Sunday, February 23, 2020

Blame The Discord for This Post About Malazan

Some folks in the OSR Discord goaded me into a review, and they are gonna get a god-damn review.

Let's talk about Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen.

The One Million Scolville Summary

The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a bloated, incomprehensible ten-novel series in the 'sword-and-shit' subgenre

[That is, the genre dominated by totalitarian empires, professional assassins, sexual violence, no one washing their hands, and gigantic neon signs declaring THE WORLD IS BAD, DO YOU GET IT?]

characterized by never explaining anything, repeatedly jettisoning supposedly important plot points and characters, the most emo elves you ever done seen, woefully inadequate maps, obvious novelized GM notes, a major antagonist that isn't introduced until the back half of the final book, and the complete lack of anything that could be construed as a temporally-coherent timeline. The supplementary novels by Ian C. Esslemont are worse.

And yet...

I loved it once. A college fling of eighteen months or so that I spent too much money on and got unhealthily emotionally invested in. We've all been there.

This review will be mostly negative, but this is my bad book breakup bias coming through - there is actually good stuff here. There's actually a lot of good stuff, but I wouldn't recommend the effort of trying to find it to a single living soul. Lots of people online cite the "it doesn't hold your hand" as a positive trait, and my love of Book of the New Sun would make me a hypocrite if I said that they were entirely wrong... but all four parts of Book of the New Sun have the same page count as a single Malazan volume and I found BotNS to have significantly more emotional satisfaction for me at the end.

All right. The hot air is out for the time being. Where were we?

Notable documentary series Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a joke where Terry's favorite fantasy novel is a gigantic doorstopper with a silly name, and the similarly absurdly-named characters and events within are mentioned with absolutely no context and incredible enthusiasm. It's a clear pastiche.

Malazan is that book in reality. A parade of made-up terms with apostrophes in them, dumped upon the reader with no explanation through narrative voice and only very rarely through character exposition. Considering the sheer amount that is in here, that might be a good thing, but the end result is drowning in chaff. Everything feels like it comes out of nowhere with no context or connective tissue, and after a while it collapses under its own weight, while simultaneously feeling like there is nothing under the hood at all. Yet, it is compelling in its own way. Writing this review and browsing the wiki is dredging up some dusty old feelings of wonder, seeing all this stuff to discover and catalogue and tie into the great whole of the thing. Erikson is, at the least, utterly devoted to the creation of something his own.

It's very painfully clear, even more than in regards to the obvious player characters, that this series started as a tabletop campaign, and these are his GM notes put in the absolute wrong medium. One gets the feeling that he wanted to write a history textbook or encyclopedia. I wish he had, because diagetic in-universe documents with fake citations are my jam, and piecing together and grander story from fragmentary records in a Dark Souls or Destiny way is super fun if done well. At the very least, that approach would have saved us the tedium of yet another chapter about the god-damn mopey elves.

The elves (the Tiste, rather) are insufferable, and every moment they are on the page. It's survivable enough when literal-brooding-anime-swordsman-with-a-cursed-sword-played-absolutely-straight Anomander Rake is the only one featured, but then more of them show up and it's eventually revealed that there are three entire civilizations of these mopey assholes. All of them, every single one, just mopes and mopes and mopes about how unbearable immortality is. Three entire factions of elves who all hate each other, the world, themselves, and the continued existence of things, all of whom, get this you won't believe it, have nothing to do with the main storyline. Rake just kinda shows up sometimes and the others are all in their own world, except when its time to bog down books 9 & 10 with interminable battle scenes of elves I don't care about. They are the best representative of all the things in the series that just don't work.

But what is the main plotline, you might ask? I will summarize.

  • Basics: Malazan empire exists. Emperor got offed by the head of the secret police, she's an idiot running everything into the ground.
  • Books 1 and 3: The empire's decade-long military campaign on a completely different continent.
  • Books 2 and 6: On another completely different continent, colonies are in open rebellion, everything is fucked. Death march time! Book 6 is when the reinforcements finally show up and they're able to mostly put the fires out with help from veterans of books 1 and 3.
  • Books 4 and 8: Side stories.
  • Books 5 and 7: Let's go to another another completely different continent, one that the Malazans aren't currently invading, and have a completely different storyline that ties in with the other two at the very end when they do invade, but not for different reasons.
  • Books 9 and 10: The three main threads now converged, time to go solve the problem and do the thing. Padded out with at least four sideplots that go nowhere and are only tangentially connected to the main characters and the actual end goal, another death march across a desert, and this was originally supposed to be one book. There is actually a major plot thread that is resolved, but not in a satisfying way.

If you cut out 4,5,8 merged 9 and 10, and then applied an editor who was not deliberately negligent, you'd actually have a really good story. Sleek and healthy like a well-rested big cat. Use novellas and sidestories for the rest (something that he has already done!). Or even better, forgo the novel entirely as a literary form and get experimental with something more effective at organizing all these worldbuilding notes.

Going further in depth would be running in circles - There is more material than one can feasibly summarize, and for a note of positivity, here is a bullet list of all the cool things I can remember.
  • Immortal orcs with hyper-powerful ice magic that spend all their time being goof-offs
  • The once-richest man in the world tossed all his wealth in the river because it was only worth anything when it was fun to achieve. He lives in a tenement with his butler / assistant / caretaker (who is actually a major god of the sea).
  • Undead armies of neanderthals. Also, dinosaurs with swords for hands.
  • Man becomes god, uses newfound position to fuck with people constantly and hang around with man-eating shadow-hounds.
  • There's an entire civilization that rides around on giant dragonflies.
  • Book 2 is just really, really solid all around, as it's well before exhaustion kicks in and is mostly self contained. 
  • Notably racially diverse in casting, though the treatment of queer characters definitely needed some help.
  • Book 8 was actually very emotionally satisfying, though that is absolutely because it was a contained side-story that had an actual ending point. This is in spite of the other side story about even more stupid elves.
  • The main military unit are sappers, which means regular creative use of explosives.
  • Magic evolves and branches over time and is exactly as messy as that would imply.
  • The fan art for this series has an unnaturally high average level of quality.

Final Notes

A review of a book is a snapshot of the reviewer, and it should be obvious my feelings remain complicated. Opinions of myself at the time I was engrossed with the series have bled into my opinion on the books themselves, for a lot of the reason I liked the books at the time was the feeling of self-importance (elitism, even) that came with it - part in parcel for a younger, dumber, more assholish me. I slip into treating the books as representative of myself during that time and that is certainly unfair to some extent.

But then I see yet another thread praising the series as another work of genius for the same exaggerated reasons I once gave (It's so complex, and therefore good! You have to work at it, which means you get to weed out the casuals! The constant suffering is meant to drive home a central theme of compassion and isn't just an exhausting monotonous slog!), while simultaneously recommending it to everyone with thumbs and a pulse, and I think to myself "wait, no, it's not that unfair."

Whomst among us can even say. Books are a strange magic, and we readers all the stranger for how they burrow into our brains and echo themselves among the neurons there.


  1. Though if it comes to a "you must pick one" fight, I would still honestly stick with Erikson over the other three horsemen (Martin, Sanderson, and Jordan).

  2. Even over Sanderson? Do you mean something beyond Mistborn? Those three books feel better than the ten you're laying out here.

    1. Sanderson is way ahead in terms of pacing and his ability to effectively relay information, but I find his work dreadfully dull and lifeless on the whole (Reading Way of Kings and learning about the Cosmere made Mistborn worse in retrospect)

      Erikson gives me something to be fired up about, Sanderson is just kinda an empty space beneath the shell of "I am going to turn fantasy into mediocre science fiction"

    2. I am finding Sanderson's magic to be sterile, for the lack of the better word, too patterned and too self-regulated; maybe it is very practically implemented into the world, but it doesn't inspire any wonder.
      Is Erickson's magic inspirational in any way?

    3. Not particularly inspirational, but definitely the opposite of Sanderson - messy, organic, and poorly understood.

  3. Good review, thanks! And timely too. I am trying to read the first book in the series, but didn't get hooked yet (I read the entire "Sword of Destiny" between two or three chapters from gardens of the Moon)... Not sure the investment in time is worthwhile.
    You're right about the fan art, too. Awesome stuff!

  4. As one of the people in the discord that prompted this review, it's actually very fair! It's definitely bloated and there's an awful lot of *angst*, especially when the elves show up. I loved it during my high school and college years, and still do, but as I said in the discord, time spent with books that know how to tell their story in under 500 pages has not been kind to Malazan.

    Still. That list of the good stuff? That's why I still enjoy the series. There's a fun world here, and some great action sequences, a weird-ass magic system, explosions, etc.

    But I can't really recommend anyone read it at this point without... too many caveats. Definitely don't blame anyone for bouncing off of it.

  5. I read one and a half Malazan books and got annoyed in the way that I only can when fiction with many good parts ends up being failing to cohere for me, but I honestly loved Anomander Rake. A were-black-dragon with a sword that chains your soul to a giant wagon forever, heralded by the far-off clinking of massive chains and the groaning of great wheels? "The Lord of Moon's Spawn"? Some sort of bullshit magic tarot? It's wild that anyone would commit that hard to the Elric thing for basically a minor character that I had to admire it

  6. Thanks for this review !
    I'll stay away (maybe read book 2?)