I’ve talked a lot about my love of fantasy, and yet I haven’t yet touched on any actual recommendations for series. I do have my own miniature “canon” of what I consider to be the standouts in the genre for myself, but often it has been awhile since I have read the works in question and I would like to do a quick review.
However, I did recently finish the Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson, and have many friends going through those books as well, so this seems like the perfect time to touch upon the most recent fantasy sequence to have made such an impressive impact upon me. This is definitely a set of works that I want to talk about while the impression is fresh in my mind.
I must point out the potential hypocrisy of giving out recommendations when I, myself, tend to be very wary of book recommendations found online. We live in the age of relentless hype, and while this is mostly visible within movies and video games, it can be seen in the literary market as well. Of course, I understand better than most the importance of marketing and getting your work out there and noticed. However, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a newer series hailed as “better than Lord of the Rings!” (Lord of the Rings being always trotted out as the benchmark is another topic, though perhaps a tangentially connected one – more on that in a bit).
So, it was with interest that I noticed that the discussion around Malazan was more polarized, with people either loving or hating it. I am glad I got a personal recommendation, as I am firmly in the category of adoration. I don’t want to assume why anyone has a particular reaction to something, but I feel why Malazan receives such strong opinions in both directions is because it feels very much out of place in the current fantasy landscape – people who enjoy the sort of fantasy that it is echoing are ecstatic to see its return, and those who do not likely have expectations that the series is not interested in meeting. As well, I fully admit that the series has a beginning that while not bad, per se, does not quite match the rest of the series in sheer engagement and style.
Author Steven Erikson has famously rebutted assumptions that all fantasy stems from Tolkien, and Malazan fairly oozes with the mood of the pre-Tolkein age. Some would say that the pre-Tolkien age was marked mainly by Conan-esque violence and “grit”, but there was a deeper sense of the weird to it. Tolkienesque fantasy often features comfortable, clean and crisp renditions of European landscapes – forests, hills and plains, counterposed against the dark corners of the world – bleak mountains, dark woods and blasted industrial wastelands. Before Tolkien, there was often a sense that the whole world, from places to people to even physics, were suffused with the essence of otherworldliness.
Erikson captures this feeling of mystery excellently, making his world feel expansive and strange – even when there is no visible strangeness. Thankfully he does not go into minute detail over things like “magic systems”, always making sure to keep the mystique even as he unveils complicated plots and concepts. I was very much reminded of the first-time reading Dune when I was younger.
The series perhaps most reminds me of Glen Cook’s dark military fantasy series the Black Company, and some even bring up this comparison as a negative point, claiming Malazan is too close. On this point I must disagree – while the series does often focus on military soldiers and wizards with catchy nicknames, the scopes are entirely different, with Malazan ranging into entirely different types of stories and characters, and much deeper into the religious and supernatural underpinnings of the setting. That is perhaps the most unique part of the whole Malazan series – it feels like a melding of older styles of fantasy but takes them out of what was often a structure of short stories into Tolkien levels of epic scope.
This scope unchains Erikson to roam far and wide, interacting with all sorts of different characters and situations, and it is a testament to him as an author that he does well with so many different set ups. The second and third books are infamous for their harrowing military sequences filled with betrayal and bloodshed, while later books bring the metaphysical conflicts to an impressive conclusion. I would have to say that my favourite part of the books is his “Lether Arc” which mixes the most heartbreaking tragedy of the series with its most outstanding examples of comedy. What makes all these tonal shifts work without being jarring is the wonderful cast of characters that Erikson builds up. Even characters that only appear for a single book can often leave a significant impact, and the characters we get to follow for longer get very engaging development.
The novels also are not shy at delving deeply into human nature, religion, philosophy and politics, but ties these discussions so tightly to the characters that it never feels like the reader is being pulled out of the story. Indeed, it feels integral, given the world changing events characters often find themselves witness to, even if they cannot affect these events. (Though, Malazan is a series that is very happy to overthrow status quos – being a God is no guarantee of success or even survival).
In short, the series seems to pull off a very rare “having your cake and eating it too” situation.
I often say that my favourite fantasy series of all time is Gormenghast, for the reason that even when mundane events are occouring, the prose makes them seem odd and otherworldly. Malazan manages to capture some of this magic in its slower moments and detours, while also managing to have complex plotlines and vivid action. Malazan feels like a love letter to the sorts of fantasy novels that I love, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish. It isn’t a series I would recommend lightly or casually – if you liked something like the Black Company, there will be something for you here. I fully admit it to be complex and often dense, but I found nearly every detour an enjoyable and interesting one. Malazan manages to feel new and exciting, while pulling up the very best parts about fantasy, the parts that too often are lost and forgotten.