Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Written Fantasy and the Malazan Book of the Fallen

I often can't identify which characters from inside a book are on the front cover, but this is clearly Anomander Rake with Dragnipur.

I've said here several times that I don't like Lord of the Rings. Nonetheless, I can appreciate it. To me, Rings is like Wizardry for many modern CRPG gamers: they salute it for its contributions to the oeuvre, but they don't find it particularly enjoyable. In my case, I just think Tolkien was a lousy writer. He created evocative worlds and languages, but he needed someone like Brandon Sanderson to punch up the copy.

In discussions of the "best" or "greatest" fantasy novels of all time, I think we have to exclude writers like Tolkien. He's the source, after all--the ur-writer who established the archetypes, who outlined the tropes. Almost all modern fantasy--novels, games, and films--owe Tolkien some debt. So let's take him off the table. After him, a variety of authors developed the genre, and I think in recent years, we've seen fantasy writing reach a certain peak.

I want to make a case for the Malazan Book of the Fallen series as the greatest fantasy series of all time.

In yesterday's posting, I made a sly allusion to the series, which Kyle Haight noted that he caught. His comment set me thinking about how I don't write much about fantasy series, even though I consume them in the thousands of pages. I don't know if I'm a naturally voracious reader, but my work/travel schedule, which involves at least two flights a week, has left me with a bonanza of time for reading. This has even affected my CRPG playing, a bit: whereas I would often spend evenings in hotel rooms playing games, nowadays I'm equally as likely to take my Kindle down to the hotel bar and cover a hundred or so pages until the sheer number of gimlets renders further reading impossible.

It turns out that such is the best method of reading the Malazan Book of the Fallen. This is not a series that rewards time off. There are too many characters to keep track of, too many plot threads being woven at the same time, that to take a break for a few weeks is to essentially shut the door on the series. This series was meant to be read all at once, without stopping. My Amazon account says that I bought Gardens of the Moon on June 17, and I'm currently on Reaper's Gale (Book 7). (It is my second reading for the first eight books.) I expect to finish Book 10 right about the time I earn Delta Diamond Medallion level status in September. It's going to be a banner month.

I will be the first to admit that the Malazan series is a difficult series. Sometimes I wonder how I had the patience to get into it. Gardens of the Moon drops you into a complex world with no explanation whatsoever about what's happening, what the history is, what the politics are, who the competing factions are, and so forth (and you frankly don't get a handle on these things until about Book 3). Primed by Tokien (elves vs. orcs), Jordan (Aes Sedai vs. the Dark One), Goodkind (Richard Cypher vs. Darken Rahl, then later vs...I don't know...some kind of emperor...honestly, did anyone read the series that far?) and so on, you immediately start casting about for the "good guys" and the "bad guys" and you find no clear delineation. The titular Malazans don't come off as very "good," although there are some noble characters among them. You figure an ominously-named character called "Shadowthrone" and the god of assassins, "Cotillion," must be (or "must needs be," as Erikson would say) "bad," but within a couple of books, you develop the distinct impression that these two characters might, in fact, be conspiring to save the world from destruction. Or trying to destroy it themselves. There's no way to know.

The books allude to a history that is ancient--ancient cities, enemies, allies, rights, and wrongs. Some of the characters have lived for 300,000+ years, and yet none of them have any idea what the $&#* is going on. It's just like real life, really. You get the impression that Erikson and Esslemont (his co-creator who has written several of his own books in the world) didn't so much create the world as discover it. Both of them are archeologists by trade, and in the novels, you can see an archaeologist's attention to detail in the uncovering of ancient civilizations. Their words are like the brushes that they use to carefully separate bones from dust. But as in archaeology, you can rarely be certain about anything. You get tantalizing hints but have to conjecture the rest. I've read some of these books three times, and I'm still not certain what the relationship is between Dissembelackis, the Hounds of Darkness, the Hounds of Shadow, and the Deragoth. I'm frankly not even sure Erikson does.

On the surface, there's no reason why I shouldn't hate this. Why would anyone want to read 5,000 pages about the Seven Cities subcontinent and still be confused about the different tribes and what happened to the First Empire? And yet it's intoxicating, the idea that no one--not the characters, not even the authors--has all the answers. It frees you to watch the scenery go by in a blur, if you so choose, and focus on the characters. And the characters are what make the series.

Like real people, they can be grand and noble in some circumstances, and murderous and vile in others. You find yourself rooting for a character like Karsa Orlong and his concern for justice, conveniently forgetting that in his first 50 pages he engaged in a series of senseless rapes and massacres. Kalam Mekhar is a popular character despite the fact that he directly contributed to the tragedy in the second book known as the Chain of Dogs. Why do we just forgive him for this? Two of the most amusing figures are, ultimately, an egomaniac and a near-omnipotent god who nonetheless seems to ignore the suffering around him. But how we delight in their banter! Is the Empress a wicked usurper or a besieged ruler doing her best to save the many at the expense of the few? Or something in between? The books give us every possible answer.

George R. R. Martin has been praised for this: characters that seem like antagonists become sympathetic once you get a couple of chapters from their points of view. In The Game of Thrones, Jaime Lannister tries to murder a child who spots him in the midst of a longstanding affair with his married sister, and yet two books later he comes off as a bit of a hero. It's the same here, but tenfold. High King Kallor murders one of the most beloved characters in the series, and a few books later, you're practically crying tears of sympathy for him. I even suspect that the Crippled God--the ostensible antagonist in the entire series--is going to turn out to be a pitiable, decent soul by the end of the last book (please, for K'rul's sake, no spoilers!).

Many of the characters are what Erikson calls "ascendants." Those that have worshipers are gods. There are multiple paths to ascendancy, but none of them in any particularly consistent way (there are no "rules" that hold through the entire series; every one has multiple corollaries and exceptions). You get the feeling that a host of them are ascendants without even realizing it. Their approaches to conflict are so varied and unique that you quiver with anticipation when two of them are about to meet. My "wish list" of such convergences is a mile long, and I suppose it's folly to expect that they'll ever all happen. But please, please, Steve, put Karsa and Kruppe in the same room before the end. (To me, Kruppe is the most memorable character of any book ever written.) You could sustain an entire novel just describing a lunch at which Iskaral Pust, Tehol, Bugg, Kellanved, Tavore, and Corabb were all in attendance.

The morality of the series is also fascinating. Within the first book, you have the annihilation of an entire army only a few chapters from a character worrying about the moral implications of adultery. In Deadhouse Gates, the author graphically describes the rapes and slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians and then somehow brings you to tears over the sacrifice of a horse. But in this, again, the books mirror real life. We grieve deeply the people we know and pause only a moment to consider the deaths of thousands in far-off places. In neither in or out of the books is this hypocrisy; it is enough--it must be enough--to occupy ourselves with those inside our circles of concern and influence.

Hood's breath, am I going on. And I haven't even talked about the races. Let's just say that, again, the books mirror real life. There aren't many "racial traits." I haven't ever finished The Lord of the Rings, but my guess is that you never find a fat elf, a good orc, or a temperate dwarf. It is the tradition of fantasy authors--and not to mention CRPG designers--to assign absolute traits (including alignments) to their races. Not Erikson. Humans, Jaghut, T'lan Imass, Tiste Edur...these ultimately just boil down to convenient ways to describe how someone looks. T'lan Imass are supposed to be singularly driven and clan-oriented, but these are traits more honored in the breach than in the observance. The series delights in introducing stereotypes and turning them on their heads. We have immortal races who exhibit shocking short-sightedness, and mortals who have planned and plotted in such detail that in ten books, we cannot see the full scope of their machinations.

Most important, since we're with this author for more than a million words, is the language. Erikson is, above everything else, a good writer. This is probably why I stuck with Gardens of the Moon long enough to recognize the fundamental greatness of the series. I have read many fantasy authors that I thought were "good" writers--Sanderson, Martin, Hobb, even Jordan despite his frequent repetition of idiotic phrases--but Erikson is the only fantasy writer that I have felt was "great," in a truly Dickensian way. He has that rare art of knowing when to describe fully, and when to describe in sketches. Witness:

The Tarancede tower rose from the south side of Trate's harbour. Hewn from raw basalt it was devoid of elegance or beauty, reaching like a gnarled arm seven stories from an artificial island of jagged rocks. Waves hammered it from all sides, flinging spume into the air. There were no windows, no doors, yet a series of glossy obsidian plates ringed the uppermost level, each one as tall as a man and almost as wide.

--Midnight Tides, Chapter 6

When sober, the sergeant noticed things, in a proper a diligent manner suited to a city guard. And while she was not consistently drunk, cold sobriety was an invitation to hysteria, so Hellian endeavored to proceed steadily on the wobbly rope of not-quite-drunk. Accordingly, she had not known of the odd ship now moored in the Free Docks, that had arrived before sunrise, its pennons indicating that it had come from Malaz Island.

--The Bonehunters, Prologue

This kind of prose comes along and swats braid-tugging, crossing-arms-under-breasts, wheels of time turning with ages coming and passing, leaving memories that become legend completely off the competition board. And yet Malazan has sold maybe 400,000 copies and Wheel of Time us up to something like 47 million. Wheel of Time also has an extensive online wiki, while Malazan, which frankly really needs it, has only a couple of half-assed attempts.

It all comes back to the complexity of the series, which brings me back to my original point about needing to read it all at once. You simply don't pick up the details if you take breaks. Let me cover one example. In Deadhouse Gates (Book 2), some characters accidentally get pulled into a warren (sort-of like an alternate dimension that serves as a source of magic), where they find a ship called the Silanda. It is crewed by a group of headless, ensorcelled Tiste Andii (a dark-skinned race), and the visitors discover that the captain and his officers, a group of grey-skinned Tiste Edur--have been slaughtered. What happened to them? Even as several of the characters take over the vessel and bring it back to the real world, we never find out.

Fast forward to House of Chains (Book 4), where in a prologue set earlier than Book 2, we see the barbarian Karsa Orlong accidentally find himself in the same warren. He comes across the Edur-crewed ship and kills the crew, then just as swiftly departs, leaving it to be discovered by the Malazans in Deadhouse Gates. Aha!, we say. So he's the one who chopped up that ship! But who are the Tiste Edur in the first place? Well, we don't find that out until Midnight Tides (Book 5), but even then, we only discover their backstory. Not until The Bonehunters (Book 6) does it become clear why they were in the warren to begin with, and if you're paying close attention, you have a moment--a real end-of-The Sixth Sense kind of moment--when you realize exactly who the captain was, what he was doing there, and what his fateful chance encounter with Karsa actually meant for another character and, consequently, the overall direction of the series. There's no way you're going to keep all of this straight if you take a nice leisurely break between books.

Have you all really gotten this far? Well, I'm sorry; I have no connection between this entry and CRPGs, except to say that I would love to play a CRPG set in the Malazan world--or even one set in a world of this kind of complexity. Only The Elder Scrolls really comes close. I'm writing this longhand on a plane after my Kindle ran out of juice in the middle of Book 7. More on Times of Lore tomorrow.

But before I close, let me take a moment for my readers who have read the Malazan series. There is a moment in Book 3 that I find simply haunting, and I want you to recall it to see if you agree. Books 2 and 3 are both set contemporaneously to each other, on separate continents, and both describe armies engaged in essentially hopeless wars. Each makes staggering sacrifices, and in the end, one is victorious (though sort of a Pyrrhic victory) and the other is not.

Book 2 (Deadhouse Gates) is simply brutal. Erikson's writing ensures that we reach the end as exhausted as the characters, and some things happen that are jaw-dropping in their cruelty, both to the characters and to the readers who have followed them this far. We close the book and pick up Book 3 (Memories of Ice). And while some awful things happen in this book, they don't seem as fundamentally unfair as what happened in Book 2. The epilogue even seems reasonably happy. And then we get this. I'm not going to set it up because I don't want to spoil anything for those who haven't read it. You have to remember who these people are, where they are, and how they got there.

"Sure," Spindle snapped, "A story to break our hearts all over again! What's the value in that?"

A rough, broken voice replied, "There is value."

Everyone fell silent, and turned to Duiker.

The Imperial Historian had looked up, was studying them with dark eyes. "Value. Yes. I think, much value. But not yours, soldiers. Not yet. Too soon for you. Too soon."

"Perhaps," Baruk mummured, "Perhaps you are right in that. We ask too much--"

"Of them. Yes." The old man looked down once more at the cloth in his hands.

The silence stretched.

Duiker made no move.

Picker began to turn back to her companions--when the man began speaking. "Very well, permit me, if you will, on this night. To break your hearts once more. This is the story of the Chain of Dogs. Of Coltaine of the Crow Clan, newly come Fist to the 7th Army..."

Those last words have power I've never experienced in another book about fantasy creatures with pointed ears and tusked faces. Tolkien never had this kind of power. Duiker is about to tell them the story of Book 2. And we know what this will do to them. It's truly going to break their hearts--so much that we don't see them again for five books. And at the same time, having read the story of the Chain of Dogs, it breaks ours once more--the last paragraph is both Duiker speaking to the patrons of K'rul's Bar and Erikson speaking to us. This is the greatest fantasy series of all time.


  1. Color me intrigued. I'm reading through Tolkien right now (Silmarillion, Hobbit, Lord of the Rings... I'd value him more highly than you), want to reread Mistborn with Sanderson's annotations (and all his books, really... he's my current favorite bar none), am planning to reread A Song of Ice and Fire when Dance with Dragons hits paperback, and for some reason just picked up and read Stephen King's The Gunslinger (Book One of The Dark Tower series... six to go). I'm sure I'll have to suffer through Eragon and its sequels once Inheritance is out, too.

    If I don't get to Malazan Book of the Fallen before I turn 30 (that gives me a solid year and a half), know that it's now firmly on the hit list. : )

    1. Don't know if you've gotten to it yet, bro, but the Malazan Book of the Fallen is leagues ahead of ALL of the books you mentioned. (Yes, even LOTR.)

    2. Well, I turn 30 in two weeks. Didn't make it to the books yet, but I haven't forgotten. ; )

  2. I have to say that this is possibly your worst blog entry yet. It's not so much that it doesn't fit perfectly into the theme of your blog. Your New Orleans entries were even more off. But they showed a certain fascination you have for the city and actually made me interested in it.

    This entry, however, reads just like "this is the best fantasy series you have never read; forget all these multi-million sellers and by this underappreciated gem". I fail to see any difference from the better customer reviews you can find at amazon, and this is where this blog entry belongs in my opinion. It somehow doesn't fit in here.

    At the time of this writing there are moe "mehs" than "goods" so I guess, even if this may sound hard, I have a point.

    1. Have you read the Malazan series? I guess probably not. That is why you are making such baseless statements. A person who has actually read the books would express his views in the same vein as CRPG has posted. I read books 1-7 excluding 3 as I could not get my hands on it. Finally, when I found books 3 and 8 together, I re-read the entire available series as a 'revision'. When I finally finished book 10, before leaving for uni, I wanted to write an essay titled 'An excercise in futility'. However, I am away from my collection at home(I could not carry them to uni) and was pining for them after 1 month of arrival. Read the books first, then you will understand what CRPG is saying. Your comments are such that you read someone else's synopsis of a book and are blaming a fan who literally can empathise with the characters. As another anonymous person posted, you probably are a 'troll'.

  3. Well, I certainly come here first and foremost to read about you tackling the diverse field of old school-crpgs. But I really enjoyed this entry exactly because it breaks the mold. I appreciate you sharing your views on more than one kind of thing, especially since this blog is about you using it as an outlet of sorts and not something we pay for to serve us. If the commenter above me has a problem with this, I suggest he skips over the non-crpg entries and simply waits. Regards.

  4. Tolkien imitators are the cancer of fantasy literature. You're supposed to use your own imagination to make up your own world, yet many people nowadays think even the definition of 'fantasy literature' starts by first copy-pasting Tolkien's dwarves, elves, etc.

  5. Personally I've never had much interest in modern fantasy epics, especially if it is a long running series. Some novels have good writing, detailed lore, memorable characters, non-trivial plot, yes, but it's rare to find a fantasy book (book of any genre really) that has enough charisma for me to not to forget about it in a few weeks after I finished it. Latest one was The Witcher. First two books of the series actually, later books are far more forgetable.

    Here is the second problem. Good story needs to stop. Stop where intended, or at least where it's still good. When series becomes too long, it loses it's value. After initial success, it would be stupid to not to continue, even if author did not planned so to begin with - readers want more story, writer and publisher want more money. So author writes what readers want to read, not what he really want to write. But writes it well, after all sequel needs to be succesful. Sure, those long running epics are entertaining, but it's their whole point. Book series become like tv-series - you watch it, it's good, so you wait 'till next autumn for a new season to watch some more of the same.

  6. Malazan is probably the most overrated drivel I have ever had the misfortune of reading.

    The whole world feels like a gigantic RPG campaign, with countless races, each one with more silly names and abilities than the next.

    The characters are mostly one dimensional card board characters with no realistic motivations. Unlike most characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, they just aren't convincing.
    Ben the Wizard and his friend the assassin are lowly infantry, yet the world's greatest wizard and the world's second (after Cotillion) assassin? Whiskeyjack is supposed to be the guy men wants to be, women want to bed, little girls want as an uncle, immortal lords call friend out of nowhere and immortal women are falling in love with. The Greatest Guy Of All Time - yet he comes across to me as a total dullard with as much charisma as a Ken doll. Erickson in no way is able to show _why_ he's supposed to be this great guy. The only noteworthy thing he does is to suddenly kill som immortal guy who has lived millions of years.
    Karsa Orlong starts out as a raper and mass murderer than later becomes a moralist who judges other rapists? He swings a giant 2H Sword and is able to kill two Hounds - the same kind of Hounds that are ultra quick and have no problems wasting entire armies. Yeah, very realistic...

    The power levels are insane and you start wondering why people make an effort at all in such a world, where there as Deus Ex Machinae everywhere, with high level wizards, demons and lvl 999 Interdimensonal Gods popping up all over the place.
    Why use infantry at all in such a world?

    And some of the things are so insanely unrealstic. The soldiers are portrayed as no-nonsense guys and gals that only take orders from officers they respect, but still 10,000 soldiers meekly puts down their arms to be slaughtered?!?

    The prose is from good to terrible.
    The best part was the beginning of Karsa Orlong's history, in my opinion.
    Parts of the books read more like screen plays than regular prose, with annoying unfinished sentences.

    Some of the dialogue seems written to deliberately exclude the readers, when characters go "indeed", "it sure was" and similar leaving the reader feeling excluded and wondering what they were talking about.

    In the end Erickson's writing fails to move me. Tolkien and George RR Martin manage to move me, but not Malazan. Even when sister unwittingly kills sister I felt nothing. The writing utterly failed to make me feel or care.

    But I loved Kruppe. He was actually funny.

    And despite all my negative feelings about the series I still have a morbid desire to pick them up again and try to piece together the pieces of the Malazan puzzle.

    1. Harsh, but valid points. Personally, I love the Malazan books. There were some times when I felt like he intentionally left the readers out, but for the most part I enjoyed having to figure things out for myself. I don't agree with your argument that the characters are one-dimensional. The main characters are fully fleshed out throughout the series. I agree with your feelings on the Deus Ex Machinae, though. I kept thinking, "I would never be a soldier in this world." Why not let the gods fight it out on their own? Anyway, valid argument, though I don't agree with all of it. Cheers.

    2. You two should probably refrain from using terms you don't understand. 'Deus ex machina' has nothing to do with gods and does not mean what you think it does. It refers to when an author writes himself into a corner, putting the protagonist in a can't-win situation, and then just makes up something ridiculous and improbable on the spot to save the day.

    3. It literally means "god in a box" or "god from a machine", so it's a pretty apt term for Erikson's way of having new gods and demons pop up from nowhere.
      So when used to describe the Malazan Book of the Fallen it can both have the literal meaning as well as "something ridiculous and improbable".

    4. Well, that would be a...misleading use of the term in my definition. It refereed to a point in a play where the gods would be lowered from the sky in a chariot, pick up the hero and save him. This is a very well established definition, so even if yours translates to correct I would avoid using it in that fashion for the sake of clarity.

    5. I believe Canageek is right about its origins, but for hundreds of years it's been used metaphorically to do just what Petrus says: create a "miracle" that gets characters out of otherwise-impossible situations. The fact that the deus exes in Malazan actually ARE gods doesn't negate the appropriateness of the term.

  7. I would say most good 'modern' Fantasy owes greater debts to the likes of Lord Dunsany, Fritz Leiber, James Branch Cabell, Eric Rücker Eddison and Clark Ashton Smith than it does Tolkien.

    Malazan isn' too shabby, despite being part of the rather annoying move towards "length for length's sake" style of Fantasy.
    Anyone interested in picking up the series should be aware that the first book was written 8 years prior to the second one. (and it shows)

  8. Brandon Sanderson wrote an article on how Tolkien nearly destroyed fantasy- not because Tolkien was terrible, but because he was good, and spawned so many imitators who wanted to redo what he did rather than come up with new and vital stories.

    I think Tolkien does not come off so well nowadays because so many imitators have followed, and many were more talented writers despite their failure to forge new roads. But when the Lord of the Rings came out, it synthesized a lot of mythology, philology, and so forth into something utterly new.

    For a lot of the same reasons I enjoy older CRPGs, the ones that tried new things first, I enjoy Tolkien. But if you really want to imitate him, do what he did- make something new.

  9. To continue my previous message...Malazan is the kind of books I'd probably devour when I was 15-20. At that time I could spend hours just browsing through AD&D and MERP source material, looking at lists of gods, NPCs, weapons, spells and so om, wondering who would win in a battle between Badass A and Badass B.

    So I think Malazan would make a terrific computer game, but it's juts too far out, with too high power level and too much use of Deus Ex Machina for me to enjoy as literature.

    Interesting essay by Sanderson about Tolkien. I think both he and the guy who replied had some good points.
    Without Tolkien fantasy would probably have been more of a niche market, being dominated by Swords&Sorcery like Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. And there might have been no Dungeons&Dragons and thus the CRPG market could have turned out completely different, with no Gold Box or Baldur's Gate games.

    I think most people who work with fantasy, be it books or games, in some degree are influenced by Tolkien, either directly or indirectly. But that is probably changing now with the "new wave" of Fantasy, represented by writers like Martin, Erikson, Abercrombie and Bakker. Kids now are more likely to start reading one of those guys, while 15+ years ago Lord of the Ring was usually what you started with when getting interested in reading Fantasy.

    But I think it's funny that Mr Addict can enjoy the oldest, most primitive CRPGs, but not be able to enjoy the gran father of fantasy books...

  10. Nice essay by Sanderson. Thanks for the link! I'd also say I just got finished listening to this lecture series by Dr. Michael Drout. He's a Tolkien scholar, so he obviously has a bias, but he corroborates the "mainstreaming" of fantasy accomplished by Tolkien. There are some interesting lectures dealing with how authors react to Tolkien, particularly through imitation (Sword of Shannara) or escaping his shadow (Earthsea trilogy by Le Guin).

    I really enjoyed the insight into Tolkien and seeing how his philology, Beowulf / Gothic studies, and personal life influenced his writing. However, I think even non-Tolkien fans would appreciate the later lectures on fantasy and magical realism in general. It's a shame the lectures are several years old, as he doesn't interact with authors of the last decade.

    You can most likely get these lectures from your public library if you're interested.

  11. "Those last words have power I've never experienced in another book about fantasy creatures with pointed ears and tusked faces. Tolkien never had this kind of power."

    With all due respect, poppycocks. Mazawhatever may be great, but to so offhandedly dismiss Tolkien's skill is beyond ridiculous.


    And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.


  12. I will make one brief observation about the Malazan Book of the Fallen: it is the only massive epic fantasy series (more than 3 volumes) I can think of where the author did not lose control of the narrative. Jordan, Martin, Goodkind -- their series sprawled out of hand. Erikson had the names of all ten volumes of his series publically known years ago, and he carried through on the plan. That alone shows skill.

    The depth and detail of the Malazan world is rivaled only by Tolkein and perhaps R. Scott Bakker, in different ways.

    1. R. Scott Bakker doesn't get enough love, he's fantastic.

    2. I read his two first books, and that was enough for me. The endless inner monologues of Akka and Esme "does (s)he love me? Why doesn't (s)he love me" got on my nerves. Dialogue is so much more interesting.
      And when that super freak of a demigod Kellor not only had godlike physique and mental abilities, but also had the "Mark of Sorcery" the super hero fantasy just got too much for my taste.
      I had some sympathy for Akka, but apart from that I couldn't care less for the characters. The Oedipus Emperor was interesting, but sadly he all but disappeared in the second book.
      The best thing about the books were the "bad guys". The Cabal and the Un-God is more interesting than most other "bad guys" in Fantasy. Too bad the "good guys" and the maverick Kellor are so tedious.

  13. While I will concede that Tolkien may have not been the most gifted novelist, I'm in awe of the immersive nature of his world creation, I have never met the like in fantasy literature. That would be hard to copy beacuse this spans a whole life-time of creating everything from races, maps, lore, languages and so forth. Although I haven't read some of the authors that are mentioned above, I would be very surprised if one came close in that respect. About the writing: on one of the extras of the extended DVD's, one particular enthusiastic Tolkien scholar (forgot his name) actually said that the way Tolkien paced his books, especially the uneven timelines and unlogical sequence of chapters, shouldn't have worked at all for a novel (and this is why Peter Jackson shuffled them around). He committed numerous crimes against common sense of "writing 101". And still the books work, marvels he...
    I'm intrigued by your recommendation of this Malazan, Book of the Fallen. I'm with Kyle Haight when it comes to the point of series getting out of hand, you could add the whole of the Amber Chronicles by Zelazny in the same list. So any writer who can tie multiple volumes together in one coherent narrative should be interesting!

  14. I was going to add my thoughts on Tolkien as well, but Deranged Archivist and others have mostly covered my thoughts. I will add that Tolkien, being an English prof, used words very effectively. The sense of history, and 'truth' he added to the world make it work for me.

    That said in the topic of literary greats not holding up as well I'd submit Asimov. Personally I favor sci-fi over fantasy. Asimov is one of the forefathers of modern sci-fi the way Tolkien is for fantasy. Likewise his stories are often weaker than most modern writers. His characters are flat, his dialogue rarely elevated above 'passable', and descriptions are sparse. That said his books still hold value to me. They are enjoyable because he was the master of distilling a premise into interesting conclusions. His short stories hold up remarkably well for that reason.

    That said to a modern reader, placing his stories in modern terms, he is remarkably weak compared to Enders Game or Snow Crash. To read it on those terms is folly. Read them with an eye for how these works shaped literature for decades to come though, see the seeds of modern writers, and I love it.

    That said I think you get that, you said you don't like LotR but you appreciate it. For me that appreciation leads to enjoyment. I know others do too, after all people still read Homer.


  15. Richard Cypher's later enemy is the embodied forces of Socialism.

    Turns out that Terry Goodkind is kind of a gigantic wingnut libertarian who doesn't consider his series "fantasy" and intended it to be an instructive allegory or somesuch. I made it through, I think, where he completely abandons the main characters for almost a full book's digression on someone you've never heard of before. It's a pity. Those first couple books really worked for me.

    I just came off my complete Malazan read in late June. Took me about four months. Four exhausting, brilliant months. It's a hell of an experience, but it takes a lot of investment and even though it's very, very good I was more than ready to read something else by the end. (So I still haven't read Stonewielder.)

    A couple points re: PetrusOctavianus:
    Karsa in his rape-and-pillaging phase has been conditioned by his grandfather, his people's culture, and the influence of their "gods" to regard those things as the right and proper things to do, and he's too full of himself and what he thinks he knows to examine things more critically, even when his friends try to bring the subject up. It takes his defeat and enslavement to readjust his worldview. And he's still nowhere near mature at that point. Realistic? I couldn't say. But I'd call it an internally consistent, narratively justified character arc.

    Also, the soldiers we spend 99% of our time with throughout the series are the Malazan marines. They're the ones with the attitudes and the "we'll do right by you if we respect you and you'll probably end up dead if not" policy. The troops that put down their arms and surrender are garrison troops, probably not even regular army.

    But the books are actually based on their roleplaying campaign, so that much is correct. (GURPS, apparently.)

    PS: The Hounds of Darkness and the Deragoth are one and the same. As to how they and the Hounds of Shadow are related and what's up with both them and Dessimbelackis? I think the last couple of books may shed some light on that for you. Or maybe not as much as you'd like. One thing I will say is that even though the main narrative of the series is closed as of book 10, there are quite a few story threads that haven't been resolved to date.

  16. "But the books are actually based on their roleplaying campaign"

    This I believe, and this passage feels like it comes from a contemporary campaign:

    "Picker began to turn back to her companions--when the man began speaking. "Very well, permit me, if you will, on this night. To break your hearts once more. This is the story of the Chain of Dogs. Of Coltaine of the Crow Clan, newly come Fist to the 7th Army..."

    As far as I'm concerned, the 7th Army is what drove the Germans out of Sicily. It's a totally contemporary, 20th century label; it lacks both power and poetry, at least for me. I see it and I'm instantly taken out of the author's fantasy -- the guy sounds like he lacks the necessary schooling in folklore and mythology to properly sell it.

    On that point, anyone who dismisses Tolkien dismisses most of Western myth and folklore, from Beowulf to the Finnish Kalevala. He was a lifelong student of roots of our mythological psyche and he built Middle Earth from it.

  17. China Miéville, anyone? I haven't really read that much fantasy since I was a teenager, in large part because the Tolkien-mimicking bores the shit out of me and I cannot STAND the obsessive need for every single fantasy thing to be eighty-three volumes long, but all three of his Bas-Lag novels (each a self-contained story, thank gawd) are great fun (well, GRIM fun). The man has a boundless imagination, and he's a pretty good stylist to boot.

  18. I think I prefer A Song of Ice and Fire. Malazan is GREAT (don't get me wrong, if it wasn't, I wouldn't have read like 12 books of it), but there are certain elements that I can't help but frown upon. As you noted, the series is RIDICULOUSLY COMPLEX. It's so absurd that, as you even implied, I'm not particularly well convinced that they aren't just bullshitting the whole thing as they go along. Still, at times, it ties together QUITE nicely, as illustrated by the Silanda stuff. Maybe a better Wiki would help to make more sense of the series.
    Regardless, I really don't believe that their intentions were consistent between Book 1 and the sequels. A few characters shift a lot. Some of the conversations just don't make sense in light of later revelations.
    My other issue is that, at times, it almost feels.. comic book-ish. The events are so incredibly over the top all the time. Still, the raw SIZE and SCOPE of the whole story are what I loved in the series... so I guess I can't really complain.

    Regardless, I know you haven't been there yet, but Books 9 and 10 are truly fantastic. Few books have managed to totally win me over like that with an ending, and, boy, did Erikson do it.

    What's your favorite book? I actually think Book 2 is the best. It maintains a -relatively- coherent and simple narrative; it has the best fight scenes in the entire series, with the possible exception of the last two books; and it has a powerful narrative.

  19. One other thing: I definitely agree that Erikson and Esslemont have made some truly unique. The world simply doesn't fit into any of the established fantasy world-types. The races don't match on to preexisting tropes at all, and the Malazan Empire, though seemingly medieval-esque early on, quickly reveals itself to be it's own thing entirely. Even in terms of story, Erikson is as likely to turn archetypes on their heads as follow them through to their archetypal conclusions.

    Sidenote: have you read the Esslemont books? You may want to add those for your second read-through.

  20. I have said several times that I started this blog for myself--as a way to express my interest and fascination with the games I was playing. Occasionally, I allow myself to digress to non-CRPG topics, since I don't have any other blogs.

    But maintaining that line is a bit disingenuous. Realistically, this blog isn't JUST for me. Your comments and perspectives turn a soliloquy into a dialogue. I really appreciate hearing from least, most of you...and while I'd probably still be making entries even if I didn't have any readers, I don't think I'd care about them as much.

    Thus, maintaining this blog is a constant balance between things I want to say and things I think you want to hear.

    This entry on the Malazan Book of the Fallen was mostly for me.

    I'm sorry to those of you who thought it was a bad entry--or, in the case of one of you, the worst thing I have ever written. It was just one day. Today, I posted some more stuff on a CRPG, and that's what will continue to fill 98% of my blog. For those of you who got anything out of it, I'm glad.

    Fundamentally, we are dealing with matters of opinion and taste, and nobody's "right" or "wrong" when it comes to these issues. I have tried to read Lord of the Rings all the way through at least eight times, and I always get to the point where I just can't take it any more. That doesn't mean I question the judgment of those of you who feel opposite, any more than I expect you to question my judgment when I tell you that I think the Malazan series is the best series I've ever read.

    I don't feel like responding to all of the comments, but to take on a few:

    -For those of you who mentioned Sanderson, I agree that he's fantastic. He'll never admit it, but he's a better writer than Jordan, and it's a shame that Jordan had to die for Sanderson to finish the series because I think Sanderson is doing a far better job than Jordan would have done. His Mistborn series also kicks ass, and if his latest series continues to be as good as the first book, it will rival Malazan in my affections. My one complaint about Sanderson is that he doesn't write relationships and sex very well. These aren't necessarily vital components to a good fantasy series, but if you include them at all, you ought to try to be good at them. Elend and Vin felt like brother and sister. It was creepy.

    -Cherryfunk, both of our quotes rely on the reader knowing the context and having been with the characters for the entire story. You weren't with mine, and I'm not with yours, so I don't know what it proves.

    -Kyle, you made the key point I wish I had thought to make in my original posting. Erikson and Esslemont fully plotted this story. They're not making it up as they go along. The attention to detail is incredible, but make no mistake: they knew the ending the moment they started writing (or, at least, after GOTM).

    -Craig, I agree with you about Asimov. Just like Tolkien, you can appreciate what he brought to the genre without actually liking his specific writing. Tastes chang over time. Citizen Kane is a landmark film that I've seen five or six times, but I can't honestly claim that I actually ENJOY it. Cherryfunk utterly didn't get my point about this. "Anyone who dismisses Tokien dismisses most of western myth and folklore." Have you honestly READ Beowulf? Would you take it on your next flight? Do you curl up with it in bed at night? There's a difference between recognizing the contribution that something made and actually enjoying it. I do the former for both Beowulf and Tolkien, not the latter.

    Bollocks. I've already written more than I intended to. I honestly don't mind that you didn't like the posting, and I promise there won't be many of these. But I ask you to indulge me when I have something I want to say and I use this blog to say it. Last night was one of those times.

  21. Killias, you were posting at the same time I was writing the last one. I appreciate your comments. To answer your questions, I have read the first two Esslemont books, and I found them as densely-plotted as Erikson's, but not as well-written. And while I know they created the Malazan world together, I don't feel taht Esslemeont should have been the one to kill off a certain major character.

    It's tough to identify a favorite book. Deadhouse Gates is certainly a contender, but each of the books has its strengths and weaknesses. House of Chains has the brilliant Karsa prologue; Bonehunters is the pivot point for the series, with some awesome character development. I particularly like the Lether novels for Bugg and Tehol, but probably Reaper's Gale best because it converges so many important characters. Toll the Hounds is the most poetic of the series. Haven't read the last two. I can't honestly pick a favorite.

  22. Yeah, a lot of the books have at least -something- unique to offer. I guess Deadhouse just has a special place in my heart. I think the Chain of Dogs is what really created my interest in the series. GotM is good and all, but it's definitely less polished and harder to follow than later entries. I saw potential there, and, luckily, Erikson tapped it in the very next entry.

    "I don't feel taht Esslemeont should have been the one to kill off a certain major character." - I hear that. I have a feeling that won't be the last we hear about this event though.

    I have also read only the first two of Esslemont's. I have the third and even started it, but I was too busy at the time and will probably need to restart it. I agree that he isn't as good of a writer technically, but I also think his lack of ambition has a certain charm. There aren't nearly as many open plot-threads in Night of Knives. Even RotCG is limited compared with the Reaper's Gale and such. However, it makes it easier to follow and easier to get excited about all the different threads. Also, he doesn't try some of the flowery stuff Erikson plays with, but, to be honest, I don't think Erikson always succeeds. A lot of the poetry is terrible or, at the least, repetitive. Also, I didn't really like some of the writing in the Darujistan chapters of Toll. I just feel like Erikson got too full of himself and took it too far.

    Still, the last two books undoubtedly blow the Esslemont stuff outta the water.

  23. I have never read anything by this author, and I don't believe I have ever heard of him. But epic fantasy novels are not really my thing. I think I read The Hobbit when I was 9 or so, and I liked it. I tried reading the Lord of the Rings a couple times in my youth, but never got very far. And this isn't to say Tolkien was a bad writer, just was not my thing. And you can't play down his influence on the genre. He is a giant.

    Someone mentioned that D&D might not exist without Tolkien. Gygax has said many times that Tolkien was not an influence. He never said bad stuff about Tolkien, but apparently was not a fan. In the back of the dungeon masters guide, there is a reading list. Tolkien is absent from the list. Instead he lists a lot of sword and sorcery authors. He lists people like Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Lin Carter, Sprague De Camp, etc. Basically pulp sword and sorcery writers. And if you look at early D&D, it was pretty much that. Killing things and taking their stuff. Not much story, but a sandbox filled with danger and treasure. D&D would eventually change, and prewriten story would become a huge part. But at it's roots it was originally a pulp fantasy game.

    That said, Tolkien has obviously influenced most fantasy fiction and games that have come after. But I still think D&D would have existed.

    As far as the non crpg post goes, I don't mind at all. And look at the post count. It must have touched something people want to talk about.

    It is your blog, post what you want.

    1. Actually, Tolkien is on the reading list in the back of the first-edition DMG. He is not, however, on the short list of authors Gygax cites afterward as "the most immediate influences upon AD&D". Gygax acknowledges that Tolkien was an influence on the game, just not a major influence. (Those "most immediate influences" would be L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, Jack Vance, Howard Philips Lovecraft, and Abraham Merritt.)

      That quibble aside, though, I agree completely with your main point here. I don't think there was any disingenuousness involved on Gygax's part in not naming Tolkien as a major influence; contrary to what cherryfunk says below, the "overall feel of the environment" of D&D does not resemble Lord of the Rings in the slightest; it's much closer to Howard's and Lieber's sword and sorcery than to anything in Tolkien. (I've seen Moria cited before as a predecessor of D&D's dungeon crawls, but that's really grasping at straws; aside from being underground, Moria has very little in common with a typical D&D dungeon. As an anonymous poster says below, subterranean delves were not invented by Tolkien.) And of course most of the authors cited by Gygax as his "most immediate influences" were writing fantasy stories before Lord of the Rings, so Tolkien can't even be credited as a second-hand influence.

      Certainly Tolkien had considerable influence on the fantasy genre... he was the first to really put effort into world-building, and his was the first fantasy epic that was planned and written as a coherent work (Lieber's and Howard's works were written as a number of stand-alone stories that were only later patched together into collections). But he didn't establish all the fantasy tropes, not everything in the fantasy genre is indebted to Tolkien, and Dungeons & Dragons most certainly would have existed without him, though it would have been a little different. The fantasy writers who preceded Tolkien get too little credit—as for that matter does Dungeons & Dragons itself, which has had at least as much influence over the fantasy genre as Tolkien did (especially when it comes to video games).

    2. I think The Hobbit is a lot closer to most D&D than LotR: Adventuring band, looting as they go, going to slay a dragon and take its stuff.

      That said, yes, I've heard Gygax himself was not a fan of Tolkien, though a lot of his players were. Also, I think Moorcock was one of the big influences that isn't noticed much: The entire original alignment system came from him, as did a lot of artifacts (The Hand and Eye of Vecna are stole right out of Corum).

    3. Actually, yeah, I'm kind of surprised that Moorcock isn't cited by Gygax among "the most immediate influences upon AD&D"... as you say, the whole D&D law/chaos alignment system comes from Moorcock; he was certainly a major influence.

  24. Addict, no disrespect intended on my part, it's just that when you write "Tolkien never had this kind of power," you're making a dumb statement, since his books are by far the most important and lasting modern fantasy ever written. They are the definition of 'powerful' fiction. Had you added "for me," it would at least be a valid enough opinion.

    As for the context of the passage I quoted, it's Frodo arriving at Paradise; I just don't see how you read something this beautiful and say it has 'no power' -- it's the very essence of powerful, evocative writing.

    "And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise."

    (P.S. -- Faery Tale Adventure rules!!!11!!)

  25. "Gygax has said many times that Tolkien was not an influence."

    Gygax said a lot of things that weren't true when potential lawsuits were involved. All the D&D 'playable' races are drawn directly from LotR (elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs) and the overall feel of the environment is very similar. You can't read the Moria chapters in Fellowship and not see therein the DNA for all subsequent dungeon-crawls and mega-dungeons.

    That said, the open-ended multi-polar claw-your-way-up structure of the early D&D campaigns owes far more to Robert E. Howard and his pulp brethren, no question.

    1. Well, if Gygax used mythological sources as a starting point, it wouldn't have taken him long to find elves and dwarves even without Tolkien. I think they appear in several places, but they're very prominent in Norse myth. In fact, a good number of the dwarf names that Tolkien used can be found in the Elder Edda: Thorin, Thrain, Nori, Fili, Kili, Dvalin, Bivor (Bifur), Bavor (Bofur), and Bombur all show up within a few paragraphs. Actually, the name Gandalf appears in that list, too. (The Addict asked if anyone curled up with Beowulf. To that I say no, but I've been known to get comfy with an Edda.)

      D&D also had gnomes in the playable races, which I don't think appear in Tolkien.

  26. I've read that Gardens of the Moon was written before Erikson decided to turn it into a multibook series and that's why some of the characterization and such doesn't quite match. I don't know if that's true, but it seems quite possible.

  27. You damn well write about what you want to write about. I've read Sanderson and loved him (especially the new Way of Kings). He brought a much needed refresh to epic fantasy. I've read Tolkien and loved him. He was the forefather of all of this (not to insult the memory of Dunsany, Eddison and so forth), and I've seen complaints left and right about how he couldn't write or this that and the other. The fact is he birthed the first fantasy world that you could taste and smell. I've also read the first three Malazan books and loved them. Although for me Memories of Ice might take the 'better' title from Deadhouse Gates, only ever so slightly. In the end, I will probably agree with you that Malazan, and especially as I discover more about it, will be one of the grandest of them all. The professor will always hold a dear place in my heart, though.

  28. Actually Gygax has stated several times that he only added the LOTR elements to OD&D (Balrog, Hobbits, Treants, Rangers etc) due to marketing reasons and that they never were a major influence. He held to that long after he had any stake in D&D left, to many of the more irrational 'everything fantasy must have come from Tolkien' fans despair.
    Moria, or dungeon delving in general, is hardly unsual in pre-Tolkien fantasy. I recall more than a few ancient forgotten cities and underground complexes in Conan, Leiber's Quarmall, Clark Ashton Smith's Maze of Maal Dweb or giant underworld in "The Seven Geases". Or perhaps, since some of the first dungeons were Castle Blackmoor and Castle Greyhawk, Mervyn Peake's huge castle complex Gormenghast.
    Gygax himself loathed LOTR and this to say about it "It was so dull. I mean, there was no action in it, [...] I'd like to throttle Frodo."

  29. I generally consider the best works I've read to be by Stephen R. Donaldson, he's been writing Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Mystery since the 70s.

    If you are looking for something radically different than Tolkien, he may be worth a look(first series was The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever). In an author afterword to one of his later books, he mentioned that 2 of his series were heavily inspired by listening to Wagner's opera Nibelung(which follows the same legends that Tolkien used for the One Ring).

    His main characters are not easy to like- they tend to be horribly broken individuals. He can wring amazing pathos from them; I swear the first chapter of Lord Foul's Bane is probably the best and most succinct characterization I've ever seen.

    His writing is very dense and descriptive; and the occasional song/poetry that appears is highly evocative and amazing.

    The other author I feel I must mention is the horribly overlooked John M. Ford. As best I can tell, he tried to never repeat himself or do sequels; the books of his I've found and read are:
    - "The Final Reflection", Star Trek novel that gave the first depth and culture to the Klingons.
    - "How much for just the Planet?", his only other Star Trek novel. Less well received as it turns into a musical screwball comedy. But it has such wonderful moments as Scotty facing his opposite Klingon number in an epic game of ... golf. Then they have to start dodging mines and mortar fire...
    - "Princes of the Air", space opera focusing on the changing era of a massive empire.
    - "The Dragon Waiting", fantasy alternate history of Europe after the end of the Roman Empire.
    - "The Last Hot Time", urban fantasy combining 1920s gangsters with magic and faerie folk.
    - "Growing up Weightless", coming of age story of kids on the Moon in the generation after getting independence.

    1. My turn to be that guy (2 years after the fact, not sure why I bother)...I've read and enjoyed most of the authors mentioned so far and oh how I hate Stephen R Donaldson. A friend gave me the first Covenant book, and somehow or another I ended up getting all the rest of them as xmas gifts or because I felt the need to finish the trilogies (I resisted that urge for books 9 and 10 if im remembering correctly). I LOATHE those books, I hate reluctant heroes and all Covenant does is bitch and moan constantly for thousands of pages. He's Bill Paxton in Aliens, he's that annoying, whining background character that you just know is going to die a horrible death and simply can't wait until he does. Only in this story he's the central character. Ugh, my stomach roils at the thought of those books, damn my completionist tendencies! That said I've never read any of his other stories (and never will).

    2. Covenant starts as a reluctant hero, because he just doesn't believe in the Land and that he's some kind of saviour.
      But later he does what he can, especially when he fathers a daughter, and he saves Revelstone by summoning a demon, to name one thing.
      That "all Covenant does is bitch and moan constantly for thousands of pages" is plain wrong. The correct would be "hundreds of pages".

      It took me half the first book to like it, but then I was hooked, and I'll definitely rate the First and Second Chronicles as among the best and most mature Fantasy written, especially considering it was written at a time dominated by the likes of Eddings and Brooks.

    3. Correction: it was actually written before the heydays of Eddings and Brooks.
      But I read Covenant after having been disgusted by Brook's LoTR rip-off, and liked its originality.

  30. Fiction is all about your tastes. I must say that this series doesn't sound good to me, but since I'd never even heard of it before this post, I can hardly tell.

    But there are fantasy authors mentioned here whom I have read and didn't like. Just not to my taste. Well, no problem with that. These things are inherently subjective.

  31. I don't have the patience to read all of the comments, but I'm sure you've gotten dozens and dozens of recommendations on books and series you absolutely must read. I'll throw my hat in the ring as well.

    From the few snippets you posted from this series I suspect you might like Jack Vance. He's primarily a Science Fiction author, but his two Fantasy series' are widely considered to be some of his best.

    They are...

    The Dying Earth

    Book 1:
    Book 2:
    Book 3:

    The Dying Earth was never really planned as a series. The first book actually is just a collection of short stories all within the same setting. However, books 2 and 3 follow the adventures of Cugel the Clever, who Gary Gygax (the late creator of D&D) used as his template for the original thief class. Cugel is the kind of character you hate to love. He's a selfish rascal who would sell his mother out for a buck... and yet you can't help but root for the guy. The final Dying Earth book, Rhialto the Marvelous, is unconnected to the others except for the setting but maybe ranks as one of Vance's best books ever. The original D&D magic system was also lifted from The Dying Earth - before Gygax was even "anybody" he wrote Vance and got permission to do so.

    Lyonesse is a proper series, with the plot progression flowing naturally from one book to the next. If you've read the Game of Thrones series you can see that George R.R. Martin was clearly inspired by Vance's work in Lyonesse (and, incidentally, the Dying Earth - Martin was also a contributor to this Dying Earth tribute book:

    Finally, if you enjoy Sci-Fi books as well, Vance has a wealth of amazing books and series in that genre. Perhaps a good start is Night Lamp, which is just a single book and not a series. It's one of his darker works, but thoroughly entertaining. The Demon Princes series is a classic of his, as are the Cadwall Chronicles and the Durdane trilogy.

  32. "Gygax said a lot of things that weren't true when potential lawsuits were involved. All the D&D 'playable' races are drawn directly from LotR (elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs) and the overall feel of the environment is very similar. You can't read the Moria chapters in Fellowship and not see therein the DNA for all subsequent dungeon-crawls and mega-dungeons."

    I don't deny at all that Tolkien had influence over D&D. As you said you can see it in the playable races. And I'm aware of the legal issues with the Tolkien estate. But if ya take Gygax at his word, as someone else already said, the races were there because people wanted them. Tolkien was big at the time. And from what I have heard, his campaigns were very humanocentric.

    As far as dungeons go, you can't read something like, "The Tower of the Elephant", or "The Scarlet Citadel", and not see the influence. They scream D&D dungeon crawl. Both are Howard stories. I'm not familiar enough with Clark Ashton Smith, or Leiber to cite other examples, though I imagine they are there. Not to discount Moria at all. I have not read it, though I have watched the films. But there is also some evidence that Tolkien had read some Howard, and he approved. I can't give any direct links, but it may have been on the fabulous, now defunct, The site still exists, but is no longer being updated since June 2010.

    Also, I think one must look at the motivations of the characters in these dungeons. In Lotr they are on a world spanning epic quest to save the world. If you look at the Howard stories I mentioned, either it's trying to get fat loot, or simply to survive. And again, this jives with the early D&D adventures.

    Anyway, this is a much debated topic among the old school D&D crowd.

    For more info you can look at the Grognardia blog at It's a blog run by James Maliszewski. He talks about many different old school gaming, but has posted quite a few entries about this very thing, the Tolkien influence on D&D.

  33. Again after a drunken dramatic weekend I come back to the world of the living and see I am late to the party.

    I have said before I like Tolkien's stories but find his LOTR series boring reading. Just the way he writes it I think because when presented in a different form I enjoy it. For me it boils down to a dislike of scene description porn, and throwing things like songs, poetry and whatnot into the story. I tend to like writing that cuts the fat and doesn't have to much focus on anything that doesn't develop the plot or character personalities at all. Basically if you spend two pages talking about how the walls of a city look or some song about birds and it never has a bearing or comes up in the rest of the story I will hate the wasted time reading it.

    To Addict, I enjoy these forays down the side paths of your interests. It helps flush out your character and is not useless information to the rest of the story we are living vicariously through you, our protagonist. So in short do what your doing, and if your writing to entertain remember that you need to enjoy yourself first and the entertainment will follow.

    To everyone who posted about different series and authors that sound intriguing, I hate you! Don't you realize I have a huge list of things I want to read already and if I keep adding to it I will have to get myself fired to ever finish in my lifetime.

  34. I'm still backlogged somewhere around Pool of Radiance, bu I figured I'd mention this:

    Today was my 21st birthday, and in celebration had a few drinks, including:
    A pineapple martini
    Two pomegranate magaritas
    A chocolate martini

    And of course, in your memory,
    A vodka gimlet.

    That was the strongest of the drinks I had, and boy did it hit the spot. Nice and refreshing, despite being so hard hitting.

  35. Glad you liked the gimlet, Zephyr. They do pack quite a punch, easy to overlook because the lime juice masks how much vodka you're consuming. But they're so crisp and refreshing, it's worth it.

  36. Re: Malazar, color me Eh. It's way too easy for an author, who presumably knows all the rules, to confound a reader. Deal me cards and I'll play my hand, but deal 'em to be face-down and I can't even look? No thanks.

  37. Guy Gavriel Kay -- Anyone who misses out on Song For Arbonne and Lions of Al-Rasan has missed two fantastic stories filled with memorable characters. The Fionavar Tapestry series by Kay is worth reading, although it shows his youth. His more recent works are moving towards historical fiction and away from fantasy.

    Dave Duncan and Raymond Feist are also not to be missed. Each of them has an epic series -- start at the beginning, don't pick up in the middle.

  38. This page is now bookmarked. I had never heard of this series before now, and there are plenty of other authors and series described in the comments which according to my own tastes, I think I will quite enjoy.

    I have to second Kellandros recommendation of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, although I would put the warning that this series is not for everybody. At the start Thomas Covenant is not a very nice person, and does some quite horrid things, but these are at least explained, if not atoned for later.

    However Donaldson with the Chronicles, has so far produced the only ever book which I have had to put down and stop reading because I've read something which moved me so much that I couldn't continue reading.

    And as a contrast to all that I would recommend the Belgariad and the Malloreon by David and Leigh Eddings. Easy to read, not that complicated but with some seriously funny moments.

    Also Addict I literally laughed out loud at your paragraph of typical Jordon sentences.

  39. I was just on a plane with a guy reading one of the WOT books on his iPad. I leaned over and said, "Any braid-tugging going on?" He looked up and snarled, "Why is she always DOING that?!" and then went back to reading his book.

  40. Not quite fantasy but a historical fiction series I have really enjoyed is the Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough. It is no where near a new series but I like how she put the clues of history together to make believable people and events.

    Recently I just started the game of thrones series and something about his writing style kind of grates on me. I like his story well enough that I will continue to push through the books but I hope his style improves, or I can at least acquire the taste for it.

  41. Interesting. I don't remember anything bothersome about Martin's style, but after reading the first three books, I have vowed not to dip into the series again until the last book is in my hands.

  42. SER:

    On Howard and Tolkien, my copy of The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane contains a quote from Harry Turtledove in its "Praise for Robert E Howard" section.

    Part of it reads: "Tolkien himself, who had little use for most contemporary fantasists, rather liked the Conan tales."

    Turtledove doesn't give a citation though.

  43. The bit about Tolkien liking Howard's work originally came from L. Sprague de Camp, who used to be the caretaker of Conan and supposedly visited Tolkien once and interviewed him. There are problems with this, though - Tolkien, being a polite sort, may have simply been humoring de Camp, or maybe de Camp was just lying about it since his partiality has often been questioned (he certainly wasn't above BS'ing about Howard himself!).

  44. I read the first two (three ?) books of Malazan 5 or 6 years ago.
    Yes, it was great, especially deadhouse gate.
    I also remember how little I understood of the first book. I tend to believe it's very bad form for an author to not explains things that are understood by the characters.
    I should not have to guess things natives of the universe know about !
    Now, I'm scared and scarred by these books :) If there's not even a good wiki, I'm not in the mood to try again (from the start...)

    1. I am late to the party. However I must say one of the things I like the most about the malazan series is Erikson's refusal to explain everything, dropping you instead in the middle of the action. Ever since I read that first book, I've been unable to stand the way most other authors over-explain every single detail about their world.

    2. Are you guys related?

      His refusal to explain is both a strength and a weakness, depending on the reader. I admit that I vacillated between a sense of wonder and a sense of annoyance, especially in the last book.

  45. I can't defend Erikson's decision to start the first book in the middle of the action with no explanation, and I completely understand when people start to read it and give it up. All I can say is that once you do figure out the world, then the books become simply wonderful.

    Ironically, though, my own reading of the series fell off abruptly. I was doing most of it on airplanes, but because of my frequent flier status I started getting a lot more first-class upgrades. My only excuse for reading on planes instead of working on my laptop was that I couldn't comfortably fit my laptop on the coach trays, but I don't have that excuse any more. Thus, I've yet to complete the series, although I am on the second-to-last book.

  46. Addict, first up; love the post. I'm a recent Malazan convert (finished Gardens of the Moon about 12 months ago), and I share a lot of your opinions on it.

    I just wanted to echo something someone said about halfway up the page... If you get a chance, do yourself the favour of reading one of China Mieville's books. They have a lot of the elements you love about the Malazan books. If you're already convinced, don't read any further, but I'll give a bit more detail just in case you're wavering ;)

    The man's writing style is superb. His prose is somewhere between Erikson and Palahniuk, and so far hasn't struck a single bum note with me. An accolade of this is that he's currently an English Language lecturer at Warwick University, a respected uni over here.

    Secondly, he discards nearly every fantasy trope he can find. Every single race is fresh, possibly more so than the Malazan races (the various Tiste races are, let's be honest, immensely good reworkings of traditional elven races a la Krondor), and this ties in with a phenomenally detailed but never transparent world history that you'd love to get a book about. I particularly want more details of the Malarial Queendom, when the world was ruled by a parasitic yet tragic race of mosquito queens and their doomed, powerless men.

    Magic is dealt with brilliantly, which I'm guessing is a big deal to you given the complexity of Malazan's warrens... Book 2, The Scar, especially does well, blending modern particle physics with high fantasy magic and terrifying, opaque tribal shamanism seamlessly.

    The setting is quasi-Victorian, though the emphasis is never on the technology (keeping this separate from the realm of Steampunk, for example). Mieville's stated aim is not to write fantasy books, but to write lots of genres (western, crime novel, war story, sea adventure) within a fantasy world whilst discarding the conventions of fantasy.

    One caveat is that his stories are smaller in scope than Erikson's by quite some distance, but this is intentional... It's a similar comparison as putting a detailed autobiography next to a large chronicle of history.


  47. This post might not have that much to do with the theme of the blog, but I've enjoyed it and I have to admit you've really piqued my interest in Malazan Book of the Fallen.

    I've only recently started reading sci-fi & fantasy books in English and so far I've thought it was a good idea to get a couple of heavyweights out of the picture - the Dune saga and LoTR.

    As far as LoTR goes, I really enjoyed the story being told; well I knew I would. I also liked the setting and I really appreciate how much thought was put into creating this world; if you add to this his other writings, his achievement in creating a compelling and intricate world is pretty damned spectacular.

    What I do have a problem with is the language he uses - maybe it's a problem on my end, but I feel like he has a very old fashioned style of writing; and I don't mean 1950s old-fashioned either. Quite often it's like I'm reading something that was written a few hundred years ago and someone just updated the spelling. Maybe it was his intent, I have no idea, but it's still a bit off-putting. Also the pacing is quite slow at times and pretty uneven most of the times: there are passages I struggle to get through because they strike me as a overly drawn out, only to be followed by ones where I relish every sentence. Despite what I perceive to be shortcomings, I still think LoTR is a great book even today. I don't for a second regret taking the time to read it, though it took me a while to get accustomed to Tolkien's style.

    I'd read Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire next, but I have a problem with epics that were never finished (bad experience with ending of the sixth Dune book) or that are still in progress. I understand Erikson has actually finished his series so maybe I should check it out.

    P.S. In case someone comes along and says something - I know Frank Herbert's son continued the story where Dune 6 left off with two more books, but those are hardly fitting successors IMO.

    1. I'm glad the posting sparked interest in some readers. Yes, Erikson has finished the main MBotF series, although a co-writer is working on some related novels, and apparently Erikson is returning for another trilogy.

      I agree with you on Martin. I read the first three books, but then he took so damned long with the fourth one that I decided not to read any more until he finished the series. I think that was 10 years ago.

    2. PetrusOctavianusJuly 23, 2012 at 2:00 AM

      Guiseppe, yes LOTR was written in an old fashioned style on purpose. But there are actually differences in style in different parts of the books. The chapters with hobbits start in a more childish tone since it was originally to be a follow up to The Hobbit. But it gets more mature. You can see the change in tone when the hobbits reach the Barrow Downs and Bree.
      Also the parts where the hobbits are the main characters are generally more modern, while the chapters with Aragorn are more old fashioned and saga like.

      Tolkien is underrated as a writer, IMO. He was an amateur (he was a professor by profession), but I know few writers who could handle so many different styles, from silly rhymes and children's books, to alliterative verse (the Lay of The Children of Hurin is a long poem written in the same style as Beowulf) to "saga style" in Silmarillion, to very archaic English in The Lost Tales to more (relatively) modern style in Lord of the Rings.

      I guess as a Norwegian I appreciate his more old fashioned English since the way he builds sentences is often more like Norwegian. And some of the archaic words he was fond of is closer to Norwegian, like "flittemice" for bats = "flaggermus" in Norwegian.

    3. It seems odd to call Tolkien an "amateur". He made money writing; therefore he was a professional writer, by definition. Heck, he wrote the second best-selling novel ever published; I'm pretty sure he made more money as a writer than he did as a professor. (For the record, the first best-selling novel was Dickens' Tale of Two Cities.) No, writing wasn't his only source of income, but that's true of many writers; if a writer has to have no other job and no other source of income in order to not be considered an "amateur", then there are very few professional writers out there...

  48. Chet, some games are more or less based on books, or take their setting from books.

    For example Betrayal at Krondor is based on the Riftwar books by Raymond E. Feist and takes place in Midkemia. Feist even wrote a book based on the game later, making the game story "canon".

    The upcoming Curse of the Azure Bonds is supposed to take place after the novel "Azure Bonds" and some of the NPCs in the game (Ruskettle, Akabar, Drgonbait and Alia) are main characters in the book.

    And of course there's also the Dragonlance books that provide the background for the Krynn Gold Box games.

    Anyway, just wondering if you are planning on reading the books before playing the games

    1. I guess it depends on the books. My patience for bad prose is somewhat less than my patience for bad CRPGs. If the books hold up, I'll try to read them to get the back story; otherwise, I'll rely on Wikipedia or other sources to fill me in.

      I do have the book for CotAB, and I figure I'll read it next week sometime in anticipation of the game.

    2. I have fond childhood/high school memories of the Krynn series as written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Now that may just be memory distorting how good they were or they may actually be great, but give em a try if you have the time. On the other hand any time I read other authors who played in that world I was disappointed.

    3. Personally I think the Dragonlance series have aged better than Magician.
      I loved both 20 years ago, but when I recently reread both (before playing the relevant games) I enjoyed Dragonlance more than Magician. DL has humour and doesn't take itself too seriously, while Magician and the Riftwar saga just feels like a very diluted childrens versions of A Song of Ice and Fire.

    4. Bwaahahahahaha. Oh, this should be fun. Um, they aren't great books, but they aren't abysmal either.

    5. I love the Dragonlance books myself. I've read about 60 of them.

    6. I've read a few of Weis and Hickman's stories and I have to say the Death Gate Cycle was far and away the best.

    7. I have enjoyed all of Weis & Hickman's works (My original name choice for characters was Simpkin), and I will second a big thumbs up for the Death Gate Cycle, it is my second favourite fantasy series after Song of Fire and Ice. If you need any convincing to give it a try, then know that it has a chapter written from the point of view of a dog!

      They did make a computer game from it, but unfortunately it was a fairly ordinary adventure game with a hint of magic thrown in.

    8. Death Gate started rather promising, but turned into juvenile drivel IMO. When that dwarf female and her girlfriends moaned about her not having a boyfriend was when I thought "what the hell am I reading, why am I wasting time on it?" and chucked the books away.

    9. Huh, I don't remember that part. It got odd later on, and I kept meaning to finish it, but I misplaced the next book and can't remember where I am now. Personally, I liked the ones in space with the mercenary band, in the same universe as the creepy-dark bloodlightsaber ones. Sure, not great literature, but good, solid fun.

    10. Checking on Wikipedia, it must have been Grundle in the book Serpent Mage I was thinking about.

    11. Sorry for the late reply: Yes, I recall them meeting the dwarves on the weird mechanical thing, I just don't recall much more then that. I really liked the books at the time, but that could be because I was getting back into novel reading for the first time in years (Due to an injured wrist). I think the fact I lost one of the book and never bothered finishing the series probably says something.

  49. Great post!
    I have added this to my "read list" and will read this directly when i have finished Martins "Fire and Ice" and Kings "Dark Tower".
    Thank you for this recommendation!
    (I believe this is in Germany nearly unknown)

  50. Kruppe is almost a direct lift from Glen Cook's Dread Empire series. I more strongly recommend the Black Company series, but Cook's well worth a look whichever series of his you're trying.

    1. The chronicles of the black company are great. I stumble upon those by accident and I'm not an avid reader of fantasy, so I don't really know if they're in the upper echelon of the genre. I do know that the excellent game Myth was lously inspired by it.

  51. I read the first Malazan book last year and really liked it. I've been meaning to continue reading the series, but something else always got in the way. As you mentioned, I'll definitely have to read the first book again after this long a break, but I might take that opportunity and read the english version this time around (I originally read the german translation).

    Now, all of these have probably been mentioned in some comment or another (unlike usually, I'm not going to read all of them), but here are some authors I'd like to mention:
    J.R.R. Tolkien: While I can understand why many people don't actually enjoy the LotR books, much less the Silmarillion etc., I personally very much enjoyed reading all of them. Being very interested in linguistics and constructed languages certainly has a lot to do with it.
    Ursula K. Le Guin: Probably my favourite author, of any genre. Her thoughtful and poetic language and the unusual settings make her works stand out. I loved the Earthsea series, the ekumen novels and all of the short stories I could find of her.
    Stephen King: Most people have probably never heard of this extremely obscure and niche author. While he's definitely a great and very routined writer in general, I was never a huge fan of his mystery/horror books (I did like a few of them though, like Misery, and I love his short stories), but his Dark Tower series is up there among my absolute favourites of all time. The series changed a lot over time, naturally, since the world has moved on quite a bit between the writing of the first and the last book, and I tend to prefer the older ones to the newer ones, but the work as a whole gets a definitive recommendation.
    Haruki Murakami: Labeling his works as "fantasy" is stretching the definition, I guess, but some of his books are definitely leaning towards that direction. Nonetheless, a number of his works are among my favourite books, regardless of genre. "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" and "South of the Border, West of the Sun" are my favourites, but I enjoyed everything I read of him (except, maybe, for "Kafka on the Shore", which for some reason never gripped me the same way). His short stories are great as well.
    Tad Williams: I wasn't sure whether to list him. I'm currently about halfway through Osten Ard, making slow-ish progress, and I've read Otherland a while ago. I enjoyed Otherland a bit more, partly due to the unusual setting, but a certain amount of fatigue might play a role. His writing, while perhaps not great, is definitely good. If anything, it seems a little bit too routined, if that makes sense. As entertaining as all those thousands of pages were, sometimes I feel like the stories might have been better told in half the amount.

    That wraps it up for fantasy, but since I read at least as much science fiction, here's another (shorter) list:
    Dan Simmons: Hyperion/Endymion and Ilium/Olympos are possibly the books I've enjoyed reading most, ever. Le Guin's Earthsea and some of Baxter's books (see below) come close, though.
    Stephen Baxter: The "Xeelee Sequence" is probably the best hard science fiction I've read. That said, I almost didn't continue after working my way through "Raft", but boy, am I glad I did. His writing isn't anything special, but the sheer scope of the overarching story and the scientifically profound nature of his speculations more than make up for it.

    There are many more authors and individual works I could mention in varying amounts of detail, but it's getting late, and this comment is already way too long. However, people who agree with a couple of the authors I named above might want to check out the following, as well: Sergei Lukyanenko, China Miéville, M. John Harrison, Andrzej Sapkowski, Fritz Leiber, Stanisław Lem, Isaac Asimov, Ted Chiang, Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, ...

    1. Tad William's Memory, Sorrow & Thorne was my favourite fantasy series. I read a lot of fantasy between the age of 8 and when we got the internet (16). Since then I've read a bit but not near the same rate. Traditional High Fantasy is so predictable that for me it occupies the region that Mills & Boon does for other people.

      Of the fantasy I've read recently, I quite liked the first three Song of Ice and FIre books but the fourth was so slow I quit. More interesting was 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' an alt history set in 19thC England where magic has returned. It's just been adapted for TV and will broadcast alter this year.


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