8.23.2015

Three Million Reasons Why I'll Never Read a Fantasy Book Again


I finally did it. I finished reading Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series, composed of ten tomes of the best high fantasy that exists. It only took two years and three attempts. I started the first book, Gardens of the Moon, years ago after picking up a tattered copy in a used bookstore. I absolutely did not understand it. I don't mean that it went over my head like Ulysses did after reading the first sentence. I mean, Erikson dropped me into the middle of a highly fleshed out universe without a compass, a map, any knowledge of the native languages, and no night sky to guide me by the stars. 

Apparently that's how it's supposed to be. Remember that show Lost? You know, the one where not even the writers knew what was going on? Pull it up on Netflix, go to a random season and watch any episode other than the finale or premiere. Also, switch the language to Spanish. That's sort of what my first read through of Gardens was like. You are not expected to know what is going on. Instead we are told to be patient, because the wait will pay off in the end.

The end?? You mean like ten books and 10,000 pages later?! 

I completely understand why such a structure would be a turnoff to readers of fantasy. I may be exaggerating a little with my Netflix analogy, but it's close. And the thing is, it's not like the book starts off slow. In fact, this is an illustration of the opening battle:

 Siege of Pale

Yes, that is a giant floating castle thing shooting blasts of energy at masses of soldiers below. Awesome, right? How could that not pull you in? I love intense opening scenes! In Final Fantasy 7, you're thrown right into the game as an ex-soldier working for a terrorist group. You jump off the train, and soldiers rush to intercept you. It's thrilling. In A Song of Ice and Fire, we begin outside the Wall, where things quickly turn sour for a trio of Night's Watch men within the first few pages. Remember the opening shot of Star Wars, with the Star Destroyer chasing the good guys? Amazing! That's what happens here, in a sense. It's what follows that is hard to understand.

For context, Erikson wrote Gardens of the Moon about ten years before the second book. Not only that, but much of the story is based off of Erikson's and fellow Malazan-author-and-creator Ian C. Esslemont's days of role-playing gaming, where Erikson and Esslemont would actually play out the scenarios that involved the characters in the books. Interesting and confusing. Because of the huge gap between the first and second volume, the writing is noticeably better by the time you start Deadhouse Gates. I read Gardens twice before even thinking about moving to book number two, but after my third re-read, I decided to purchase Deadhouse Gates and take the Malazan plunge (which I've heard is like being "thrown into the ocean with anvils tied to your feet"). 

Lo and behold, I gave up after the first chapter of the second book. Some time later I tried again, making it to nearly 100 pages, before again setting it down and forgetting about it. One of the most frustrating aspects of the series is that different books take place in different settings. Only a few characters carried over from book one to book two, and they were on a completely different continent. This happens about three times throughout the course of the series. Characters you've fallen in love with while reading book two won't show up again until book four, and then - wouldn't you know it - book five takes you to a whole other continent with new characters/threads/plots. It's nuts. And yet, in the end it is all worth it.


Obviously, I eventually finished Deadhouse Gates, and any reservations I had about the series quickly disintegrated. The last 100 or so pages of book two absolutely blew me away. I purchased Memories of Ice (book three) and from then on, I embarked on an epic journey through what I strongly believe is the best fantasy series ever written. I had already ordered books four and five before I was halfway done with Memories.

As the title of this post suggests, the main series contains roughly 3,325,000 words spread over 10,000 pages. It took me two years to finish it. That's not an impressive pace. I'm a slow reader and sometimes a whole week would go by before I would pick it up again. That amounts to about fifteen pages a day. Easy, right? Well, it just so happens that Tor (the company that published the series) was also hosting what they called "The Malazan Reread of the Fallen" on their website, which is a series of chapter reviews/summaries written by two authors - a brand new reader, and one who had previously read the series. That way, you get to experience two viewpoints - one of a newbie and one from someone who had already read all ten books. Early on, I would every now and then check out the reread posts after a particularly difficult chapter. Eventually, it got to the point to where I would read the reread posts after every chapter, which literally numbered in the hundreds.

So after all that work, was it still worth it? I mean, the first book has a preface that lists FIVE pages of all the characters that make an appearance. Each volume after that follows the same pattern - a "Dramatis Personae" so you can become acquainted with the main players. Hundreds of characters, millions of words, thousands of pages, dozens of plots spread across a multitude of continents. There is nothing easy about it. Erikson's writing is dense, and there's a lot of it. So would I recommend it to other readers of fantasy?

Yes and no.

The enthusiast in me wants to say that everyone should read it, but that's not true. In fact, if you were to show even the slightest interest, I'd pick up my roughed-up copy of Gardens, meet you at a coffee shop (or bar, your choice), buy you a drink, and tell you why you should read this series. Of course, not everyone has the same tastes, and this is no exception for fantasy readers. This isn't something that the middling fan of fantasy could pick up and enjoy. Reading Lord of the Rings and the aforementioned A Song of Ice and Fire and enjoying them is one thing, and I say that with the utmost austerity. Everyone knows I'm a nerd and I love Game of Thrones, but it doesn't hold a candle to Erikson's masterpiece. Not even close. In fact, I think Malazan has ruined fantasy for me by making all other fantasy virtually unreadable. 

Hence, the title of this post.


I've obviously read Tolkien and Martin. I've read Robert Jordan and Glen Cook. Eddings, McKiernan, Weeks, Rothfuss, Reichert, etc. All of these authors are great. Some of them will and have already gone down as masters of high fantasy (Tolkien, Jordan, Martin), but I believe Erikson's writing to be superior. I'm not saying that to cause controversy, nor am I saying that I'm super-duper smart for reading some erudite series that only people possessing advanced intellect would understand. Nope. I just love fantasy, and I happen to love Erikson's brand more than any other. Heck, numerous blogs and reviews told me that I would enjoy the writing of Patrick Rothfuss since I enjoyed Erikson, so I downloaded the audiobook for The Name of the Wind. Highly touted as the next classic, I just....couldn't bring myself to care. It wasn't bad. It was enjoyable if you enjoy the mostly typical tropes of the genre. But it was fluff without substance. I NEED SUBSTANCE, PEOPLE.

So who then is the intended audience? To put it bluntly, Malazan is high fantasy for the high fantasy fan. That sounds like nonsense, but perhaps I can better explain it. Are you trying to write your own fantasy novel? Are you deeply interested in magic systems and the nuances of how they work? Or are you merely a fan of good worldbuilding, enjoying the lore and history of a novel's setting? Have you ever DMed a game of D&D or Pathfinder or any other role-playing game? Are you sick of elves/dwarves/orcs/dark lords/powerful artifacts/farmboys with dormant powers, etc? ME TOO!

The Malazan world is so vast and overwhelming, I literally cannot fathom all the work that went into creating it. Erikson studied anthropology and archaeology for years, so you'd better believe that he's put work into creating ancient civilizations with histories that span thousands of years. His system for magic is wonderfully inventive, unlike anything I've ever read. There are gods beyond gods and incredibly innovative races, each complete with their own rich histories. 


I realize I've gushed endlessly with no real credible arguments as to why I prefer Malazan over everything else. Not only that, but I haven't said a word of what the series is actually about. It's because I CAN'T. I still struggle to tell people what the series is about when they ask. But if you really want to know, maybe we can grab that drink I mentioned earlier and I'll again try my best to explain myself.

In conclusion, I can safely say that I'll be taking a break from the whole high fantasy thing for some time. I can only assume that it will be a number of years before I visit Malazan again, for reasons I've already mentioned. My new mission? Harry Potter for the first time. My wife has been wanting me to read HP for the entirety of our relationship. I think I was reading The Bonehunters (book six) when I said that I simply would not read anything else until I finished the series (I lied, I took a break to read Gone Girl between books eight and nine). 

Well, I finished. So I guess it's off to Hogwarts for now. 

PS I'm serious about that whole getting a drink thing. I promise to take it easy. JUST LET ME SHARE MY HAPPINESS WITH YOU, GUYS.

Read these books.

JDS