Steve Erikson’s Malazan books

I used to read a moderate amount of fantasy but apart from this series I’ve mostly drifted away from it, mainly due to an over-familiarity with genre standards and the fact that these are exacerbated by one of the standards being to present everything in the form of lengthy, multi-novel serieses. Worse, the individual novels are usually at least 500 pages. This gives plenty of room for any tics the author might have to shine through.

There’s one fantasy series that I have kept up for more years than I’d care to count – a series by Steve Erikson called (in rather grand fantasy style) the Malazan Book of the Fallen. There’s a lot of good stuff in there in terms of standard nuts and bolts things that apply to all books like the quality of the writing and the world building but the main thing that keeps me buying the new novels as they come out is the way it breaks one of the most important genre standards: in these books life is just as random and potentially unfair as it is in this one.

Normally even the best fantasy presents a world where, fundamentally, everyone knows what is going on. There will be some form of challenge to the stability of the world driving the plot but this is most definitely an aberration to be dealt with. Things like magic will normally exist and while they won’t be understood by everybody the people who are expected to do so generally will. Bad things may happen but there will be some sort of rhyme or reason to it, a greater purpose beyond the immediate loss or suffering. Mostly, it’s all going to work out well.

For me all of this makes the experience much more empty than it should be – it’s harder to invest in what’s going on when at the back of your mind you always know roughly how things are going to turn out. The fact that the Malazan books avoid this is what draws me in and keeps me coming back to the series. Characters are confused, they don’t know what’s going on, they die (sometimes for no particular reason). The world is complex and messy, with several independant groups and civilizations acting by themselves with limited knowledge and abilities. All of this makes for much better suspension of disbelief and much more interest.

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