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Dragonmount Fantasy Review: Steven Erikson

Posted by Luckers on Apr 06 2011 03:00 PM under in Fantasy Reviews
The Dragonmount Fantasy Review
The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

Welcome back to Dragonmount's monthly fantasy review. This month's review is on Steven Erikson's epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Don't let the singular use of the word "book" confuse you either, each "tale" in the Malazan world is a book in its own right, and quite a large one at that. The tenth and final novel in the series, The Crippled God, was just released bringing to a close the main sequence series. However, several other novels set within this world are still planned.

What is The Malazan Book of the Fallen About? Why Would I Recommend it To Wheel of Time Fans?

The Malazan world is the only fantasy world that I've encountered which is larger in scope than that of the Wheel (George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire would also come close, I suppose). The series takes place across six continents, involving empires, nations, city-states, and religious uprisings. There is hundreds of thousands of years of history layered through the story. You have dragons and shape-shifters, and an entire pantheon of selfish gods ready and willing to manipulate mortals. And, moreover, Erikson is ready and willing to show you them all.

When armies march, in the Malazan world, you don't ride just behind the eyes of the generals and their small council of worthy notables, you get in deep and dark with the individual marine squads on the front line. You meet the enemy and learn to like them--or not, as the story needs. You get to see the political machinations behind the war, the games of assassins and emissaries.

What is the Value in this Style?

Well, the writing itself is pretty engaging, if sometimes given to being overly verbose. In my opinion the greatest value in this is that Erikson does the prep-work damned well, and as such when it comes times for the climax, it becomes explosive--when Anomander Rake draws his sword, you will want to jump up and down. When the Bonehunters decide to march on a rival empire, you'll be ready to scream. When High Mage Quick Ben does... well, anything, you'll probably clap, even if it makes you look stupid. Indeed, when it comes to the ending of each of these books you'll have been brought to understand what's at risk, who's at risk, why the characters are risking it--and then you get to watch as Erikson weaves all this neatly together into an ending which explodes off the page.

Alright, So What Are The Downsides?

Erikson doesn't really ease you into his world--rather he drops you in the ocean at midnight, and then proceeds to whip up a storm. I've compared it to being introduced to the Wheel circa A Crown of Swords, but even that's not entirely accurate as Erikson continues to run--constantly working in more and more elements of the world. I think it was the end of the third novel, Memories of Ice, that I felt I was truly beginning to get a grip on the world.

Of course it is not a truly insurmountable problem. The characters are interesting, the plot is gritty and engaging, so the fact that you are filled with a vague sense of confusion over what's what and why things are the way they are doesn't necessarily detract from the enjoyment of the story. But even though you might be a bit confused about it, Erikson is not, and you will come to understand everything.

You Didn't Really Answer the Question. What's The Malazan Book of the Fallen About?

The series does have an over-arching storyline, though it doesn't become truly apparent until the later books, nor do you realize the ways in which the events of the earlier books are moving toward or supplying for that overlying arc. So in book one, Gardens of the Moon, we have the Malazan invasion of the continent of Genebackis, and all the politics that responds to that. In book two we jump to the continent of Seven Cities with the beginning of the uprising of the cult of Drhyjna the Apocalyptic, and book three were back to Genebackis. Though characters and sub-plots crossover in each of these books they are largely self-contained stories, with their own endings.

So yeah, just trust me when I say it's quite a ride.

Final Comments

To those who enjoy the scope of the world-building within the Wheel of Time, The Malazan Book of the Fallen will blow your mind. Beyond that, the characters and plot--and perhaps more significantly, the key character moments and plot points, are all chock full of awesome. Though it should be warned that this is a somewhat darker series than the Wheel, including far more graphic violence and sexual content.

You can purchase the first book, Gardens of the Moon here and support Dragonmount.

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Posted by Luckers on Apr 06 2011 03:00 PM under in Fantasy Reviews


I am reading this series now for the first time (100 pages left in book 2), so I figured I would mention a couple of things I am noticing...

You really do get dropped in the middle, which leads to a couple of issues. First, it really seems like major plot elements come out of nowhere, especially at the end of the first book. Maybe there was a reference earlier that I missed, but I really felt unsatisfied with the resolution of one of the plot threads (sorry if this is poorly written, I am trying to express my thoughts about the end of the first book without spoilers).

I also think that Erikson has a habit of switching points of view too soon/too often. For much of the first book I didn't feel like I could get a good handle on the characters. Every time I would get close, I felt like the POV switched. The second book is better, I think. Either that or I just have a better grip on the world now so I am less distracted while reading.

The other thing I wanted to expand on, is that it isn't just a question of the second book being a different story, it is almost entirely different characters from the first. I don't know if this continues throughout, but it was jarring to say the least when I started book 2, read the first 20 pages, and had three different POV, all brand new characters.

To be honest, I didn't love the first book, or the start of the second for these reasons. If Erikson wasn't so highly thought of, I probably wouldn't have bothered continuing with this series. I am glad I did though, because I have enjoyed the second book.
On my to-read list after I finish WoT and ASoIaF. Looking like it'll be many years from now... I may get a little impatient.
I've been slogging through this and have just started book 7. It is a struggle keeping everything straight. There are so many characters and plot lines that it's very difficult to remember who a character is when they pop up again. I'm normally a voracious reader but I find myself surfing the web rather than diving back into the book when I settle in to reading time. I have a basic concept of the over-all main themes and some characters have become familiar but it's still a struggle to connect all the pieces into a smooth read. It definitely seems like the kind of series you have to re-read to fill in the gaps and fully appreciate.

Keep reading! Book three goes back to many of the characters from book one and introduces some new and pretty freaking epic ones too. The fourth book begins with a new story line that introduces another awesome character and then picks up where book two left off. That's as far as I've gotten but, like Luckers said, I feel like I now have a much better grasp on the world and how things work. Also, the people at the malazanempire.com forums are very helpful and the forum its self is divided into subforums for each book so it's spoiler friendsly (for example, when you've finished book two you can go to that specific part of the forum without worrying about spoilers from subsequent books). Great series so far. I just hope I can finish it before aDwD comes out so I don't have to pause between books!
I've been instructed that I did not give enough witness to Karsa Orlong. And I agree. If you did not understand this comment, you will when you read the books.
@johthohar -- Thanks for the tip about the Malazan boards, I have been avoiding them figuring that, since the series has been around so long, it would be all spoilers.
Karsa is definitely full of awesome. And I read in an interview with Erikson that one of the other stories he's going to do within this world will be a trilogy focused on him I believe after the events of the main series.
I've read tons of fantasy fiction, and found this series to be one of the worst I've encountered. I am baffled at the amount of praise it gets. I got to Book 5 and quit. It makes virtually no sense and is just way too confusing. I shouldn't have to re-read a series to understand what is going on, and I shouldn't have to wait until Book 7 or 8 to understand what was going on in Book 1 (as many people like to say, "it will all be clear in the end"). Jordan and Martin and the other popular fantasies make sense from the beginning. These books do not.

If you like D&D inspired fiction with no rhyme or reason or logical world rules, you may like this. It's based on gaming sessions and a D&D world Erikson devised with a friend of his. And like D&D sessions, there's a lot of deus ex machina and inexplicable world rules.
I enjoy Erikson's writing, plotting, and world-building, but the one thing that bugs me about this series is that he doesn't seem to believe in recap. This is a series that has SO much going on that if you're reading the books as they come out, or reading them months apart for any other reason, you're going to have a damned hard time remembering all the salient details. Recap needn't even be in the main text--a separate section as done by Tolkien, or Tad Williams, or indeed Brandon Sanderson would work fine. In TV, there's a saying that some shows are "better on DVD"--when you can watch them at a pace of more than one episode per week, heavily serialized shows hang together a lot better because it all stays fresher in your mind. I think this series is the book equivalent, and I do think it's worth the effort, but I had to stop midway through book 8 because I just couldn't remember who everyone was and what they were doing.
@Crowl Rife

I could not disagree more with your take on this series. It makes virtually no sense? I would say that it definitely does but it doesn't reveal itself chronologically. We are talking about an author who is an archeologist. This series is like being on a dig and discovering bits and pieces of a long lost history. Some of these pieces are older than others but as you continue searching this unbelievably complex and beautiful picture starts to emerge. This series so magnificently laid out that I would go the complete opposite way of you and say that it is the best fantasy series that I have encountered. As far as not having to re-read a series to get what is going on I would say on a general level that you don't have to. If you want to understand the levels of it, then yes I would say you will have to re-read this series a few times. In my opinion this is a mark of a true master. I would argue that the Wheel of Time is layered in such a way as to require a few re-reads to grasp all of the political intrigue that is going on. Not to mention to grasp the history of the world itself.

Erickson went in to completely flip the genre on its head. Neither Jordan or Martin were trying to do anything quite so daring. As far as the creation of an original piece of work I think Erickson takes the cake on it. I would recommend this series to anyone who is interested in delving deep into philosophy, history, and religion because it is thick with all throughout. I will always love Wheel of Time because it is what started me down the path of epic fantasy. That being said I really don't think the Wheel of Time can hold a torch to the unveiling of the malazan book of the fallen.
I have the hard cover of The Guardians of the Moon on my shelf. Ugh...i have tried to read it, but I don't have the heart for it. Its almost as bad as Terry Brooks' Swords of Shannarah.... blah.. try not to up chuck thinking of that.
A friend of mine recommended this series to me not long before book 8 came out 2 years ago. I picked up gardens of the moon and never looked back.... well of course except to reread garden twice. This is an increible and complicated series. The one downside was mentioned above but not really truly pointed out. Any and virtually every character be they a general, slave, or farrier can and probably will wax poetic about something involving the human condition at sometime within these books, and when they do it will remind any WOT reader of RJ describing Elaynes dresses.

Its much like WOT in that it has alot of characters in the begining that are following a few storylines, and eventually branches out to many more characters and many more storylines. Erickson also does a great job in these books with bringing out different sides of people and of nations, sometimes you'll see one person or gorup as villans and two books later they're heros, and your prospective wont have changed much.

There is a warning to be had for the later books if you do not like...*strong* language as the fbomb and a few others are dropped several times in the last 5 books.

If you want a new epic sereis and you havent read book of the fallen, go get Gardens of the moon, it drops ya off right in the middle of the war, and it will take you literally half the book to catch up, but its a fun read to catch up with.

Please also note that even though the malazan book of the fallen has finished with book 10, there are companion books for this written by Ericksons friend and world co-creater Ian C. Esselmont. There will be 5 books in this part of the series and while its not a series itself, it fills in holes in book of the fallen. The first book called Night of Knives is about the night the Emporer and Dancer are assasintaed around 7 years before the opening of gardens of the moon. The second book is called Return of the Crimson Gaurd (you'll meet them in Gardens of the moon) and takes place aroud the time of book 7-8 of Fallen, on another continent. The 3rd book in this part of the series is due out in a month or so and its called Stonewielder.

Also Erickson will be putting out 2 more trillogys set in the malazan world, the story of Kharkanas (sp? sorry dont reember how its spelled off the top of my head) and how the Andi and Mother Dark fell apart. After that from what I've heard will the story of the Toblaki.

Excelent work, excelent books, excelent author... probably my third favorite author (behind R.A. salvatore and RJ, and since this is a WOT sight I refuse to answer in what order they come heh)

Yes, I've read a lot of reviews and explanations about the series, about who Erikson is and his background, and why he structured the books the way he did and why he wrote it the way he did, etc, etc... but the bottom line is, if I don't find something entertaining and logical and believable, then I will not enjoy it. It doesn't matter if the author is purposely trying to break the mold and doing something different for the sake of being different or if that's just how he writes.

The only shining light to me in the entire series is the first 250 pages of Book 4. That was well done and could have been a satisfying novel in itself.

But I stand by what I said... I think it's confusing and about the worst fantasy series I've ever read. WoT is vastly superior, in my opinion. RJ gradually revealed the world (a believable world) to you at a logical pace that was fun and entertaining to read, with characters that were rooted in reality despite their powers and which I felt sympathy for. Re-reads of WoT have never changed my perspective or understanding of the series, other than minor details. Erikson, however, just dumps you in the middle of a bunch of epic battles with virtually no explanation as to how the world works or why things are happening. Why should I care about any of it? I couldn't relate to any of the characters, especially when they just randomly become demigods. Congrats to Erikson for trying something different, but it doesn't work for me, sorry. And I gave it a chance... I wanted to like the series after reading so many positive things about it, I really did.
The Malazan series of books are up there with the best the fantasy genre has to offer. Very different writing style to Robert Jordan, R.R Martin, Tolkien et al but equally as enjoyable.

Some (indeed quite a lot)of the text reaches Shakespearian standard in my view on such wide ranging topics as marriage, loyalty, evil, war, poverty and religion. (no seriously - in places it is truly awesome and will be standard text for study in schools/colleges/Universities at some point in the future if it isn't already) He is a true philosopher.

The only downside is that very very occasionally he can be irritatingly verbose or random!. Hmmm show me an author of epic fantasy who isn't at some point!

Some of the best characters around for sheer immensity, presence and complexity - for example

Annomander Rake
Karsa Orlong
Icarium Lifestealer
even Throatslitter!!!
the list goes on and on...........

Also some of the most intriguing races found in any fantasy book in my opinion

It is not a straightforward good v evil series by any stretch of the imagination and has that element of R.R Martins twists and turns within it.

Epic battles, mind blowing sorcery, touches of wonderful humour, extreme violence, heart rending heroism, layers of complexity and a world painted in such detail it takes you there. And that is the mark of true genius. Read all the books except the last one at least twice. Only read WoT series more than that. I love WoT, but I don't have to hate the work of other authors to demonstrate that point.

Read it and stick at it - the journey will be worth it!
I , like many before me, have read good reviews about the series and decided to pick up the first two books.....and put down the first one and thought i had just wasted my money buying them. but interestingly enough, found myself thinking about how the book was going to play out while i was at work one day, so i picked it back up. im about 150 pages in and am grasping the style of writing a little better, although i do like a little more straight forward style. worth picking up at least the first books if you are hesitant about it, its certainly not for everyone....we'll see how far i get into the series.
The series isn't all that bad. I reached book 8 and had to give up, but it was engaging. My biggest issue is that it is constantly jumping between minor plot schemes. You reach the end of book 1 with the sense that you may have understood what is going on, then in book 2 you get a different adventure that is only loosely tied to what you think may be the main plot. Book 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 are by far the best, because the plot is soooooo thick and you actually get an understanding of what is really going on for more than just one book. The series isn't a waste of time, just don't think it is going to be Jordan-esque because it isn't.

Btw, you forgot to mention the most important character, Kruppe!!!!!!
The books are good, but nothing special. A little bloated and self indulgant. Too many times the characters were crying their eyes out over an event and as a reader I just felt no emotion.
I have recently started reading this series and to be honest, based on the first book and midway through the second book, I believe it will be a herculean effort on my part if I am actually able to get to book 10 without being driven away by the frustratingly unbelieveable thoughts and comments of some of the characters.

One thing I love about the WOT books is that, whilst a fantasy world, the characters themselves have thoughts and experiences similar to real world people. Therefore things I can read and immediately understand and often relate to.

So far with these books, your average 'soldier' or 'priest' or 'young girl with little worldly experience' (Felisin for example) seems to have thoughts, or make statements, that even a Harvard scholar of pure genius would never think up.

During some of the first book I managed to drag myself back to the start of a sentence (reread) that was WAY TOO DEEP on first reading, to try and comprehend again what was being said (and often even a reread didn't help). By the second book though, I am pretty much glazing over such comments/thoughts and just hoping that not understanding a particular line will not affect my understanding of what is going on later in the book. I think if I am honest with myself, this is just an indication that I am trying to rush towards the end of the book...never a good sign.

I'll try and persist, but given that I am struggling midway through the 2nd book already, I doubt I will get very far with this series.
Thank you so much for the review Luckers!

I've been hunting for the first book in the series for a while now, but it's hard to find any Erikson in India- not much demand for it I guess. When I have found it, it was usually the later books that the stores housed, and I really don't like starting in the middle of a series. Everything you've said pretty much justifies that sentiment. :)

That said, I've ordered 'Gardens of the Moon' and am awaiting it eagerly. Thanks a ton, again!
I'm a huge fan of RJ and I've read WoT twice (except ToM). Also love RR Martin - although the HBO series is kind of weak. And... I think Steven Erikson is the bomb. I'll say what no one else will: the Malazan Book of the Fallen is harder to get through for some people because it's just straight-up more advanced. Someone up there said something about the writing style being similar to D&D and that couldn't further from the truth. D&D (and like RA Salvatore's writing for that matter) are basically glorified comic books compared to this stuff. I don't mean that to be at all derogatory; I was never a fan of comics myself, but I definitely see the value in them. The point is that picking up Steven Erikson's epic series isn't your typical bedtime reading. You better be well aware of what you're getting involved in, and if you decide to set aside enough time/effort/resolve to do the damn thing, I garuntee the reward is well worth the toil.

That said, my first time through the series I accidentally skipped the 6th or 7th book and had absolutely no idea until I tried to reference it later and it wasn't on my bookshelf. ha ha. So yeah that plotline is like a bowl of spaghetti. But it's some serious like five-star-type spaghetti bolognese. Mangia, mangia!
Skimming through the replies here has made me decide to read simpler things and make sure I have proper reading time before I tackle this one. Still sounds awesome. I'm digging the fantasy reviews.

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