What I learned from The Malazan Book of the Fallen

Every year I try to read the Malazan Book of the Fallen. That is to say, I pick up Gardens of the Moon and plough on, and inevitably fail around Memories of Ice [1].

This time I actually finished the damn thing [2]. I started reading about four months ago. I read like a writer: as carefully as I could, notebook in hand, keeping an eye out for prose tricks, worldbuilding, and ways of bringing a plot together. I read no other fiction in between and read every single day. By the end of it I felt like Coltaine himself, compelled by narrative chains that snapped and bit and pulled me even as real life hounded me on all flanks.

First, a disclaimer: I’m playing a guessing game, and have no contact with the author. As far as I’m concerned, Erikson is operating several tiers above me in skill, so all of my analysis could be so much so much pseudointellectual hogwash. Second, this whole post contains spoilers.


1. In media res (Latin: “into the middle of things”) is the art of starting a story in the middle of the action. There is such a thing as too much in media res. On the whole, this series seems to be constructed in such a way that everything is told from the middle.Case in point, the plot structure:

This works really well to set up a universe that feels like it has serious history (Star Wars did the same). This use of in media res happens at every level – from the ordering of chapters in books to the books themselves.

The downside is, at Malazan’s scale, you need the entirety of it in your head to really appreciate what goes on. For example, it was only after the Pannion wars that I began to appreciate the enormity of what happened to at Pale; almost the entirety of the magic system is a confusing mess until the Errant/Panoes heritage revelation.  And I still have no idea what the epic K’rul-Kruppe-Mhybe-Silverfox arc was about, other than to set up the Redeemer vs the Dying God, and I have no idea what the Dying God was about. There’s hard information/attention limits at play here – part of the series’ famed difficulty, I believe.

This can technique be interpreted as a critique of the usual way of introducing things – a linear narrative, a “journeyman” character that knows only slightly more than the audience, and needs to learn about the world around them. I suppose I can read it as the polar opposite of the opening infodump found in Clarke’s scifi (which I grew up reading), but I’m not entirely convinced [3]

We certainly know that it’s a deliberate choice by the author. I’ve read Erikson’s Willful Child, a Star Trek parody/homage that reads like a high-octane version of The Orville. It’s completely different.

What I learned: to be more aware of how information is delivered to the reader in a story – both in terms of volume and velocity. Malazan easily scores above my upper limit for complexity – somewhere up there with doing a literature review on trade-migration relations.

Going back after Malazan, I think the handling I prefer is somewhere around Yan Lienke’s Explosion City Chronicles, in BattleStar Galactica (the reboot), Dianna Wynne Jones’ Hexwood and Dan Simmon’s Hyperion. If we’re comparing epic-scale behemoths to behemoths, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto and Worm. 


2. Convergence and outlining: Gripes with information delivery aside, I’m now firmly convinced that Erikson could give Tolkien a run for his money when it comes to bringing together sweeping plots and legendary characters. The very nature of convergence (power attracts power) dictates some pretty epic boiling pots have to happen, and Malazan delivers in spades.

There was a moment when Kruppe, on his mule, met Iskarul Pust, also on his mule, while Anomander Rake battled Hood, then Dasseem Ultor, and who else makes an appearance but Karsa Orlong, Samar Dev, and Toc bloody Anaster, the Hounds, the Daughters trying to steal Dragnipur. These are characters we’ve seen introduced somewhere in the orbit of a couple of million words ago. Each of these characters trail clear story arcs bringing them there to that fateful battle. It’s Dickensian on the grandest scale possible.

Naturally, I had assumed that Erikson has some level of god-tier outlining process going on. If JK Rowling does this:

 

 

And Brandon Sanderson does this, and we all know of Tolkien’s legendary notes, what does Erikson do?

So I was surprised to find this:

And this:

My outlines are works-in-progress throughout the period in which I’m writing.  I adjust as I go along, although I usually have a fair idea of where it all ends, and where certain characters need to be, and the things that need to happen on the way there.  But I’m not obsessive about outlines – they’re notes for guidance, and always malleable.

I find this absolutely fascinating. The fact that he pulled off Malazan with just ‘notes for guidance’ and maps terrifies me, so naturally I tried to take it apart:
1. Whatever note-taking system he has, and his writing process, speaks a lot to the power of serious outlining; either that or he’s either got an attention span a couple of dozen times larger than mine.
2. He deploys, with extreme cleverness, an entire deck full of Deus Ex Machinas that he can use to shepherd plotlines as he wishes. In fantasy series, it’s often hard to tell the Deus Ex Machinas apart from, well, all the other machinations. But Quick Ben, Kruppe, the Trygalle Guild, Kilava, Mael, the wandering nature of Shadowthrone’s warren – they strike me as the writers’ version of shaved knuckles in the hole.

What I learned: aside from the futility of playing a knowledge battle against Erikson? I realized that I should outline more using keystone moments in the plot, and just get more comfortable being the front-loader that I am. As of late, I’ve been experimenting: Numbercaste had a notebook’s worth of plot diagrams and scribbles; the Commonwealth Empire trilogy (HarperCollins) I’ve been building off a single large note, revised constantly, describing key scenes; the Salvage Crew (Aethon) I’ve been playing the simulation game – drop characters into a setting, figure out how they’ll interact, like playing a game of Rimworld. I also learned the value of having seriously disruptive and somewhat mystical secondary characters lying around to push a story in certain directions.


3. On class hierarchy in systems: Malazan is a military book. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Erikson describes weapons and armor. What struck me was that he sets down class hierarchies in his societies very early into their introduction. There are Adjuncts, High Fists, Fists, Captains, Seargents, Corporals. Kings, Queens, Consorts, Chancellors, High Priests. Pure, High Watered, Watered. Different classes of Moranth. Seerdomin, Children of the Dead Seed, and so on. These delineations are marked.

Interestingly, magic is kept vague, despite the hint of ‘classes’ of magic. The Hold / Warren divide is made known, but I have no idea if High Thyr can take on a Shadow Dance, for example. We know Omtose Phellack is OP, but no idea if Beak’s full-warren unveiling could shield an army from Hood.

Likewise, the skill levels of heroes themselves. If we discount the gods, at least seven people are clearly OP at offense: Anomander Rake, Quick Ben, Icarium, Karsa Orlong, Tool, Sinn. And Daseem Ultor, brief though his appearance is. Surprisingly, they seem to hold a lot of themselves in reserve, and quite easily cross over into god-killing turf. I had initially assumed a loose hierarchy in the form of Gods > First Heroes > Ascendants > Mortal Swords > Mortals, but the lines blur by the end. Quick Ben is also probably an match for Shadowthrone in plotting. And Fiddler with the right equipment could probably take on almost everyone listed above [4].

I suspect the vagueness is a plot device, lending both a sense of mystery and an ample source of shaved knuckles in the hole (see above). This is in stark contrast to, say, Brandon Sanderson’s ‘hard magic’, and more in line with Glenn Cook’s Black Company or Dianna Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series. The social divisions are sketched out at the start; the power roughly in the realm of handwavium. Despite this vagueness, these stories work. I enjoyed it. I cheered on Quick Ben.

What I learned:  Not all types of demarcations need to be set in stone. The mechanics of magic, in particular, can be obfuscated to a certain extent, as long as a complex facade is built – Rowling did the same with Harry Potter. Pay more attention to social hierarchies.


4. On monologue by the author and unreliable narrators: Malazan throws an enormous number of unreliable narrators at the wall. Kruppe is a blatant example. Then you watch the legends of Coltaine distort, but I think it really hit home for me with Kallor and Bleak’s entirely alternative description of the magic system.

On one hand, this is useful for setting out themes to think about. Malazan has quite a few, or at least I inferred these:

  1. Every life is worth examining; every villain is the hero of their own story
  2. Civilization appear, thrive, vanish. And cities are overrated
  3. Diversity and equality is strength
  4. Bottom-up objectives-based thinking beats top-down process-based thinking
  5. Gods are people writ large (or people are gods writ small)
  6. Life is a highway to hell, but tenacity, courage, compassion, friendship, love – they make the darkness worthwhile
  7. Shit happens and flowers grow on it (and sometimes this happens to be civilizations).
  8. All of this has happened before, and will happen again

On the one hand, it’s extremely easy to overdue this and end up using the characters as standalones for the author’s essays on how things should be. 

I’ll admit I was in burnout by the time I got through book 7. Reading this series every single day, with nothing else in between, is difficult – it’s some four million words, after all, and it felt like multiple characters had just given me their personalized  equivalent of A Brief History of Humankind (or, in the Letherii case, the Wealth of Nations). But pulling back, assuming a reasonable pace: would I have enjoyed the monologues?

Probably not. Malazan, to me, falls roughly in the same category as many anime. Naruto is the obvious example. Epic, tackling big themes, with plenty of examples both at micro and macro scales, often with heavy use of monologue.

I’m personally more of a Gin-Tama and William Gibson fan; Gintoki would fall asleep during such pontificating; and Gibson will paint a picture, say “the street finds its own uses for things,” and leave it at that. Malazan, like Naruto Shippuden, stretched my patience.

What I learned: my limits on how much talk-no-jutsu I want to read and write. That said . . .


Nonlinear, branching storylines. The series taught me a lot about storylines, because within it are many different stories moving at entirely different speeds – and sometimes in completely different directions.

Where to begin? I was bored by Dust of Dreams. Toll the Hounds brought an interesting stylistic twist – a more omniscient third-person narrative camera at the start of each major section – and that let me envision Darujhistan better, though quite frankly I found the whole book irritating except for the Convergence. I wanted to get back to the Bonehunters, dammit! I read Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice like a madman, chainsmoking one cigarette after the other.

I get what Erikson is doing here. Side arcs, offshoots, all add to the richness of the universe, the feeling that this is a world that exists beyond the Malazan’s fatal tango with the Crippled God. This  also creates what copywriters call “open loops” – teasers that hook curious people in.  It’s like watching some kind of gigantic jigsaw puzzle finally fall into place. There’s a very visceral feeling of satisfaction when it does.

This technique of complex branching storylines I’ve seen in only a handful of places: in some types of RPGs and in the WH40K Black Library. Do works like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlass and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain count? I suppose they do, but they play effectively with a much smaller space. This  seems a very tough act to pull off, and even RPGs with complex story (see Final Fantasy VII, the Bioshock series, Planescape: Torment) adopt a method that keeps the player close to the core sequence.

But let’s cut down to a story arc level [5]. I found I enjoyed the plotlines that steadily ramp up and up and plug into each other and make the overall plot move forward, with no faffing about in the middle. And I seem to prefer characters with backstory moving these plots. I preferred logical ends.

I felt irritated by plots that didn’t seem to follow these criteria, except for the Adjunct Tavore, because the entire story is extremely self-aware about the fact that nobody can figure out why the hell they follow her into certain death [6], and then the twist is that she’s probably been the one of the few  people who understood the full field of play, and literally a vehicle for Malazan compassion.

But I digress.

What I learned:  A story is a map of events, chained together by causality.  I learned better the tradeoffs between exploring the map and sticking to one path. This is all useful for the Metal Karma Cycle, which R.R. Virdi and I are co-writing: we’ve been figuring out how to explore the repercussions of events in branching sub-stories, and in that sense Malazan has been a lot like Kruppe – wordy, but ultimately something can learn a lot from.


And ultimately: I am now a fan of Malazan and Erikson. I wept for Coltaine and Fiddler’s lament. I read the last battle with Audiomachine’s “Wars of Faith” and Phillip Beesen’s “Lost Souls” playing in my mind on repeat.  My brain feels like it climbed some sort of literary Mount Everest, and has filed a petition for several shots of arrack, a packet of cigs and a long day watching something silly.


[1] Steven Erikson’s Malazan is no joke, and considered by many in the fantasy community to be one of the grandest epics of all time. I would tentatively say “Imagine Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads” and add that to this famous Reddit explanation: “Imagine a massive-scale battle-royale over decades (and aeons) between the Romans, the Turks, the Mongols, emogoth dark elves that are not to be fucked with, a bunch of extremely pissed-off Inuit, Conan’s roided-up big brother, undead neanderthal warriors, uber-samurai, gods, elder gods, demigods, usurper gods, alien gods, insane priests, sorcerers, warlocks, shamans, witches, nearly-immortal orcs with the driest imaginable sense of humour, demons, sea monsters, assassins, shapeshifters, a giant-beetle airforce and T-rexes with swords for arms, all competing to see who can fuck each other over the hardest.

[2] Main series, books 1-10; I have not yet touched Ian Cameron Esslemont’s work.

[3] Because the series introduces journeymen characters all the time. Crokus knew exactly bugger-all about anything other than thieving and the Daru streets at the start. Udinaas made an excellent introduction to the Tiste Edur. And the tale of the Malazan Army and the Crippled God is, if anything, a swan song to linearity, as Shadowthrone, Rake and various actors are LITERALLY orchestrating events right from the start. The Silchas Ruin – Rud Ellale conversations are enormous infodumps.

[4] Which begs the question: how and why do these some of these people stay at the level of people, taking orders from others far less powerful, when their compatriots are roughly god-tier threats? Why is it Shadowthrone and Cotillion running Shadow instead of Quick Ben and, say, Kalam? What exactly did Dujek Onearm and Whiskeyjack do to deserve such soldiers?

[5] Opinions as a reader: the Chain of Dogs was magnificent. Rhulad’s ascension to the throne, brilliant. The war against the Pannion Dominion both horrifying, fearful and sad. Karsa Orlong’s story, and that of Felisin Paran, I genuinely enjoyed;  the long march of the Bonehunters I would have liked – but it was the characters, not the direction. The Greyswords were cool; the Perish a professional distraction. Hellian’s perspective was fun and then became rapidly overdone. And I wish I could skip the Redeemer/Dying God, the Snake arc and the Shake (Yedan had a pretty epic innings, but what relevance was it?). Shadowthrone’s overall plan is a neat twist I didn’t see coming, but completely in line with his apparent credo of not taking power for himself, but limiting other peoples’ power.

[6] This idea of the successor to the Bridgeburners crossing their own desert was nice, but I kept wondering whether it was a plot device that failed or a critique of legendarily high-attrition military decisions, like the German invasion of Russia in WW2. The Bonehunters lost thousands, ended up arriving last and diverting no troops from the Spire. A much smaller team of outriders and marines could have snuck in and planted the otataral sword – this is definitely just me, but I kept hoping the march would let Fiddler’s lot peel off and get behind enemy lines while the Bonehunters did something about the Forkrul Assail god and Icarias.

 

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