I’ve finally finished the longest series I’ve ever read, and probably the best series I’ve ever read despite its flaws. I’ve mentioned it before, but today I’ll lay out it in more detail.
Malazan Book of the Fallen is a ten novel fantasy series written by Steven Erikson. Most of these novels are well over a thousand pages each. There is no central character. There isn’t even a central group of characters. Rather, there are literally hundreds of characters spread out over multiple plot lines spanning three continents. Of these, are perhaps 35 “main” characters Erikson focuses on.
The world’s history and cultures are more complicated and complete than both Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Martin’s Westeros. The scope of the histories, nations, races, and cultures are mind boggling, and shows Erikson’s background as both an archaeologist and an anthropologist.
It’s taken me just under three years to get through all 10 books, though I read many other books during that time as well. Reading this series is a huge project, not just in time spent but also in mental focus. Not only is it hugely complicated, but as I explained last time, Erikson doesn’t actually explain anything. He just throws you into the middle of things at the beginning of the first novel, and you have to struggle though the first several hundred pages trying to figure everything out for yourself. Erikson also spends way too much time describing what all these characters are thinking, often bogging down the story flow.
On the plus side, the characters and dialogue are magnificent. There’s tons of action (far more than in Game of Thrones) and the action is epic, pulse-bounding, and gritty. Erikson’s world is bloody, sexual, and very brutal. Some of the events he describes are shocking to say the least. Sometimes good guys get killed, tortured, mutilated, or worse. Other times, the bad guys get away with things without their comeuppance (though not always).
As you might imagine, this series is not for everybody. You need to be a hardcore fantasy nerd like me to enjoy something like this. I absolutely loved it, despite its flaws.
Out of the bazillions of characters, here were some of my favorites. I tend to like the darker characters, as you’ll see, but these will give you the idea of the creativity involved.
Karsa Orlong – My favorite character by far, a nine foot tall barbarian, covered in cobwebbed scars, who wields a stone sword inhabited by the souls of his two friends and is completely unaffected by sorcery. He rides a giant horse named Havoc that enjoys eating people. Karsa’s goal is to “utterly destroy the world of men” because of his hatred of civilization. Not only a dangerous character, but hugely entertaining and often funny.
Tehol Beddict – An eccentric genius who wears nothing but a blanket and sleeps on the top of his slum house, living in squalor with his manservant Bugg and a two-headed cricket, despite the fact he’s secretly the wealthiest man in his city.
Kallor – Otherwise known as the “High King,” an old man dressed in chain armor with a gigantic sword, cursed with immortality by the old gods. In response to the curse, he killed everyone in his kingdom (hundreds of thousands) and cursed the gods right back. Hundreds of thousands of years old, utterly full of hate, Kallor travels the lands doing whatever the hell he wants.
Kruppe – A fat, bald oddball who always speaks in the third person and in a poetic fashion. “Kruppe enjoys eating with his fine and noble friends!” He pretty much does nothing but screw with people minds, and is much more than he appears.
Onos T’oolan – First Sword of the T’lan Imass, and near-unkillable undead warrior who can instantly turn to dust and is one of the greatest combatants in the world. A kind soul despite his horrific appearance, who goes though many changes as the story progresses.
Rhulad Sengar – An insane, seven foot tall grey-skinned Tiste Edur, whose body is covered head to toe with gold coins, resurrected from the dead and wields an invincible sword forged by the Crippled God.
And those are just six characters out of the scores in these books. Sound cool? Yup.
Here is quick rundown of each of the ten books and what I thought of them. I’ll keep it as spoiler free as I can.
1. Gardens of the Moon – The Malazan Empire (vast, Roman-like empire) is set to conquer the fable city of Darujhistan. It’s going to be tough, since the city is vast, wealthy and powerful, filled with assassins, demons, and wizards. A crack team called the Bridgeburners must infiltrate the city and prep it for invasion.
This was one of my favorite books in the series, which is high praise considering I had no idea what the hell was going on during the first 50% of the book. Action packed. The characters from this book are the ones I liked the best and were the most excited about whenever they re-appeared in later books.
2. Deadhouse Gates – A continent away, several groups fight to support or prevent The Whirlwind Apocalypse. A renegade army must also travel across the desert while being pursued by a desert army backed by an angry goddess.
I didn’t like this book much, mostly because it doesn’t contain very many of the characters introduced in Gardens of the Moon. However, most people seem to like this book a lot. I have a feeling if I re-read it I would like it more.
The really grim stuff starts in this book. There’s a young woman named Felisin, and man, some seriously horrible things happen to this girl during the entire novel. Some other protagonists die in some seriously horrible ways. Wow.
3. Memories of Ice – Back to the characters from Gardens of the Moon, the Malazan Empire’s army, now a renegade army, must team up with its enemies to fight a new power in the south, an army of undead-like cannibals.
This is my favorite book in the entire series and one of my favorite books of all time! The entire thing is start to finish filled with fantastic characters, fantastic enemies, deep and rich cultures, and amazing action. Highly recommend it.
4. House of Chains – Yet another army arrives in the desert to take on the Whirlwind. Various heroes, villains, warriors, and factions do battle. I don’t know any other way to summarize this one.
This book is fantastic. The first several chapters are devoted to Karsa Orlong, who as I said, is my favorite. There are many other amazing characters including Onrack the Broken, Trull Sengar, and Leoman of the Flails. One of the best books in the series.
5. Midnight Tides – Amazingly, we now go to a third continent and a nation that is oceans away from all the other events in the prior novels. Backed by a tortured god, the Tiste Edur clans from the north invade the Empire of Lether, a capitalistic nation that thrives on money and sorcery. And for some reason, the dead aren’t staying dead.
This is probably the second best book in the series after Memories of Ice. I couldn’t put this book down; I craved more the more I read it. Fantastic.
6. The Bonehunters – Back to the original two continents: A war-weary Malazan army returns home, only to find their empire has turned against them. More chaos in the desert too. This book is a merging of characters from the first two storylines.
This book suffers from choppy writing and the flow is poor. It has so much information jammed into it, Erickson really needed a better editor. However! Despite these problems I still enjoyed the book quite a bit.
7. Reaper’s Gale – All (or at least most) of the groups of characters from all the continents and storylines converge at the Empire of Lether, now conquered by the Tiste Edur. Battle Royale.
This book was fair but not great. (This is Erikson’s favorite book of the series.)
8. Toll the Hounds – Back with many of the original characters from the first and third books in the series, the gods converge onto the city of Darujhistan, including Death himself.
Loved it. This is probably my third favorite book in the series, perhaps equal to House of Chains. I was sad when it was over.
9. Dust of Dreams – The renegade Malazan army, now called the Bonehunters, must cross a fast wasteland to the east of Lether to face off against their final and most lethal enemy, the white skinned, immortal, and multi-jointed race known as the Forkrul Assail, who plan to use the heart of the Crippled God to wipe humanity from the face of the Earth.
This book was okay. The ending battle was fantastic, but there were many boring parts to overcome.
10. The Crippled God – All of the forces from all the books converge for the final battle. Lots of people die.
Sadly, this was the worst book in the series, and the first three quarters were very painful to get through. Just boring as hell. The final quarter of the book is very fun; hundreds of pages of nonstop action with characters you’ve grown to love (or hate) over the previous nine books. But damn, those first three quarters…ugh.
In summary, I only recommend this series for those of you who really enjoy huge, complicated, long, sweeping fantastic epics. If that’s not you, you should probably stay away. If that sounds like you, you NEED to read this series. Just remember that it’s going to take a serious commitment of time, and that you need to be patient with Erikson’s lack of exposition. It pays off.
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If you could recommend one fantasy-fiction book which also is available on audiobook, to someone new to the genre, what would you recommend?
The Hobbit, quickly followed by Lord of the Rings. That gives you the baseline.
I tried to read Gardens of the Moon… I got forty per cent in but I got so annoyed by the constant Americanisms in the dialogue that I had to stop. I found it really jarring. However, I’m tempted to give it another go after reading this. There are not many great epic fantasy series that are written for adults.
One series I love is the Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. It tells the story of King Arthur but it’s incredibly dark and violent. (Imagine Arthur as told by George RR Martin!)
Great post by the way, anything more to do with fantasy and other novels is much appreciated.
They’re ostensibly British characters written by a Canadian, so that doesn’t surprise me. It was less jarring for me but I’m an American.
That’s on my reading list! I’ll get around to it someday…
Is the ending satisfying? I started reading the first book and I like it but I dont want to get invested for years only to end up dissapointed. It has happened before.
A great series Malazan is alright! I’m surprised you didnt have Anomander Rake down as one of your favourites. Agreed on Memories of Ice and Midnight Tides a being fantastic.
I’ve read the first 2 in the prequel trilogy based on the Tiste civil war. Just like the last few books its very whiny. (As in far too many internal monologues moping about how terrible the world is). But still better than Erikson’s co-writer ICE. His Malaz books are not great. Though they do give more characterisation for Dassem Ulthor which is ok. And while not as “whiny” as Erikson’s last few, they do not reach the same heights.
I’d also echo the Warlord Chronicles, a very good series.
Also, if you wait a bit, R Scott Bakker’s series, The Second Apocolypse is due to finish up in about a years time. Its good but heavy going. About half-way between George RR Martin’s stuff (very little magic) and Malazan (crazy crazy magic). All the other recommendations I’d give you, I think you have already read Joe Abercombe, etc.
The ending is about 80% satisfying. But like I said, the first three-fourths of the final book is really terrible.
It’s happened to me too.
I would say push through the first and second books so you can at least read the third book (Memories of Ice) which I consider one of the best fantasy books ever written. Then make the decision if you want to keep going.
He was great but too similar to other characters I’ve read in other novels.
Yeah, I will NOT read his Kharkanas Trilogy. I’ve heard nothing good about it.
I agree. I have Return of the Crimson Guard sitting on my unread books shelf, and I’ll probably never get to it.
Hell yes. His first trilogy is utterly amazing. I may re-read it next year.
Thanks for the recommendation
I’ve been looking for a new fantady series. Currently reading Knight of the Seven Kingdoms novellas while waiting for The Winds of Winter to come out (c’mon George..)
I refuse to read any more Game of Thrones books (past the first two.) George can write characters but he can’t write a plot to save his life.
Haha do you watch the show?
I do occasionally, usually when my daughter wants to watch it with me since she likes it. It’s one of the rare instances when the show/movie is better than the books. But even the show suffers from plot problems. Great characters, great setting, great dialogue, stupid and utterly disorganized plot.
“I refuse to read any more Game of Thrones books (past the first two.) George can write characters but he can’t write a plot to save his life.”
Apparently he can’t rap either 🙂
Thanks for the recommendation. I’m on book three right now. You’re right about how confusing the books can be, but by the time I got the Kruppe’s dialogue on the wax coin, I was in.
If you’re still adding more books to your list, I really recommend the Emberverse/Changed World series by S. M. Stirling. Spectacular post-apocalyptic story with knights, lords, kings, etc. . Best thing is it has really awesome large-scale battle scenes.