August 08, 2008

Stephen Erikson's Malazan Series

Having dug into a few fantasy series at this point, it's become clear there are tiers involved in picking and/or recommending certain series to others.

Stuff like Harry Potter is ubiquitous because it's easily accessible to a wide range of people. The language used isn't particularly dense (when it does get weird, it's used for effect), and the tone starts out whimsical and only darkens with the need for greater perils to throw against the protagonists.

That's what I'd label elementary level material. That doesn't mean it's necessarily simple; just that there's always something shiny to catch your eye and at  least spme themes easily grasped by an inexperienced audience. There can still be other concepts churning beneath the surface for the older, patient, and more experienced readers. Pacing tends to be brisk to maintain interest; or lots of uncanny/unique set-pieces keep you reading when nothing spectacularly important is going on. The main cast usually doesn't extend beyond a dozen or so people.


Next come the intermediate series like Jordan's Wheel of Time or Feist's Rift War material. Geeks in junior high and high school eat this stuff up. It may start out light. It may start out dark. There will be blood, guts, and a little sex. You can usually expect over a dozen characters to keep track of, often split into groups scattered hither-and-yon. Pacing may take a hit in favor of political machination or other drudgery necessary for later plot points. None of this means a younger audience won't enjoy them, just that a much smaller percentage of young kids will be able to stay interested or have parents who think it's age-appropriate.

Wheel of Time is great for trivia geeks who want to decrypt all the cultural/historical references and extrapolate how those references may play into the plot. The gee-wiz fun of learning about the world of "Rand-land" drops off in books 4-6 as the plot descends into politics. This is where a lot of people will give up on the series. Jordan isn't inclined to linger on the gruesome like some authors. Characters have a nasty habit of not being dead when you think they should be or staying dead when you know they were. The plot finally started moving again in book 11, just in time for Jordan to die of a rare blood disease in the middle of writing #12, the finale.

Rift War is basically a D&D campaign in novel form. You will be dealing with entire generations of characters scattered across two different worlds (Midkemia: elves and dwarves and medieval humans oh my - Kelewan: interesting mix of ancient Japan, Incas, and Aztecs with lots of hexapedal animals thrown in to the mix). That means there will be a lot of characters dying in battles or of old age. While the series does devolve into political drama from time to time, it rarely does for more than half a book before something somewhere goes to hell. Gets gruesome from time to time, generally for effect, not just for gore's sake.


Finally we get to advanced/college level fantasy. Series end up here either because they're just incredible dense and/or they have one or more aspects (flaws maybe?) that would eventually drive off your "average" junior high or high school kid. Chance of annoyingly detailed descriptions of blood and gore? Very High. Odds you'll run across the author trying his hand at prophetic-sounding prose, poetry, and/or songs? Also very high. Number of character you'll run into that speak in gibberish (often 3rd-person) that may actually be very damned important? 2+. These series may ask you to keep track of several groups numbering a dozen or more. Names will look like the author got a bulk bargain on vowels and apostrophes and is damned-sure intent on using them. A couple names like this can be great for helping you remember a few unique characters. The converse can also be true.

Lord of the Rings gets placed here for only a couple reasons, otherwise I think it's readily accessible to a younger audience.

1) Yes mister Tolkien, we know the whole cosmic mish-mash of the world you wrote is one massive song building to a climax, but you are not a song writer. Please stop.

2) Tom Bombadil. If there was one spot in all the books that tried even my patience, (and I have a strong tendency to wait things out to see how they end) it was dealing with this fruit.

It's been a long time since I read the series, but I do remember the pace being a little more sedate than most. The language used is more advanced, and I'm not sure if that says more about the target audience at the time, or the general aptitude of the target audience today.

Goodkind's Sword of Truth is here, not because it's particularly advanced, but because it's so full of "mature" material. Several rape scenes and a metric ton of gore (not to mention the protagonist's raging temper) left me wondering what's going on in Goodkind's head. It gets very dull reading him rant and rail through his characters at communism and religion over and over again. Yes, we get it. You're an angry libertarian atheist. Odd that you would build an after-life into your world, but we'll just chalk that up to a conceit of the genre.

All of that blather leads me up to the series I wanted to talk about in the first place. Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

This series is the definition of what I would call dense. There are a ton of important characters crossing paths constantly. We're constantly jumping from one group to another in a way that keeps the pace up. Sticking around long enough to advance that portion of the plot, but always moving on at just the right moment to leave you itching to get back. It's dark and gruesome when it's appropriate, but it doesn't lingers in a way that makes you wonder what's wrong with the author. Now, much of this "dense" perception may have a lot to do with the fact that I haven't had much chance to re-read any of the novels. It also doesn't help that there have been great lengths of time between when I read each new novel. Even with all that potential for confusion, it's clear that a great deal of thought has gone into the underlying cultures, systems, and history of these novels. (Erikson is an anthropologist, which helps)

There's an interesting mix of names used. Common foot soldiers in the Malazan army operate almost exclusively on given nicknames like Sorry, Fiddler, Smiles, Whiskeyjack, and Bottle. It's very different and makes it easy to keep track of the 50 or so of them I've run across at this point. Some of the other races allow Erikson to experiment with names like Anomander Rake, Mappo, Scabandari, Trull, and Icarium.

Deities can have a couple different names depending on who's talking: Fener, Boar of Summer, Shadowthrone, Ammanas. The magic system and the Pantheon are deeply intertwined because magic is drawn from holds/warrens, which are both a realm, and an elemental power. Each warren my have anywhere from 1 to a dozen deities running things. The Pantheon is constantly churning with gods killing one another off, mortals ascending to god-hood, and existing gods fading from memory. There are at least two tiers of gods, Elder and modern.

I've never felt like I was being preached at through the text*. You get the usual "war sucks" theme from the ground level, but you also get a god's-eye view on occasion that lets you realize that the fight really does mean something in the grand scheme.

There isn't a whole lot of black and white "the last battle is coming" prophetic nonsense going on. You can tell you're looking into a snapshot of an ongoing battle that may or may not come to an end some day. Nobody's even trying to guess how it will all end.

*Some of the content in the most recent paperback release compels me to amend this statement slightly. There's been quite a lot of railing against recent Christianity-like strawmen Erikson has built up. There's also been significantly more "War! Huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!" in this volume than the previous ones. Rather stupid considering how important the fight is he's been building up.

Posted in Books by: Will at 08:53 AM | Comments (4) | Add Comment
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1 Wait, there are fantasy novels more dense than the Wheel of Time series? I plowed through the first ten and gave up when I realized that I would have forgotten all the important details by the time book eleven came out. The molasses pace of the plot may have also played a role. They had their moments, though.

Seconded on Tom Bombadil. You'd think from all the people who protested his absence in the films that his character was integral to the story, but in actuality he shows up for a chapter or two near the beginning and is all but forgotten afterwards. Maybe I'll make a Demotivator on the subject. "TOM BOMBADIL: He's actually kind of lame."

Posted by: Andrew F. at August 15, 2008 09:04 PM (EP84l)

2 Definitely more dense, but in a good way. Erikson's material has much more going on (or at least feels like it), and he does it at a pace that doesn't dawdle on details like the exact cut of dress every single character is wearing, or a full accounting of ingredients in every meal.

Posted by: Will at August 16, 2008 08:04 AM (oj5wx)

3 Couldn't agree more, I remember reading the WoT series way back when and thinking it was the apex of fantasy writing. But then I read first Glen Cooks Black Company and the Stephen Erikson's Malazan books. After reading those two series I couldn't even reread Jordan's books, which I tried to do when I heard heard he had died.

As to what was said in the italicized writing; i found that it was only certain characters that are doing the complaining are all older and have more of a right to be tired. I think its less of a theme in those books than it is a personal belief held by certain characters.

Posted by: Joshua at March 11, 2009 01:22 PM (0Yr25)

4 I know I'll be at least obligation-buying Memory of Light this fall (assuming Harriet and the ghost writer hit their target date). It's been a while, but I'll probably just hit a wiki or two rather than re-read everything for a refersher.

I'm just about to finish my second re-read of The Bonehunters, then I can start into Reaper's Gale (for the first time).

Posted by: Will at March 16, 2009 03:33 PM (WnBa/)

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