We moved to Washington in the year 2000. It was a rough journey for me because I had just found my stride in school. Then we moved and I had to start over. At this time I was reading a lot of books because I just couldn’t be arsed to try and make friends again.
In 2001, our family drove back to Wisconsin. On the first day we stopped at a Barnes and Noble. This was fortuitous, because I had just crushed the current book I was reading. There was one of those tables near the fiction aisles with ‘recommended picks’ on it. And front and center, with a vibrant red cover was Gardens of the Moon: a Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson.
I liked the blurb on the back, and the introduction inside on the dust jacket, so I asked mom to pick it up for me. I dove in hard, and the book smacked me around. It was nothing like anything I had ever read. Up until that point I had only been reading young fiction. I powered through series like Tamora Pierces Circle of Magic series and the Song of the Lioness. Quick little books that tackled stories such as growing up and being the most possible special.
Arguably Gardens of the Moon was my first adult series. The writing was complex, the story was rich and vast, and characters were defined by their actual character instead of the arbitrary arc of the book. I think it took me an entire year to finish it originally.
The core series finished in 2011. It’s ten books in its entirety. It stands as my favorite series to date. Pretzel and I are currently listening to them on audiobook. And they are as good as I remember.
Currently Steven Erikson is working on finishing a new trilogy that is a prequel to the core series. And its a pain to read. Several times I’ve considered putting the book down and reading something else.
Civil war has broken out in the land of the Tiste, a noble people who have been introduced to gods and magic. A rift is growing between the highborn Tiste nobles and the lowly soldiers that fought their wars. Read the book for the full story thus far.
The current book, The Fall of Light, starts out with something close to 350 pages of talking. Steven Erikson loves to expound at length about expectations versus reality. And its a big part about why I love his books! But 350 pages of people talking about the civil war that’s brewing, the cause of war, why humans war, the sides of the civil war, the philosophy of war, cause and effect, life and death, bravery versus survival.
Fucking shit dude, shut up! Let the war begin before you bog me down with the intellectual stuff.
You, dear reader of this lonely blog, might recognize 350 pages as the length of other goddamn books. I just got to the part where real things are happening. When I say they are talking and expounding at length, I don’t mean like they are on a battlefield spouting philosophy at their enemies. They are literally sitting around the citadel in the capital city, sitting around campfires, sitting around temples, sitting in front of a hearth, sitting around mansions, et-fucking-cetera.
Sorry I nodded off there.
Its so annoying to me that this book starts off so dry. Like a big bowl of steel cut oats served on a hairdryer. His books have this quality to them that’s hard to explain, and this book is not delivering what I’m looking for. I look forward to his books, and it bums me out because it took him approximately 3 Big Bang’s ago to write this one.
Steven Erikson loves to subvert expectations normally found in high fantasy. And that resonates with me so very deeply. He creates his own races with their own cultures. His pantheon is vast and varied. His books don’t rely on existing tropes to come flesh out his narrative. There are no elves, and there are no dwarves.
Tolkien fantasy is still fine, I don’t hate it, but so many novels use it as a crutch. Elves are ageless, beautiful mystics. Dwarves are hardy, drunk Vikings. Orcs are ugly, stinking, cannibalistic warriors who respect strength. Seeing a book, or idea, or setting that uses Tolkien fantasy always feels so assumed.
Why do the elves use the bows in your book? Why do dwarves use axes? You know dwarves all live in mines, so of all the tools they could use as a weapon an axe that is used to cut down trees in a dark, deep cave makes sense. Elves use a weapon that traditionally needs great visibility and lines of sight over a battlefield. You know what place doesn’t typically have those things. A forest.
I mean- it’s a very contrived argument to have against this stuff. Tolkien fantasy is classic and established. People can use the setting as a backdrop for a quest line or a story and the rest sort of fills itself in.
Its not the only way Erikson subverts what the reader expects. Characters aren’t all dashingly handsome or strikingly beautiful. I’d say a majority of his characters are intentionally described as plain or ugly.
Some personalities are grating. Some hobbies are disgusting. There is a dude who frequently spits phlegm into his hands to smooth his hair back with it. There is a character who wears and unwashed shirt made of his dead mothers hair. There is a dude whos nose was mutilated and has to constantly wipe snot away with his arm.
The way Erikson describes events is equally unexpected. People don’t die on heroic manners. There are no characters that have a graceful, glorious death. You know the scene with Boromir from Lord of the Rings?
A heroic death. He slays orc after orc, takes arrow after arrow, but he is filled with such magnificent purpose that he fights until he cannot stand or hold his sword.
Characters in Steven Erikson books don’t die like that.
Death is ugly. Its bloody, smelly, and is a wholly singular experience. You don’t die surrounded by friends. You don’t die fighting and struggling. War is random. Battle is unforgiving. You are lucky if anyone remembers your name. Soldiers are a number. Thousands get sacrificed for a different regiment of a thousand faceless soldiers can have the chance to achieve the greater goal. War is never noble, and the results are never worth it.
Its this divide between being beautiful and being hideous, or being heroic and being no one, that Erikson loves to play with. He creates this negative space in his books; so when a character is beautiful, or when a death is heroic, you take notice. Granted, its fewer and farther between, but it makes you appreciate the beautiful moments.
Not to mention there is a lot to explore in the interim. Soldiers understand their grim purpose and lo, we get some of the best gallows humor I’ve ever read. The dialogue isn’t sad, its not happy, its a completely believable comradery that Erikson manages to capture in these snapshots of marching soldiers. It makes you feel. It makes you understand. Sometimes squad mates don’t like each other, but they are all they’ve got. You’ll get characters bickering for chapters and chapters but then in the end they absolutely work together, or grieve for the other. Its an army of brothers and sisters. War isn’t about glory. War is about survival. You fight for that next dawn, and that is what makes it beautiful.
Will I convince you to read these books? No. Would I recommend them to everybody? No. Hell, I’m currently reading one of his books and I’m struggling with it.
Listening to the books again reminds me of what I appreciate in the literature I read. It helps me understand what I should be looking for in a book. It gives me a sense of direction of the types of things I want to write myself. I have played with the idea of writing a book, and just as soon as I have an idea I’ll get started. The Malazan Book of the Fallen series stands the test of time to me because it doesn’t walk the paths of other fantasy books before it. It doesn’t rely on tropes. It doesn’t rely on what’s expected.
And I love it.
Except the parts of the book I’m currently readying that suck. Fuck those parts.