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(There are plot overviews, but no major spoilers for Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series below).
This article focuses on determining whether or not reading the lengthy Malazan Book of the Fallen series is worth a readers time. Below, contains information about the author and creators of the Malazan world, the plot, the length of the series, the strengths and weaknesses of Erikson’s series, and a couple of different reading recommendations.
Malazan Book of the Fallen By The Numbers
The Malazan Books of the Fallen are amongst the lengthiest series’ in fantasy. For people who like their books short, look elsewhere because as far as a singular fantasy story is concerned, only Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is longer. These are the numbers behind the length and creation of the Malazan Book of the Fallen
- Number of Books: 10
- Length By Page Count: 11,147
- Length By Word Count: 3,300,026
- Length of Time to Write Since First Publication: 11 years, 10 months, 14 days
- Number of Authors: 1 (Steven Erikson)
- Number of World Creators 2 (Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont)
Malazan Author Background
Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont created the Malazan world in the early 1980’s for advanced playing of Dungeons and Dragons. Both Cameron and Esslemont have written novels in the Malazan world, and both feature some of the same characters in their stories. Erikson’s Malazan stories are called Books of the Fallen, while Esslemont’s stories are called Novels of the Fallen – this article will only be focusing on Erikson’s contribution to the Malazan world.
Before he was a novelist, Steven Erikson was an archeologist. This little bit of information constantly seemed to keep coming back to me the further I got in the Malazan books. Archeologists have to dig through a lot Earth to find the artifacts or fossils they are looking for, and this is very true of Erikson’s plots and explanations. A lot of fantasy novels will recap the reader at certain points of their stories – reminding them of a characters name, the significance of a historical event, etc. Erikson rarely does that in his Malazan series, and with the series being so large it gets very easy to lose track of the many different plots and characters.
Erikson also doesn’t like to explain why things are happening – rather things are just happening, and you the reader are along for the ride. Eventually Erikson will come to provide some context for what you’re reading, but other times he doesn’t. The point being a lot of whys may not get answered. Additionally, Erikson writes most of the books from a 3rd person limited viewpoint, but occasionally he switches viewpoints from characters without paragraph breaks or any other easy indicator that a viewpoint has switched. He even switches to 3rd person omniscient on occasion.
The Malazan Books of the Fallen are some of the most difficult fantasy books to read. This is largely due to the huge scope of the series – meaning there are a lot of characters (many of whom switch names throughout the series), a lot of different locations, different plots, and different cultures and races. In fact, in terms of having a complicated scope – Erikson is unsurpassed. To give a comparison, the first book in Malazan Book of the Fallen – Gardens of the Moon – has more characters that are central to the plot than George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons does. After Gardens of the Moon, Erikson then continues to add that many characters to each of the subsequent nine books in the series. In other words multiply the number of characters you found in ADWD by 10 and that is the scope you’re dealing with in the Malazan series.
It would be more than fair to say the Malazan series has a strong post-modern influence. Erikson’s writing gets a lot of comparisons to George R.R. Martin’s, but with the exception of the level of violence in these two series’, the Malazan Books of the Fallen are a lot different than A Song of Ice and Fire. The one author that Erikson kept reminding me of when I read his books was Thomas Pynchon. Like Pynchon, Erikson introduces lots of characters, doesn’t always explain what is happening, has long description filled scenes, and has an intellectually cynical worldview that incorporates a fair amount of nihilism into his works. A more directly related genre comparison to the Malazan books would be Glen Cook’s Black Company.
Malazan Broad Plot Overview
The Malazan Books of the Fallen are works of epic military fantasy. Meaning the page count is huge, the stakes are world ending, and the book focuses almost exclusively on members of the military or people working with the military. As should be expected, a lot military tactics, violence, and horrors of war are described in detail in this series.
The Malazan books follow three major plot arcs, which are distinguished by the continents the arcs take place on. Almost all of these arcs focus on the military of the Malazan Empire, the world’s most powerful human military force as they conquer land for the empire and try to survive onslaught brought to them by other cultures, peoples, mythological creatures, and Gods. With a wide range of viewpoints though the conflict between the Malazan’s and these other forces provides a lot of moral ambiguity and questions the decisions of various cultures and characters.
I know this plot overview is broad, so if you’re interested in any individual Malazan book’s plot, check out the individual reviews we’ve posted for each book.
Malazan Book of the Fallen Strengths
The Malazan series has a lot of strengths including stylistic originality, great world building, morally ambiguous characters, detailed military battles, and fast paced exciting conclusions to each individual book in the series.
It’s been said that since Tolkien, all modern fantasy books have been indebted to his story. Whether or not that’s true, Steven Erikson’s Malazan series is about as far from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as you can get. In fact there really isn’t much that came before the Malazan series in fantasy to compare it to other than the Black Company … and even then you’d be reaching.
Erikson creates a lot of characters, many of which are meaningful. Some characters may only be minor characters early on, but they end up growing into more significant characters as the story progresses. A fantasy world is mysterious, and Erikson’s writing style plays to that trope in a unique way by not explaining everything that’s occurring and by creating a lot of enigmatic characters. Stylistically this works for the most part, although the lack of explanations starts to become more problematic as the series progresses.
In terms of originality in world creation, Steven Erikson may be unsurpassed. Sure Erikson includes fantasy staples like dragons, a sword and shield style military, wizards, and mages and such … but then he tosses in a lot of things that I’ve never seen before in fantasy like flying castles, a Wall Street inspired stock market, and a sword that contains an entire world within it where it traps people that it has slayed.
Moral Ambiguity and Character Deaths
Along with the violence, this may be the aspect of the Malazan series that often draws it into comparisons with A Song of Ice and Fire. Malazan has a lot of morally ambiguous plots and characters – no one is truly good, and no one is truly evil.
Often times Malazan books build to a final climactic battle where the reader gets endeared to characters on both sides of the conflict, making it impossible to chose a side. It plays nicely into a recurring motif of the Malazan series – war destroys everything you love. That being said, Steven Erikson is not afraid to kill his major characters, and often times these deaths are very sudden and unexpected. This kept me close to the characters – wondering whether or not they would live or die and how much precious time I had left with them.
Military Battles and Convergences
This being a military fantasy book you can expect to see many battles. Erikson has great ability to describe military tactics along with the violence and horrors of war – the Malazan battles have some of the most brutal acts of violence I’ve encountered in a book.
As Erikson explains in his first book, power attracts power – in the Malazan series these are called convergences. This is basically where all of the powerful characters get drawn together in an epic conflict. These convergences happen at the end of every individual Malazan book – at least for the most part. Convergences bring together all of the seemingly unconnected plots in each book together to form an overwhelming conclusion.
Malazan Book of the Fallen Weaknesses
A number of weaknesses could also be argued for the Malazan series. The parts about Erikson’s writing that bugged me the most include frequent character introductions late into the series, a lot of deus ex machina, a weak large structure for the ten volume series, and the lack of explanation for a lot of character motivations and plot circumstances.
Character Introductions Late Into The Series
Steven Erikson likes to introduce a lot of characters to his story. In the first half of the series I greatly enjoyed this aspect of the books as it required more effort out of the reader, and it created an overwhelming sensation via the complicated web of the author’s story.
Unfortunately, Erikson doesn’t stop adding characters and they later half of the Malazan books start to pay for it. Instead of letting the many, many characters he already created be flushed out, the reader is forced to sit through dialogues and plot developments of new characters – many of which the reader doesn’t care about, and that take away from the story instead of adding to it.
Constant character additions don’t allow characters that have been around since the beginning of the series to develop to their maximum potential. This negatively effects a lot of the series’ long awaited moments where the reader should feel a huge release of emotion, but instead is left in a state of near apathy. The writers time would have been better spent developing those huge moments – moments that can define an entire series – rather than adding new characters and trying to justify their existence within the plot.
Deus Ex Machina
Deus ex machina is a part of story telling for better or worse, although most people usually view it negatively. To quickly recap, deus ex machina is where a plot in a story is suddenly resolved by a newly added character, item, or some other abrupt hard to believe circumstance to solve a problem. In a series that prominently features Gods, you can expect to see a lot of this.
What impressed me most about a lot of the deus ex machina in Malazan is that it really didn’t bother me. In fact about 80-90% of it didn’t really upset me. I believe this is largely in part due to its occurrences early on in the series, however as Books of the Fallen start wrapping up, I found myself being more and more bothered by it because it made previously established powerful characters start to look weak. Either way if deus ex machina really bothers you, this might not be your series.
Weak Super Structure
The Malazan Books of the Fallen features some of the best individual installments of any fantasy series. However, there are also some weaker individual installments. The biggest disappointment though is the way the series winds down. The final five books never reach the greatness of any of the first five books, and this is largely to due to the weak super structure of the series. I could be more specific, but that would start to get into spoilers. I will leave you with this, if you’re looking to feel completely satisfied by how all the books intertwine with one another, or if you’re looking for a huge epic ending convergence – you won’t find it in the Malazan books, at least not in the way you’re thinking.
Lack of explanation can be a really irritating aspect of this series. In the early books I was bothered by this, but I decided to be patient about it … trusting the author to reveal important information to the readers over time. To a certain extent Erikson does reveal a lot of information about the mysteries of his world or the histories of its characters and cultures. These revealing experiences were very rewarding, and produced some of Malzan’s stronger moments.
It’s the material that by the series’ end that isn’t revealed that becomes plain frustrating. After going through ten books and not understanding why blank character was doing what, or what the motivation behind decisions made by certain cultures was, didn’t feel like a stylistic choice. Sure you could say this a part of the post-modern style of the author … to which I would say post-modernism shouldn’t be blended with a lengthy epic fantasy. Lack of explanation hurts the emotional involvement of the readers, and it creates a myriad of plot holes when the reader starts asking why? Why do these marines follow this leader, why didn’t this God interfere here, etc.?
Malazan Book of the Fallen Recommendations
Was Malazan Book of the Fallen worth reading?
Yes, certain individual books were worth reading, but as for the whole series I couldn’t honestly answer yes or no. I will say this when I finished Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and a myriad of other lengthy fantasy series’ I felt a lot of sadness at the realization that I would not be going back to those worlds (unless I decided to reread them). When I finished the Malazan series I felt relieved that it was finally over.
Below are two lists – one that lists who the Malazan series is recommended for and the other who it isn’t recommend for.
Malazan Book of the Fallen is Recommended For …
- People who are looking for a series that doesn’t resemble Tolkien or his impersonators
- People who are looking for morally ambiguous characters and plots
- People who are looking for a lot of magic with mostly unexplained rules
- People who are looking for a lot of military action and battles described in detail
- People who can read quickly and are willing to spend a significant amount of time reading
- Adults – this is not a book for children
- People that don’t mind the above mentioned weaknesses
Malazan Book of the Fallen isn’t Recommended For …
- People who detest large amounts of murder, rape, blood, gore, or other acts of ruthless violence in their stories
- People who like all of their plots and character arcs to be resolved
- People who can’t navigate a book that’s written in a more challenging format
- People that like explanations as they read the book
- People who are slow readers or read infrequently
- People who won’t enjoy the above mentioned strengths
Well it is possible to read the Malazan books out of order, – you could start by reading Deadhouse Gates or Midnight Tides before you begin reading the first book Gardens of the Moon – I would personally recommend you don’t. I would also say if you’re not liking the series after finishing the second book, Deadhouse Gates, then this series isn’t for you. If you’re not sure about how you feel about the books after Deadhouse Gates, then I recommend you read up through the fifth book, Midnight Tides. If you still really enjoy the series up until this point, then finish up the rest. If not, then you’ve already seen the best this series has to offer, and there’s no point of continuing.
The Malazan series was a challenging and lengthy read. Some individual Malazan books are amongst the best I’ve seen in fantasy, but it also has some books that aren’t so great. At the very least if you take on the Malazan books you will be taking on one of the most ambitiously written, exceptionally difficult, and very unique fantasy series’ you can read. Get ready for something different.