DonorsChoose Payoff: Malazan Book of the Fallen

Matthew Fisher buys a blog topic:

I thought I'd throw in a request for another post on Steven Erikson. Specifically how his Malazan books either conform to, or subvert standard epic fantasy tropes. I've been a fan of his for quite awhile, and I'd like to think his stuff is different from Goodkind/Jordan/Eddings stuff (but that might just be elitism).

I held off on this one for a little while because Erikson was at World Fantasy Con last weekend, and I figured there was a chance that he might say something relevant in the panel on "Taboos in Fantasy," which Kate just wrote up. He did say some interesting things, and has also turned up in her comments.

(I did see him around the con a little bit, but didn't go fanboy at him because, well, that's sort of tacky. Also, he left the Tor party before I got the chance. I was standing near him in the dealer's room when Larry Smith asked him to sign a book, and he looked faintly embarassed by the whole thing, so it's probably for the best...)

So, comparing the Malazan Book of the Fallen to standard epic fantasy? Well, for starters, they're much heavier than the usual run of epic fantasy. I think they already outweigh the Wheel of Time, and he's not even finished yet...

More seriously, on the subject of epic fantasy tropes, I've referred to the books as "kitchen sink fantasy" at times, and I think that applies here. You can find pretty much any trope you like in there, save maybe the farm boy with a destiny. You've got a whole slew of evil empires, brilliant military commanders, powerful wizards, barbarian tribes, evil gods, good gods, indifferent gods. There's even a Dark Lord figure, but it takes a couple thousand pages before he really becomes an active player.

There's not much in the "rightful King" sort of vein, but he's working the Glen Cook end of the epic fantasy spectrum, not the more romantic Tolkien side, so that wouldn't really fit. But who knows? There are several thousand pages more projected, and anything might happen.

As for conforming vs. subverting, very few of the tropes are really played straight. Perhaps the only one that really conforms to the usual epic fantasy standard is the "kick-ass elite military unit," in that the Bridgeburners are ridiculously good at what they do. Even they get wiped out, though, even if they do achieve transcendance a book or two later.

I think the notable thing about these books is that he throws in a lot of standard epic fantasy tropes, but the actual application of them is handled with a little more realism than is typical of the genre. So, for example, there are several examples of the common "kick-ass barbarians battle decadent empire" thing-- the Seven Cities rebellion, the Tiste Edur, the Awl'Dan-- and they all end badly. The standard way for this to play out is for the hardy barbarians to overrun the empire and take it over (a la the Mongols), and while there are a couple of versions of this, when they run up against the Malazans, it's more of a "Gauls vs. Caesar" situation. Individual barbarians (Karsa Orlong being the extreme example) can best any individual soldier from the more civilized countries, but taken as a whole, the organized military of an empire at its height completely slaughters the barbarian hordes.

It's brutal, but kind of a refreshing change for the genre.

There's also a surprising amount of economic realism in the series, which you don't see in a lot of epic fantasy. One of the main plot threads in Reaper's Gale, for example, involves a plot to bring an empire down by messing with the money supply. Or there's the bit in Memories of Ice where he comes up with a fairly unique answer to the question "How does Mordor feed its armies?" He explicitly acknowledges that the all-conquering evil empire is unsustainable, but turns that into a virtue, rather than a flaw-- it doesn't need to be sustained, just to create chaos, and they make terrifyingly effective use of that fact.

The sheer number of tropes that he throws in make the books a little overwhelming, and there are so many god-level powers running around that it becomes faintly ridiculous at times. These are not books I would recommend to someone who isn't already a committed reader of epic fantasy, simply because it often takes three or four hundred pages just to figure out what the main plot is going to be. There's so much going on (and some of it still isn't entirely clear) that it's difficult to keep track of.

If you are a regular reader of the genre, though, that's part of the fun. There's a little bit of everything, and all of it is given a slight twist.

A couple of notes from the "Taboos in Fantasy" panel that sort of fit here. From Kate's transcription, we have a comment that will surprise nobody who's read the books:

Erikson: there are gay characters all through his books. At the same time, there are characters doing rephrensible things, and he's not particularly interested in making them sympathetic.

You can say that again... There's no shortage of reprehensble and unsymapthetic characters in the books. And yet, he does manage to create a surprising amount of sympathy for a handful of reprehensible characters-- Rhulad Sengar is a monster throughout, but you do sort of feel sorry for him by the end of Reaper's Gale.

The other interesting bit was:

Erikson: doesn't think so; everyone's writing about the human condition anyway. Interested in moral/cultural relativism. (November: that's changed.) Erikson: yes, I want to be absolutist and make judgments. For example, female genital mutilation: I'll give the cultural background and so forth, but also someone will show up and kill the character off!

This is also not unexpected, but it can be a little hard to tease out the moral message, given the vast numbers of good characters who also get killed... It's certainly true that that most unpleasant of his villains do end up experiencing a certain level of poetic justice, often rather messily.

Anyway, this isn't all that coherent, but there's too much material there to really boil down into a single blog post. I have posted booklog comments for most of the books, though:

(Midnight Tides and The Bonehunters fell into the booklog hiatus, I guess...)


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"I've been a fan of his for quite awhile, and I'd like to think his stuff is different from Goodkind/Jordan/Eddings"

Well, Erikson is: his stuff is crossed with Glen Cook and then turned up to 11. It's Gonzo Epic Fantasy.

By Richard Campbell (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

Interesting thoughts. "Kitchen sink" is an apt description.

I have been known to describe the Malazan books as "Glen Cook writes Robert Jordan", and also as "someone who does with archaeology the things Tolkien was doing with linguistics". I still think both of them are true.

One thing is true: you will usually be surprised, a lot, by how things turn out...