When I Finished Malazan (Or the Day I Cried on the Train)

Okay, I’m going to start this week’s article off with a couple of points just for some context. First off,  I get most of my reading done on the train to and from work, because it’s nice to just have an hour either way that I can just spend reading without worrying about chores, blogging or anything else.

And secondly, I’m a pretty big fan of epic fantasy. I love a sprawling adventure with Homeric style gods and heroes and a storyline to rival mythology. It’s even why I did two degrees in Classics and Ancient History. So it’s understandable that when I started reading Malazan: Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson I quickly fell in love with it.

Spanning an 10 books with an average of 1,146 pages and 330,003 words per book, the story covers multiple continents and hundreds of thousands of years. Well the books don’t cover hundreds of thousands of years, but they do tell you about the history and … well I won’t go on too much about that, but it’s safe to say that it’s pretty darn epic.

And last week, I finally finished it.

So I thought it was about time that I reviewed Malazan, and instead of just reviewing one of the books I am going to review (to the best of my abilities) the series as a whole. I will be looking at the writing, the story, the pacing and the characters but just taking into account the whole series instead of the individual instalments. And having already said how much of a fan I am of epic fantasy I think it is important to try and do this review as evenly as possible so I won’t just be talking about the positives. I’m going to try as hard as I can not to give any spoilers and I will read and reread this article to make sure!

So let’s get the negatives out of the way early!

The Malazan series definitely starts as an uphill struggle, one of my good friends has described it as ‘Fantasy for fantasy fans’  and I agree. Erikson is not a fan of holding the readers by the hands as they come to terms with the strange new world they find themselves in. You’re immediately thrown into a world with a rich history and diverse political backdrop with minimal guides to help you understand all of it. With this particular aspect of his storytelling it seems like Erikson really takes to heart the mantra of ‘show don’t tell’. Even with that being said, the story of the first book Gardens of the Moon, is relatively small within the scale of the Malazan series so Erikson at least lets you in at the shallow end. But he doesn’t tell you how to swim.

A point that runs alongside that is the tendency for storylines and prose that don’t seem relevant from the reader’s perspective. I can think of about three or four examples of this, although within the later books (I won’t specify them in case I give anything away). But one example I will give specifically is that in one of the later books he has sections of text written as though they are narrated by one of the characters, Kruppe to be exact. However, the problem I found with this is that Kruppe is never exact. He is a highly amusing character and has some wonderful speeches throughout the series, but with his complexity comes a need to use him sparingly. And so I did find myself mentally exhausted at some parts when Kruppe was giving his narrative. But I have also had conversations with people who fell in love with Kruppe and couldn’t get enough of him so this may be a case of personal opinion.

Additionally I found myself irked by the way Erikson started quite a few sections that moved to a different point of view. There would be a couple of paragraphs of description and setting before he named the character or gave enough description that the reader could then realise what character this particular section was narrating. Although, in fairness, this mostly annoyed me due to my own impatience and wanting to read about certain characters. 

But I don’t want the negatives to throw you away from the series, it takes a bit of time to get into but once you get there the payoff is immense. So let’s look at what I did like about the series.

Well, I’ve said I like epic fantasy, and it is truly epic. Without counting the magical realms that are used throughout the series, the story spans at least three continents. And in true fantasy style humans are only one of many different races and not all of them humanoid. There’s the undead cavemen that are the T’Lan Imass; the ancient reptilian race of the K’Chain Che’malle; and the giant secluded Toblakai. Steven Erikson follows characters from every single race so we really get the full scope of the world as we go through the series. That in itself shouldn’t necessarily be a reason to pick up a book, you could have a novel that’s very epic but poorly written and plotted. Erikson doesn’t write poorly, his plot is well planned and the pacing keeps you reading.

Moving on from the setting, the characters themselves are compelling and interesting, there is never a character placed just to fill a space. And each and every one of them has their own backstory, drives and motivations. Along the same lines Erikson doesn’t push the plot along merely to get his characters in a certain place or, indeed, push the characters to do something contrary just to get the plot to a certain place. In this way I found that the story was always intriguing and unpredictable, not just because Erikson wants to keep you guessing meaninglessly but because you can’t say what life will throw at the characters next.

I will admit that I have a slight bias, as I don’t mind making my way through books that are positively tomes that could be used as weapons. But whilst he definitely keeps you entertained throughout the book Erikson makes the journey to the end of each book absolutely worthwhile. The man can do endings. You know that feeling where you have to put down the book and just think ‘Flip. That was awesome/ridiculous/has so many implications.’ That’s pretty happens a couple of times at the end of every book. The number of times that the hairs lifted on my neck as I reached a climactic and impressive part of the story became too many to count.

This does feed in a little bit with the con that it takes a long time to get all the context in order for this series. Once you’ve got the context of the setting and the history that’s been created for the world of Malazan the payoff is huge. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not pushing through to get to those endings but I would also definitely say you should not give up on it. 

I have seen Erikson called a master of both tragedy and comedy and you will definitely see that throughout this series. Characters like Kruppe, Tehol and the Korbal and Bauchelain duo will have you laughing as you read. But as you reach some climaxes in the series (I won’t say which ones) you will find yourself shedding a tear or two for the characters and their pitfalls. And this was my mistake. As I read the climax to the series I found myself on the edge of my seat leaning into the book hoping to dive even deeper, there was a lot of wide-eyed stares at the pages and a couple of teary eyed glances out the window.

The story is presented to you with excellent writing, interesting plots (most of the books are self-contained but have an overarching story throughout the series that culminates in the later books) and three dimensional characters.

The series does take some time to get into, for example it takes him until the sixth book to actually give a definition of the magic system, despite the fact that by then you’ve figured it out by yourself. But that’s mainly because the world is so rich it would just be ridiculous to try and give you all of the information at once. The reason that the endings are so effective, spectacular and simply epic is because of all that context and the rich world. 

I have laughed with this series and I have cried with this series, Erikson took my on a truly epic journey and left me speechless. Reading this series has definitely affected me and I think changed my outlook. For all of its faults this series is phenomenal, I cannot recommend it enough. I genuinely felt lost for a good few days when I had finished the series, bereft at the sudden lack of those same characters in my life.

If the Malazan: Book of the Fallen is a series you’ve been umming and erring about I strongly recommend you pick it up. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it’s daunting. And yes, it’s well worth it.

The Mathematics of Magic

So how do you explain magic? Well that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s magic, it is the unexplainable, the fantastic and the absurd. But more and more magic is becoming a quantifiable thing within fiction as more heavily imposing ‘magic systems’ are written into fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good magic system, but surely there’s also a point where you have to say “well, it’s magic.” So this article is going to be about the pros and cons of having a magic system.

One of the first pros for a magic system (and vice versa that this is a con for non-regulated magic) is that it stops the characters from using magic as a get out of jail free card. The reason that I say this is that without explaining how magic works to the reader, or at least showing the reader what magic can do and what it can’t do (after all, the rule is show don’t tell!), you can use it to do anything.

A nice simple example of this is where you pull the energy for magic from. If it’s not defined then it can leave the reader in suspense and make it a lot easier to surprise the reader, but that also runs the risk that the character can always stay one step ahead and away from danger.

Take for example a magic system that define (very loosely) where magic gets its energy from. In Steven Erikson’s Malazan series the magical realms called ‘warrens’ are the source of magic and a wizard can draw on them to perform magical feats. But the more you ‘open’ your warren and the longer you hold it open for the more strain it puts on the wizards. So this sets a limit on the wizard’s use of magic as to how much of a magical battering they can take.

Similarly when we look at Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series magical abilities are gained by ‘burning’ certain metals. Different metals produce different effects and you’re still subject to the laws of physics. So you can’t just stand on one leg and use magic to push a house down. That house is heavy and isn’t going anywhere, you’re going in the opposite direction.

So by having a system in place whereby you can see the limits of the use of magic it means that you can’t (without having a gaping maw of a plot hole) just use magic willy-nilly to save the day. So for Malazan you can’t just keep your warren open for as long as you want to do whatever you need, you’ll get torn apart. And for Mistborn, if you run out of metal then you’re just a normal person.

Of course there is some expectation that something will swoop down and save the day (whether you want to live up to that or not is up to you!) but this will stop you from releasing the tension with: “And with a magical WHOOSH the enemy were all turned into dandelions and our heroes were swept away on a magic carpet made of bacon to forever romp in fields of butterscotch and quaff ambrosian wine! Huzzah!”

Okay so maybe that’s an extreme example, but you get the idea. A tangible limit to magical forces, or how magical practitioners can use those forces restricts how much they can use it as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. This doesn’t mean you can’t push those forces, and push your characters to help them get out of those situations,  but it does mean that you then have a measurable cost for that push.

Another pro along the same line as this one is that a defined magic system that is known to the reader, if used correctly, can be used to build tension in the story. For example, if you have a magic user who finds themselves behind enemy lines and vulnerable but there’s something that the readers know will negate their magic, the story becomes a lot more tense as the readers wonder how the magician will get out of their hairy situation.

However, there are cons that come with a defined magic system of course. It can be easy to get carried away in the costing of powers and place too many limitations on your magic system. Why is this such a bad thing you ask? Well, ultimately because it’s magic! Magic is supposed to need our suspension of disbelief and not have us taking a pencil and paper to try and figure out how it was done. I believe that that sense of mystery and the fantastical is part of what makes the fantasy genre so compelling. Part of that universe is something that you can’t be explained, it can be utilized and you might understand it, but it can’t be explained away and made mundane.

I think that whether or not you want to have an in-depth system for using magic ultimately comes down to how deeply you want magic to be used by your main characters in your books. If your protagonist is a heavy magic user then it probably won’t do to have magic as a completely unexplained phenomenon in your world. That’s why the young protagonist slowly learning along with the reader is a popular model. It develops the character and explains how the universe works at the same time.

But then if you would prefer your magic users on the border, as secondary or tertiary characters then the magical forces do not need to be well defined. It could even contribute to the plot, as the protagonist desperately tries to understand these forces that are being thrown around in a manner generally detrimental to physical health. By having magic without borders, magic is left as a mystical force in the universe. Something barely understood but that is entwined with the forces of life, creation, death and destruction.

I hope that you enjoyed this blog post, and that all you wordsmiths out there are forging prose with great grace and ease!