The Malazan Book of the Fallen: Book 1 (Malazan Chronology 11)
I’ve spent far too long on aeroplanes over the last month, so was looking for something big and meaty to occupy me during eighteen-hour schleps back and forth from London to Macau. Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon promised to be just the ticket. His Malazan books are based on an intricate high-fantasy universe co-created with Ian C. Esslemont, who also writes a series set in the same world, and they’re notorious for being tricky to get into. Rumour has it that you either give up at a third of the way through Gardens of the Moon, or fall for it completely, so I suppose I belong to the second camp. The problem cited most often is that the book throws you in at the deep end with no back-story, little exposition and a dizzying cast of characters; but I’ve made it through the Lymond Chronicles, so such things hold no fear for me. I’m still not entirely sure that I understand what’s been going on, but I feel weirdly exhilarated, as if I’ve dipped a toe into a world and mythology that expands far beyond anything I can yet imagine.
Dark things are afoot in the world of the Malazan Empire. Having conquered vast swathes of territory, the Empress Laseen has now turned her sights on Pale and Darujhistan, the last two free cities on the continent of Genabackis. A former assassin by trade, Laseen is still new on the Imperial throne (the last Emperor having succumbed to her professional skills) and she has much to prove. Although the Malazan armies have made treaties of cooperation with the powerful Moranth tribes, there are still many who resist them, including the loyalists within the Empire who resent her murder of the old Emperor. At Pale, as Laseen’s forces gather, they face what should be a daunting alliance: the free citizens fighting alongside the powerful forces of Moon’s Spawn, a formidable floating fortress under the command of the Tiste Andii lord Anomander Rake. As Laseen’s High Mage Tayschrenn leads the attack on Pale, dark forces are unleashed which damage the old loyalist Malazan troops as much as their supposed enemies. And, as the battle moves onward from Pale to Darujhistan, several groups of characters find their destinies colliding in this exotic, dangerous city.
On one hand is Adjunct Lorn, Laseen’s personal representative and factotum, who has been charged with a complicated plot to unsettle Anomander Rake and his Tiste Andii warriors. She is (initially) assisted by the young nobleman Ganoes Paran, who finds that his work with the Adjunct leads him into an alarming world where deities play freely with the lives of men and fates rest upon the spinning coin of Chance. For Paran, the supernatural swiftly becomes all too readily familiar. Then there is Tattersail, a powerful sorceress within the Malazan Army whose loyalties force her to choose between duty and honour, with cataclysmic results. And we meet a young girl who, through simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, finds herself transformed into the vessel for a dark and vindictive god who seeks to play his own game in the wars.
Alongside these ‘solo’ characters are two bands: first up, the Bridgeburners, the old loyalists of the Emperor’s army, led by Sergeant Whiskeyjack. After the wreckage of the battles at Pale, only a handful of this celebrated troop survives, and Whiskeyjack and his men begin to wonder where their loyalties should truly lie. Alongside the Sergeant there are Fiddler and Hedge, sappers extraordinare, the former assassin Kalam, and the mage Quick Ben, a master sorcerer who certainly has more hidden in his past than he’s letting on. On the other side of the coin – pun intended – is an incongruous brotherhood of ne’er-do-wells in Darujhistan, featuring the scholar Mammot, his wayward thieving nephew Crokus, the dandy Murillio, the assassin Rallick Nom and, at the strange centre of this little group, the fat, fussy mage Kruppe. I freely admit that, after about three pages of Kruppe’s bizarre dreams at the start of Book 2, I would have quite happily thrown him under the bus (or the Malazan equivalent). However, as time went on, he became steadily more interesting, as he pulls strings of his own and as his dreams grow more easily comprehensible from the reader’s point of view. I never stopped wanting to smack him, though, for his irritating habit of referring to himself in the third person.
It might be odd that I enjoyed this so much, because I’m not traditionally the biggest fan of high fantasy. Anything involving wizards, dragons, demons and swords with names (if not Tolkien) makes me think twice, and I prefer low-fantasy settings for the most part. But Erikson’s world works because so much of the story, even the supernatural elements, boil down to gritty plotting and advantage-seeking. As I so often say, it’s the shades of grey that appeal and here there are virtually no characters who are completely good – and how, in any case, does one define ‘good’? The most noble character in the book is probably Anomander Rake, warlord of a powerful host who is very much opposed to the Malazan Empire and thus, technically, at least at first, a ‘baddie’. But Rake is doing his best to defend his people and, more, to defend broader notions of justice and ‘right’, which many of the other characters seem to shrug off as an inconvenient nicety.
A book like this shows how pointless the notions of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ are in this genre. Erikson’s novel feels like the frontrunner for all the goodness and grittiness of contemporary grimdark fiction, and the density of his plotting goes beyond even K.J. Parker’s deliciously meaty stories. In some ways, it almost feels worth going back to the beginning and starting all over again, so that I can make sense of things that confused me first time round. But I don’t think I can resist the lure of plunging straight on to the next one. It would be nice, at some point, to understand a bit more of what’s going on, and hopefully that will become clear across the rest of Erikson’s Book of the Fallen series, plus Esslemont’s novels dealing with an earlier period of the world’s history. Fingers crossed. But, for the moment, I’m actually quite happy to be carried along by Erikson on a tour of this sprawling, double-dealing world. Hopefully, as I read more, I’ll be able to discern overarching narratives and patterns, but at the moment I’m just feeling pleasantly satiated and a little bit lost, in a good way. I want to find out more. I’ve been waiting impatiently to write this, so that I can get Gardens of the Moon out of my head and move on to Deadhouse Gates, the next in the series. I’ve no idea how this is all going to pan out but, at the moment, I like Erikson’s style.
(A side note: it is really worth reading the author’s introduction, just to find your feet a little bit before you start, or at least to understand how the world of the Malazan came into being. Oh, and no, I never understood the choice of title. But it sure sounds good.)
Next in the series – Deadhouse Gates