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Steven Erikson: The Malazan Book of the Fallen

I’ve already posted about the first three books of Steven Erikson’s mammoth epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen [1] [2] [3], but I’ve finished the series in the meantime and if I try to write one post each about the remaining seven, I’ll never get anything else done. So I’m going to rush through the rest and see if I have anything interesting to say about any of them.

IV. House of Chains. The “I can’t believe how epic this series is” moment of this one comes when, in contrast to the usual bouncing back and forth between viewpoint characters, the entire first quarter of the novel is devoted to telling the back story of a single character who so far has only briefly appeared in book two and didn’t even have a name then. (Naturally, he turns out to be one of the more important characters in the series.) Once we get back to the main cast of characters, things move along at a good clip, and it ends with a very effective resolution of one of the main plot lines of the first four books, with a couple of cliffhangers added, including one fairly new character saying that he’s going to tell his backstory…

V. Midnight Tides. Which is this book, my favorite of the series and many people’s least. Once again Erikson starts completely from scratch, with what is effectively a prequel on an entirely new continent featuring an entirely new cast of characters, which I think annoyed a bunch of people who were on tenterhooks waiting to get resolution for the things left hanging from House of Chains. This is actually a fairly self-contained story (I might even argue that it’s the best starting point for the series as a whole) which is much tighter and less sprawling than most of the other books. There’s some Wodehousian humor (the best yet), some horror, some allegorical social commentary, and some great plot twists. A big success, in my opinion.

VI. The Bonehunters. As we begin the second half of the series, events begin to converge a bit instead of just expand, which makes it just a bit less compelling for me. A lot of this book is setup for the rest of the series. There are some highlights, like an awesome single-gigantic-chapter set piece featuring a city on fire, but by the time we get to the last over-the-top set piece (in Malaz City, which we had not visited since the prologue to the first book), I was a little exhausted.

VII. Reaper’s Gale. Here the II-IV-VI and V plots start to converge a bit. I liked the political stuff that carried over from Midnight Tides the most (though, as before, I seem to be in the slight minority here) but an issue that started in the last book continues here: the book gets clogged up with frequent long sections that are basically character studies illustrating the boredom/terror of dozens of individual soldiers. It’s a valid artistic decision, but I felt that those sections could have been pared down a bit. It doesn’t help that a gigantic climax is promised from page 1 (basically, there is to be a showdown between the three biggest badasses in the world) and held tantalizingly out of the readers’ reach until the very end. Still, there is a lot of good stuff here, especially with a plot thread dealing with an entirely new civilization (as usual, I am most excited when stuff keeps expanding).

VIII. Toll the Hounds. And we’re back to the I-III strand! This is a bit of a weird one, as Erikson suddenly goes full-out Dickens. He’s always examined different strata of society, one thing that makes the books’ scope so great, but here I feel him straining to explicitly include all the different groups he can (and, unlike Dickens, the strata reach all the way up to those of the gods!), and there is a ton of authorial intrusion (although under the guise of an in-world character) directing us to cogitate upon all that is being presented to us. That didn’t totally work for me, but there is a lot of great plot and character development, although also a fair amount of getting characters from point A to point B (a general issue throughout the series). There is a pretty excellent “What the hell just happened?” point near the end, which however could have been explained a little better (another general issue).

IX. Dust of Dreams. Now we’re really in the home stretch; this is explicitly part one of a two-part finale. It continues to suffer from the Unending Soldier Character Studies issue from VI/VII, and in general things feel slightly overstuffed, as if Erikson had 1.5 books worth of material and expanded them to two instead of contracting them to one. One (sentient) species that had previously mostly just been alluded to finally takes center stage, which is a nice payoff, In a very Eriksonian moment, one large storyline is launched and comes crashing down all within one book, which some people find a complete waste but I consider to be generally a positive thing, proving that anything can happen to anyone at any time in this world.

X. The Crippled God. And so we reach the end. I probably need to read this again to form a good unbiased opinion of it, but I’m not sure if I ever will, so I’m going to have to go with what I got. It is a good page turner, though I do have some issues with it; for one thing, the main Big Bad, which could have been drawn in some interesting shades of gray (which Erikson does very well in other contexts throughout the series), is not really explored in any interesting way. Although a lot of long plot arcs converge and are resolved in this book, it becomes clear by the halfway point that it’s not going to epically resolve every last thread of the entire series in an narratively orgasmic climax; the story is huge but it’s just one more story. So at the end the series basically is the sum of its parts, rather than transcending them. That’s okay; the parts are pretty great. But if you’re slogging through hoping for some gigantic payoff that will make everything that came before amazing in retrospect, you will likely be disappointed. When I was at the series’ halfway point, I was hoping that I would get to the end and immediately want to start again at the beginning to pick up all the subtleties I had missed the first time around, and that’s not going to happen; but it was a pretty excellent ride.