I started reading the Malazan Book of the Fallen last year. I wanted to read a completed epic fantasy series and had heard a lot of good things about it. I had some Audible credits so I got Gardens of the Moon and soon enough, I was engaged, but a bit left behind somehow. This series isn’t something you can just casually listen to as an audio book and really hope to get. I made it about two-thirds of the way through the first audio book before I realized I was missing some vital details, so I picked up a paperback of the book and started re-reading.
I’ve never read any books that way before, and rather than being tedious and repetitive, it fit the style of the book perfectly. Events that were coming to a climax when I paused the audio book were just beginning, so I got to pick up on details I missed the first time around. The printed list of the long cast of characters and glossary was quite handy too. I continued in this fashion with the second and third books, Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice, and found it the perfect way to really absorb what was happening. I started reading the second book in paperback while finishing up my listen of the first book and it made everything fit together quite nicely. I don’t know that I would have continued reading the series if I hadn’t hit upon this strategy. Within the first few chapters of Gardens of the Moon, it’s apparent you’re either going to be frustrated or intrigued by the way you’re dropped into the story. It doesn’t feel like an introductory book in a series, it feels like the second or third; where one is already expected to have learned the various nations, cultures and magical systems.
Since I read the first three books last year, I won’t fully review them, I’ll just give you brief rankings:
Gardens of the Moon – three stars. Trying to get my head wrapped around the system of magic in this world was somewhat frustrating, but there’s a lot of great action in this book.
Deadhouse Gates – four stars. This book won me over where GOTM did not. It felt truly epic in scope outside of the series and emotionally satisfying while also devastating and poignant.
Memories of Ice – three stars. Super violent and lots of body horror. Culminates in my favorite battle sequence of the series to this point.
Everything’s great so far, there’s some characters you really root for, humor, truly incredible battle sequences, epic scope and a world that has a real history to it.
Then House of Chains comes along and you spend the first 250 pages or so with mostly brand new characters in a completely different story line from the first three books. And not only are they new characters, but truly despicable people who rape and pillage and worship terrible gods. It took some will to get through those first 250 pages. Then the next section starts and you’re back with a more familiar story line continuing from Deadhouse Gates. What an absolutely ballsy move on the part of Erikson to start the fourth book of this series with such a shift. Glancing at others’ reactions to this, it seems to be the point of the series where people get frustrated and quit, and I can’t say I truly blame them. For me, it was interesting enough to keep going, also, I may have glanced ahead to make sure it was going to get back to what I considered the main story.
What does Erikson consider the main story? Well, that’s a good question and I think it’s open to interpretation. There’s A LOT going on in these books. Broadly speaking, the story revolves around the Malazan Empire and its struggle to quell a rebellion while navigating a world filled with gods and individuals with great powers called Ascendants. Boiled down to its essence one could say it’s a struggle between good and evil, evil represented by an entity known as the Chained God. Good is represented by portions of the Malazan Empire but also various gods and Ascendants. But that’s reducing the complexity in a way that this story doesn’t deserve. Erikson gives you a lot of pieces of a huge puzzle and trusts the reader to piece it together. The system of magic isn’t so much as explained as demonstrated and it’s one of the better examples of “showing not telling” in the fantasy genre. There’s a lot of hints of the history of the world in this book and how it impacts the characters. In most cases, they’re as ignorant as we are of the ages past and what’s buried under their feet. This allows us to learn of the world in a satisfying way because the characters are learning about it as well. Erikson keeps a lot of his characters at arm’s length. Many soldiers are little more than bit parts, a brief stroke at identifying them with a unique culture or a nickname. But the people he chooses to focus on are decently well-rounded and feel like actual people. They’re good, bad, and everything in between, and people you initially rooted for may not turn out to be so sympathetic, and vice versa. If you’re intrigued by detailed world building and have the patience to let questions be slowly answered over time, this series is a great fit for you.
House of Chains, however, feels like the book in the series you have to get through to get back to the stories you want to read. It has a fairly similar build-up plot-wise to Memories of Ice. An army is heading towards what will surely be a major battle. Past the deep dive of the first section, the backstory of a minor character from Deadhouse Gates, we’re back to the continuation of the rebellion in the Seven Cities. You spend a lot of time with characters on the side of the rebellion who seem repetitive and shallow. There’s a lot of details about these people that seem superfluous rather than seeding more interesting tales that should be spun off later. And that’s unfortunate because the broad scope is the strength of this series – giving you a taste of a character or a mystery, then getting back to it later in a way that feels genuine and meaningful to the whole. That’s what the first section of the book is an attempt at, and yet, it wasn’t a story I was terribly interested in. Overall, it felt like more of a slog at times rather than anything intriguing. The book ends in a somewhat satisfying manner, but with a caveat*.
If you’re already interested in this series and willing to devote the time to finish all ten books, I believe it will pay off. The focus may change a lot and you will miss your favorite characters at times, but I feel like Erikson has a good handle on guiding the story away from plot dead ends. I also have some faith that he will capitalize on the broad scope in more interesting ways going forward. When you get to this book, just keep going, get it over with.
*(spoilers from this point)
My main gripe with the plot itself is something that I think Erikson intended to be a strength, setting this book apart from the mold he’s already created. You’re used to the set-up of the first books and this one has a similar set-up but the ending is unexpected. The story pits sister against sister by making them the leaders of their opposing armies. In this world, women are soldiers as well so there’s not a significant lack of female characters despite the mostly martial settings, but the balance is skewed towards men. Which is why I was so excited by the prospect of two sisters leading armies against each other! One doesn’t know she’s facing her sister across the battlefield. She’s an untested commander trying to quash the rebellion with an army of recruits. The other sister is the appointed vessel of a vengeful goddess, ostensibly leading the desert tribes against the Malazan invaders but in actuality trying to grab hold of a magical source of power. She’s surrounded by a stereotypical viper’s nest of shifty generals and secretive mages all plotting to betray her (the slog of the rebellion which unfortunately includes some uncomfortable sexual violence. Again, not explicit, not seen as normal or acceptable, but I would argue unnecessary. We can figure out a character is evil without him being a rapist.).
Unfortunately, both women end up undercut by the focus on their male underlings and their plots. Yes, one of the Bridgeburners is part of the Malazan army, and I have no problem with the focus on his story line and what happens with them. But instead of the sisters actually facing each other in a real sense that feels like it has stakes and meaning, all of the climatic action happens without their knowledge, and is mostly carried out by men, including the man we spent 250 pages with in the beginning of the book that was such a chore. Yeah, it’s cool that the Bridgeburners came back and take revenge for the Chain of Dogs, but would it have been too much to ask for the women commanders to have had something to do with the culminating action? I feel like Erikson was doing this to subvert expectations because there was a massive battle set piece to end Memories of Ice and this action was much more secretive, mystical and unexpected. I just wish it hadn’t come at the expense of two leaders who happened to be women.