|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.