Closing the Book on The Malazan Book of the Fallen – An Epic (R)evolution

gardens of the moon

I remember reading a book, the first book I’d ever review online, called Meditations on Middle on Earth, which was collection of essays from the who’s who cast of fantasy authors reflecting on The Lord of the Rings. When they read it, where they were, how it influenced them. Among them was Robin Hobb, who I also later interviewed, and she posed a question in her essay that was something to the effect of the thought of why even try (to write) something that has already been done at that level? I find myself, from the fan’s perspective, in a similar place. As a life long fan of epic fantasy, this guy, one Steven Erikson… he’s done it.

When I finished reading Steven Erikson’s The Crippled God I was hit with asoiafitis, that truly magical yearning of just having to go talk about what you just experienced. Upon searching I feel like the book and especially the series ended with alarmingly little, or rather, not enough main street fanfare. Forget limiting it to just the context of fantasy novels or even just epic fantasy novels, I consider TMBotF to be among the best things that has ever happened. It stands with other personal pillars like Calvin & Hobbes, the best films of Studio Ghibli, the perfection in the choice of cutting the music when the Night’s King power is revealed that support being a fan of the fantastic by being… well… fantastic.

Upon seeing the series brought to an end I found myself writing what some may have upheld as a “review” but it ended up going being way too fragmented, way too long, and often times took too random of tangents. It was and remains something between a mess and nonsense. I was taking in too much, consuming and channeling too much power for this laymen to handle. So, instead of spitting out a disjointed review I started breaking down the jumbled mess into an outline of singular thoughts, some longer than others, successfully forming several jumbled sub-messes. I couldn’t find people talking about what struck me after reading The Crippled God so I just jotted them down so I wouldn’t forget them. I should also say that I never felt like what I was thinking was really important, they just amused me (admittedly a circumstance that doesn’t take a hell of a lot) and surprised me by how forceful my gut reaction was to my post-Malazan Book of the Fallen world. This is what happened.

I guess what struck me the most was what I sensed as this overriding belief that the Crippled God himself was the big bad of the series. Not being a complete dunce I didn’t really ever believe that past the first couple of books even if it was still the author’s intent at the time. It was clear to me that this series would have much more ambition, and we knew early on that this series was going to be a massive 10-book cycle. Not even Tolkien armed with all of his grass, leaf, and fauna analysis could stretch Sauron into that many books no matter how many names he gave good old Gorthaur or Zigûr; or as I knew him, Mairon. From his various other writings and his adroit turn of phrase even under some of the worst interview conditions ever inflicted upon man, Erikson never struck me as being so invalid to settle on such an endgame. That wasn’t the trick, I kind of knew there was something beyond or multiple twists to come to skew the outcome but what really hit me was Erikson’s foreknowledge of what a terrible person I was. Even knowing that it made no literary sense, I still associated the Crippled God as evil, bad, or just… wrong. At the very least I wouldn’t sit next to him on the bus given any choice.

Why?

Because for some reason born of avarice or out of compassionless fear we are prone to interpret crippled as those things. The word is loaded with a negative connotation beyond the obvious and unfortunate plight of the victim themselves. I say “we” but I only mean “me” with any real certainty. If the Crippled God was introduced to us from the beginning by his real name, Kaminsod, I think it would allow for pity to sink in quicker, indeed this path would have been most likely diverted entirely. For that very reason it was not. There is power in names and it even can be seen through some of the positions within his sanctioned House of Chains: Reaver, Leper, Cripple, Fool, Consort — all border on tags we ourselves want to avoid, regarding those around us and especially for ourselves (though personally, I’m down for Consort). Even the names that have no such stigma on their own and our shared by other houses like King and Knight seems less prestigious. Who would want to be king of such folk, all potential responsibilities of the state? My failure as a human being is even further exposed because the position of Knight for these people, on further reflection, could be the most admirable, honorable, and noble of callings. Even “Kaminsod” may reveal something. I’m not German nor do I speak their language (so professional drive-by corrections please stop by), but I lived long enough in Europe to hear the term “Kamin”. A fireplace or chimney, right? A place where people can gather and share warmth from the cold. Kaminsod is a prisoner, an ALIEN prisoner. They don’t just throw away the key either. A bunch of gods and upstarts gang up ever so often for a party to rechain him as if to gangbang a god, and I always took it for symbolizing them literally fucking him. And it taints them.

While the idea of right and wrong are often tainted words themselves, vested with the label of being too tired and too traveled a concept for a true author to utilize — particularly disdained among the fantastika elite — the Bonehunter’s unknowing quest is a powerful example of that old score. As painstakingly detailed by Erikson, the Malazans are representatives of several peoples, conquerors and conquered. Under one banner, their own, they denounce that very unifying calling to perform a task that reminds me of something my good friend Shepherd Book once said.

If you can’t do something smart, do something right.

In an E.T. moment they helped hold the door open for a handicapped alien to go home. In a Erickson moment, we then shanked him on the threshold for the trouble. We killed him to free him of us AND save ourselves. Killed a god to save us from his followers. Jade giants, like the Hulk, a normal rational and even brilliant person turned world threatening destructive over a no longer needed though perhaps comforting belief.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen is just the child of a union of the Kwisatch Haderach of sword and sorcery campaigns and epic fantasy’s finest dramatic cinematographer, with a penchant for the post-modern. The term “epic” gained value that it unknowingly had yet to grasp. You know how you sometimes read a book and it has an appendices or source manuals? Erikson’s world is not a single epic figure or group traversing that world. Erikson’s world and scope has room for dumping all of those characters, creatures, locales and utilizing them. They live here. Backmatter exists to remind us of these faces in a crowd, not to reveal them. From a population standpoint it’s as if every D&D pen and paper campaign going on across the world were playing the same game ran by the Grand Master DM, master of the warrens of Wonder and Mystery. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is not ground for mere cliche and metaphors to be assimilated and fictionalized. Erikson casts and molds his own. He grows them using what would otherwise be an unknown and inaccessible supply, unique stock as from some personal garden, stashed on the moon. Few minds have been able to conceive a true world, a chaotic world, that isn’t the one we live in. Fewer have been able to convey one. Personally, I’ve found the nature of chaos in fiction, it’s often absolute interpretation, as a crutch to be weird, lazy, and random for the sake of making no statements and calling it a statement for that fact. This recognition of futility literally and literarily bores me and is a comfortable dead end; a manufactured limitation. Erikson chooses to write a cycle that sets itself against chaos, comes to understand it, and to free it. He murders it before its all powerful jade children Hulk-smash us.

Erikson’s chaotic world is given order and tied together by the unity of the brotherhoods found in the Bridgeburners and Bonehunters. Armed men and women march for reasons they do not know, but they are more sure of it then anything they’ve ever done or will do. Humanity does mean something. What we do means something even if it’s a story no one will ever read, see, or hear about. Perhaps especially so; perhaps it never matters more. One of my favorite reads ever is Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, and one of the scenes I always remember is Corwin watching a funeral procession in the midst of Chaos, and all of the wonders that sprang forth. I had just a read a fantasy novel through and through, witnessing Corwin just cross the multiverse itself, but in this moment, in this world, fantasy happened again.

He wanted to be taken beyond the Courts of Chaos and into the final darkness when his time came at last,” Bleys said. “So Dworkin once told me. Beyond Chaos and Amber, to a place where none reigned.

Erikson won’t let chaos go, he even sanctions it, to promise the reader he will deal with this tangible exploited Alien god who does not belong here. He will force him to witness us. He would need help.

Conspirators have a logic and a daring beyond our reach. All conspiracies are the same taut story of men who find coherence in some criminal act — Don Delillo, Libra

Back in 2008 I conducted an interview with Steven Erikson which verified my belief that two characters in the series, Kellanved and Dancer (Shadowthrone and Cotillion), were to some degree in-world avatars of Erikson and setting/campaign co-creator Ian Cameron Esslemont (whom I also have interviewed). I had thought this for some years but was as closet to sure as one could be without the official word after reading Esslemont’s Night of Knives, a book that I think catches way too much criticism, shit is hot — and some of the marvelous moments within. Among them, one of my favorites in the entire Malazan cycle. The duo forsake mortal trappings and instead of running away and in circles from authorial univocation, Erikson instead inserts himself into the game, always around, always accountable, always still a possible victim of chance. He lives in the same world, he just has spent years studying and exploring it, and its strikes me as an interesting element when considering that every other author I’ve ever interviewed or have had a dialogue with admits to unforeseen character growth. What happens when the men behind a veil, behind the curtain — bartenders turned warlord Emperor and Master Assassin, turned Gods, masters of shadow — grow within a story? What effect can frame shifting have on art? It’s a matter of perspective. Conclusions must have been acted upon to become conclusions.

I asked if you believed in failure. Because I don’t. “Even should you succeed, Cotillion. Beyond all expectation, beyond, even, all desire. They will still speak of your failure.” He sheathed his daggers. “And you know what they can do to themselves.” The head cocked, strands of hair dangling and drifting. “Arrogance?” “Competence,’ Cotillion snapped in reply.”Doubt me at your peril.”

Hiding in plain site is not just an unlikely bombastic post-modern work of fantastic fiction but also one that looms above, grown beyond examples of overwhelming individual cynicism sold to me as perceptive, ironic, with honest wit and keen observation. Within Erikson’s world integrity and acknowledgement of exists as more than a joke or a trick. It has real value and thus not freely given. It’s earned. The Bonehunter’s journey passes a toll before the final turn. To find worth, to receive it, you must first give it, which is no doubt why it escapes so many. Even some of our very gods have forgotten. Once offered, the currency, called plainly a “coin”, is one that can no longer be hoarded, only given back. The burden turned payment is not tactile though can only be earned by action. Words have no value, a simple hug mends a burnt bridge. We have journeyed with them and him. Erikson salutes us. His unwitnessed army.

All that is gold does not glitter and worth is often found in what bridges the lonely distances. Erikson offers us the beauty and bravery of momentary clarities amidst the chaos. Conquering the courts we once just stood at the precipice of, he broke the pattern, put his people at all the gates he then, always first in, took the next step.

Wide-eyed stupid and triumphant.