A friend of mine once told me about a movie series backed by Ted Turner which was set up to be an epic, three-part, 12-hour opus about the American Civil War. It was called Gods and Generals, starring Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall, and it was canceled after the first 4-hour entry of the trilogy. This bothered my friend to no end — if someone’s going to put in the effort to create an epic piece of art, then it needs to be given a chance. Yes, it was slow, but this made total sense in its entirety as a story as it was a beginning. The payoff comes by the end when the people who believed in it and stayed true start raving about the quality of an inspired work that began and ended with epic vision. That the conclusion was worth the journey.
Too bad for Civil War buffs, but for fans of fantasy novels there is The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson, a series which wholly encompasses this sense of scope. Encompasses it and obliterates it.
Written in the early 1990s and published by Bantam Books in the UK by 1999, Gardens of the Moon marked the beginning of the Malazan series. Eleven years later, including eight further novels and four novellas, the Book of the Fallen will hit its zenith when book 10, The Crippled God, is released in January 2011 (UK). Since the series’ inception, author Steven Erikson (real name Steve Rune Lundin) has published at a rate of almost a full novel per year, missing only 2003 and 2005 book-ending Midnight Tides. With the series collectively amounting to over 7500 pages softcover, that is an awful lot of work — work rewarded with a dedicated fanbase and a World Fantasy Award nomination. The feat is even more impressive when compared to other successful fantasy writers of the last 20 years, notably Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin, who fought to keep both themselves and their stories on track as their popular fantasy sagas progressed.
If you haven’t heard of the series before now, that is not surprising. Though popular, it is a notably difficult series to get into, particularly to newcomers to the fantasy genre. Erikson himself admits that you either love it or you hate it. The story can be done no justice here as it is a densely-layered universe rife with made-up words that are meaningless without the context of the novel to draw from (like any good fantasy). Gardens of the Moon is the book equivalent of being dropped in a swamp miles from civilization—you either wade through the mire or drown. The series does not start at any set ‘beginning,’ per se, thrusting the reader into the thick of the action right from the start. Continuing onwards requires more than a little faith. After all, this is a history—and it tells the story of worlds and empires, not a single protagonist upon whom everything revolves. Try looking at World War II without first studying World War I—or solely from the point of view of a single soldier—and you know what I mean. To quote the Smashing Pumpkins: the beginning is the end of the beginning.
As a personal side-anecdote, I recently made a bet with a girl I know: she promised to read The Malazan Book of the Fallen if I read Harry Potter. We lent each other the first book in the series. Seven Hogwarts-laden books later, I found her and asked how she was enjoying Erikson. Red-cheeked, she replied that she had gotten to page 19, screamed “Bastard!” at a character and thrown the book down. I like to think I got the better of the deal. Expecto Patronum!
Jokes aside, her response is not atypical: the history of the Malazan Empire is not for the faint of heart, fraught with violence, malice, blood, death and worse. Principally, it chronicles the campaigns of the armies of the Malazan Empire, a military-based society which, at the time of the first book, has occupied much of the known world – campaigns bloody in length and brutal in efficacy. The books have been compared to Glen Cook’s Black Company series in this way. But their strength does not come from being action-packed, violent or gore-for-gore’s-sake—it comes from the epic scope of the universe. Unlike most creations these days (in any medium), the Malazan series has been given plenty of time to expand. Throughout the story is ample evidence that this has all been figured out ahead of time; that someone with an epic concept has been given free reign to create. This is where the magic is. The publishers put great faith in Erikson when they hired him to write ten books (yes, the same ten he is about to complete) for a high six-figure salary. It is wonderful to see rewards forthcoming for those who put faith in a sole creator to immerse.
Pause on this a moment, because it is both true and rare. There was such a showing of faith in Erikson to tackle the ten books required to explain (most) of his universe that he was left free to immerse himself in his world and thus the reader in his words. No sweeps. No writer’s block. No cancellation due to poor sales. People think Lost is deep and densely-plotted—those guys wrote it on the fly after their miraculous first season. Erikson has been plotting this series for two decades and has actually managed to create it fully and completely over that time—with no one to report to but himself and his childhood friend Ian C. Esslemont, Erikson’s writing partner and Malazan co-creator (who has two companion novels to the series under his belt with more forthcoming.) The confidence inspired in this author by his publisher and audience demands attention in itself. It certainly stokes in me a sense of awe I have trouble articulating.
One could argue Gods and Generals failed because audiences refused to struggle through the almost 4-hour length while maintaining faith that they would be rewarded once the trilogy picked up—and by all rights this is what should have happened to the Malazan series. Amazingly, it held on and its followers are now reaping the rewards of a fully-realized epic. The books have passed the test and those who stuck with them can confidently report that they are a worthy read; that they are worth the slog through the swamp. Now it is up to the fantasy-reading public to take a deep breath and take the plunge.
But be warned: once you reach the climax of Deadhouse Gates there is no going back…
On the web: The Malazan Empire