As longtime readers of the blog know, I’m a big fan of fantasy fiction. Fantasy, like most other fiction genres, is a broad umbrella category for a variety of differing styles and flavors. Recently I’ve been reading a series that has a different tone from most works of fantasy that I’ve enjoyed in the past. Combining elements of the subgenres of epic fantasy and so-called “grimdark,” the Malazan Book of the Fallen (the holistic title for the sprawling 10 book series, hereafter referred to as the MBotF for brevity’s sake) delivers a fantasy experience like no other. Authors such as George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss have been praised for the extensive world-building and historical scope of their fantasy settings, but Steven Erikson, author of the MBotF series, has taken it even further. Tipping the figurative scales at 11,147 total pages across 10 volumes, the MBotF has a big story to tell, with the action taking place across seven continents and a history stretching back over more than 300,000 years.
There is a lot to like about the series, but one of its most interesting aspects is its focus on soldiers and soldiery. Many of the main characters have some relation to the military, and the series doesn’t shy away from the bleak and often brutal realities of warfare and the lives of the soldiers caught up in it. Erikson’s writing strikes a masterful balance between a stark portrayal of the horrors of the battlefield and a humanizing look at the soldiers experiencing those horrors (and sometimes perpetrating them). This snippet of dialogue from the second book in the series, between a soldier and a military historian (himself a former soldier) speaking of the desperate situation among the refugees they are escorting, illustrates the casual brutality of war and the cynically philosophical way soldiers constantly exposed to that brutality begin to view the world:
“Children are dying.”
Lull nodded. “That’s a succinct summary of humankind, I’d say. Who needs tomes and volumes of history? Children are dying. The injustices of the world hide in those three words.”
Another back and forth between a military commander and a child from the first novel in the series demonstrates that these soldiers don’t have any illusions about their choice of career:
“Heed the lesson there, son.”
“Every decision you make can change the world. The best life is the one the gods don’t notice. You want to live free, boy, live quietly.”
“I want to be a soldier. A hero.”
“You’ll grow out of it.”
Although the early books in the series are each relatively self-contained stories, the characters and plotlines from each installment begin to intertwine as the series progresses, so it’s best to read them in publication order, beginning with Gardens of the Moon. And speaking of characters, there are a lot of them to keep track of, not to mention Erikson’s penchant for dense prose and foreshadowing. Following everything that’s going on can be a struggle even for attentive readers, so I recommend supplementing the novels by checking out the Tor Reread of the Fallen, which provides chapter summaries as well as commentary by two readers, one of whom is reading the series for the first time, and another who is re-reading it. First time readers will probably want to steer clear of the commentary by Bill (the person re-reading the series) as well as the comment section generally, as spoilers for the entire series may be discussed in those areas.