against the backdrop of an epic fantasy narrative to rival the best of them, Erikson writes characters whose humanity is unavoidable, even when we are confronted with its worst.
There is nothing duplicitous about the humanity of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and its honesty is raw. There is no sugar-coating of the human condition, and no idealistic battle between good and evil. The life that we witness these characters struggling through is one where it is a constant battle to find meaning and significance, and even though they are living in a world unlike our own, it is impossible not to empathise with them.
Journeying to the world of the Malazans may be an escape of sorts, but it is certainly not a daydream. There were times when I was thoroughly immersed in the world, the characters and the stories, and there were times when Erikson’s writing struck me so personally and profoundly that I had to put down the book and think about it more deeply.
Powerful themes of compassion, sacrifice and beauty are interwoven with almost incomprehensible depravity and suffering. In many cases, the same person is capable of both. Your expectations are constantly defied as to who is in the ‘right’, and there are times where you want both sides of a war to succeed, or both to fail.
The meaning of war itself is questioned, but the notion of humanity as a struggle is embraced on almost every page. And yet next to these heavy themes, there are moments of pure joy and even humour.
Despite the enormity of the task that Erikson made for himself, and the mind-boggling complexity of the hundreds of storylines, I can’t think of many moments where Erikson dropped the ball in the skill of his prose or the believability of his dialogue. I can forgive him his (very) rare moments of exposition, because as a reader I needed them to keep up with what goes on. For the most part, he seems content to simply stick the reader in a character’s mind and let them work out for themselves what’s going on.
If you’re a fan of fantasy and you’ve never read a book from this series, please, please pick up Gardens of the Moon at the next opportunity. Yes, you may get addicted to it and sink hours of your life into this series, but my word is it worth it. However, if you’re not a fan of the genre, this may not be the place to start (though by all means give it a go if you fancy).
For me, I’m going to be diving into the Kharkanas trilogy, the prequel to the main 10-book epic, at some point in early 2017. I’ll keep you updated.