The Malazan Book of the Fallen Pt. 1
[SPOILED: This post contains (very mild) spoilers for The Malazan Book of the Fallen, by Steven Erikson.]
Now these ashes have grown cold, we open the old book.
These oil stained pages recount the tales of the Fallen,
a frayed empire, words without warmth. The hearth
has ebbed, its gleam and life's sparks are but memories
against dimming eyes - what cast my mind, what hue my
thoughts as I open The Book of the Fallen
and breathe deep the scent of history?
Listen then, to these words carried on that breath.
These tales are the tales of us all, again yet again.
We are history relived and that is all, without end that is all.
So begins Gardens of the Moon, book 1 of Steven Erikson's fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen. When I first read the novel, I was confused, here and there, but it has many ingredients I connected with - assassins fighting on the rooftops, a fascinating magic system, compelling characters - and I liked it well enough to move on to Book 2, Deadhouse Gates, which I thought less confusing and more confident. By the time I was done with Book 3, Memories of Ice, I was convinced of what a special writer Steven Erikson is and moved eagerly on to the other titles in the series. There are currently nine in total, with the tenth and final installment due in early 2011, and almost all of them clock in at over 1000 pages. This is a difficult sequence of novels. They contain hundreds of characters and races and locations, many with names that feel rough and unfamiliar on the tongue: K'Chain Che'Malle, Y'Ghatan, Dessimbelackis, Jaghut Tyrant, Seguleh, Onos T'oolan. Some characters are named with a noun or adjective - in the manner of soldiers - which best reflects their most prominent feature or flaw: Fiddler, Quick Ben, Mallet, Surly, Whiskeyjack, Hood. There are multiple viewpoints and story lines and because one of Erikson's themes is the sweep of history and the idea that a viewers lens influences their perspective on an event, he provides alternate versions of the same scenes, offering no clue to us, the readers, which is the truth, because truth itself is subjective. We are supposed to make up our own minds, hewing towards or away from characters we love or revile, deciding for ourselves if a moment, or a person, is good or bad or indifferent. The story lines are not linear but move back and forward along the timeline (in fact, Books 2, 3, and 5 all take place at roughly the same time, and the first 300 pages of Book 4 take place several years before them), so every now and again (a few times in each novel) you will find yourself scratching your head, wondering who is this you're reading about and how do they fit into the larger framework? When that happens it's best to just float along on the surface of the narrative, if you try to swim, you'll drown. Erikson is still putting pieces on the board in book five, but in the middle of book six, when I first noticed he was starting to draw together the three main plot strands I was gobsmacked. This is a dense, complicated series, hard to like, at first, filled with thick, sinewy prose and hundreds of characters, but it contains the single most gentle, graceful story arc I've ever found in literature - it is the very passage of experience hardening into lore, the drawing of human moments into history - and if you have the patience for it the rewards are immense.
Erikson's world is a meritocracy. His idea is you can't force a woman into the kitchen if she can open a Warren (an alternate dimension which forms the basis of the magic system) and level a city. And in the books, all the good things he thinks about women flow from that one idea. In the world of Malaz women (just like men) are more likely to be oppressed and subjugated because of their social class than their gender (one of the major themes of this series is how history happens to all of us, not just the aristocracy who win battles and get to write about it). Women are soldiers and rulers, high mages and assassins; they get to be noble as well as villainous, they have integrity and humour as well as fear and weakness. Erikson's female characters have just as much agency as the males, and exhibit the full range of human expression. They're allowed to be sexual without it being a moral judgement on their character; they get to have meaningful relationships without being punished for them; they get to live rounded and fulfilling lives. There are even women who serve as Heavies (the front line heavy infantry) in the Malazan army. It is wonderful. In book 3, Memories of Ice, we meet a company of soldiers called The Grey Swords for whom 'Sir' is a form of address indicating respect, not gender. They call each other 'Sir' regardless of whether they are speaking to a man or a woman. This is the world I want to live in.
The scope of the books is quite broad, encompassing everything from the longterm goals and concerns of an Elder God, to the immediate need a blacksmith has to care for his charge and make his way. And the world building in this series is remarkable. Steven Erikson is an archaeologist and anthropologist which means his world has a crust, a patina of authenticity. Every race, every culture, no matter how tangental to the plot has its own legacy, its own customs and cadence. These places and people feel as real to me as if I had travelled there and met them. Erikson has an enormous capacity for empathy and he extends it in every direction, which makes even his bit part characters memorable. You'll find ideas in these books - picked up, examined for a few pages, discarded - that other, lesser authors would devote an entire novel to. For example, he has thought a great deal about what it means to be a demon. There is a demon named Pearl, present in one book for perhaps only a page and a half, but Erikson forever secured my love for this demon by having it say, upon seeing a particular character in a group of enemies approaching, "See the one who comes now… Do you pity me?" There are two demons who chose for themselves a couple of cottages to retire to - a very unusual concept, I thought - but the little thatched houses they selected happened to be in the path of the invading Malazan army. There is a demon summoned by a great mage to fight in a war that it has no stake in. It was fishing, back in it's dimension; gathering food for it's family, and suddenly found itself fighting for it's life. These are examples of characters we spend less than two pages with, yet they endure; they stand out because we get to learn something about their natures, something we recognize and understand. These books are filled with characters doing things we recognize and understand.
The job of soldiering is a subject this series hinges on, and one it spends a lot of time exploring and pondering. Very early we are introduced to the legendary 9th squad, The Bridgeburners. (And what a fabulous nickname: invoking both their practical work as sappers and marines, but also the metaphorical function they serve for the Emperor, who, when deploying them, is usually burning bridges diplomatically.) Led by High Fist Dujek Onearm and Sergeant Whiskeyjack, featuring many characters who go on to have enormous impact on the storyline: the mage, Quick Ben, the assassin, Kalam Mekhar, Corporal Fiddler, Mallet, Smiles and Blend, among many others. There are numerous ideas being unpacked in the plotlines of these women and men, these healers and marines and sappers and heavies and scouts. One idea is that an army moves and fights via commerce, and how that flow of coin is generated and maintained across large distances. Another is the difference, in the field, that a paid, professional, disciplined soldier can make to a battle. The most crucial idea, for Erikson, I think, and certainly for the reader, is that, in the end, the political reasons for warfare matter very little to the people doing the actual warring: a soldier is fighting for the person to the left of them and the person to the right of them, and sometimes (although rarely) for the senior officer that asked them to do it. It's hard to describe the impact the friendships between these soldiers has on the reader, built as they are, over multiple thousands of pages. By book 7 or 8, Erikson has to do very little to provoke a profound emotional response from the reader, having deposited in us, over the course of many books, the bonding moments, the sharing and fighting moments, of so many sharply drawn, deeply human characters.
When I read Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast I fell in love (as most do) with the character Fuchsia. So tenderly is she marked, so vulnerable her outline, so raw and stinging and human her aspect. In the Malazan series I have found more than a dozen characters who are her equal in complexity and affect. Karsa Orlong, Coltaine, Apsalar, Mappo (and Icarium), Duiker, Felisin, Udinaas, Lady Envy, Barathol, Fiddler, Whiskeyjack, Toc The Younger, Tehol (and Bugg), Fear Sengar, O'nos T'oolan, Anamander Rake, Surly, Cottilion, Emperor Kellanved, Quick Ben, Beak… As I make this list, more names occur to me. Moving through this series very much feels like reading a history book: the events are real to me, the characters are people I have commiserated and bled with, friends I have loved and relied upon, and because Erikson opens the sequence by telling us they are all gone, that these are stories of the Fallen, the relationships feel more urgent, more fleeting, and therefore more important. By starting his series with the quote at the top of this post, Erikson is telling us that in these books, just like life, it's the journey that matters. And also, as is the case in life, you won't always know what's going on, you'll be confused and need to use your own best judgement to figure out where you are, but at the end of every day, when you settle down to rest, you'll feel privileged to have seen what you did. And you'll be changed by it.