Over a year from the time I started Gardens of the Moon, I close The Crippled God. Holy **** what a year.
Where to begin? I want to give my opinions on the series as a whole, but the scope of Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen leaves me dumbfounded. The ten volume epic fantasy follows two empires across three continents as they attempt to conquer new territories, put down uprisings, and deal with a god of suffering bound in chains. The playing field is thick with mortals and gods and all their murky motives. My head still aches trying to remember it all.
Erikson originally created this world for a role-playing game with his buddy Ian Esslemont. Just rolling a character would involve a lot of choices.
You’ve got your founding races, such as the tribal T’lan Imass who underwent a ritual to turn them into skeletal undead and the velociraptor-like K’Chain Che’Malle with swords for hands. There are alien races who fled their own broken realms for this one, like the long-lived and apathetic Tiste Andii. And of course there are humans, the relatable soldiers and citizens with their short lifespans and wild emotions. I’m glossing over how each race has its own cultures and history and factions, the complexity presumably linked with Erikson’s background in archaeology and anthropology.
There are also some pretty unique classes. Soletaken can shapeshift into a single alternate form (e.g. a dragon :D), while their D’ivers cousins can transform into a hive-mind (e.g. a swarm of spiders :o). Mages can open portals into other realms, called Holds or Warrens, to harness the elemental energies within or travel through them like wormholes. Some individuals are so skilled and confident they’ll take on the whole world (I’m looking at you, Karsa).
For your place of origin, you can pick among the many landscapes and cities that are characters in their own right – blue-flamed gritty Darujhistan, the Holy Desert of Raraku, greed-addled Letheras. This is a deep, dark, imaginative world. It’s easy to get lost but oh so fun trying to find your way about.
For the most part, each book is a self-contained plot arc, jumping between events unfolding in a few key places. Several of the books overlap chronologically, and combined they build a much farther-reaching plot. There were moments of every book that swept me away (a river choked with dead butterflies, coin-studded flesh, a slow-motion mule charge, hysterical laughter on a barrow), eliciting tears and and laughter and grimaces and grins… I don’t think there was an emotion that went unfelt.
But truth be told, the most common feelings were confusion and exhaustion. Erikson uses a LOT of words with very little exposition. The reader must assemble the bigger picture out of minutiae with few clues as to which details are actually important. There are far more characters than distinct personalities, making it difficult to keep track of those beyond your favorites. To exacerbate the problem, you dare not forget a character even when they die (which is frequent and sudden), as death is no guarantee that they’ve left the tale.
There’s also a surprising amount of introspective philosophizing and moralizing, not necessarily a negative but something that slows the pace and increases the word count. It’s a sharp contrast to the non-stop action in other scenes, where so much happens at once you have to read it over twice.
My general befuddlement kept me searching for the answers, but ultimately the first 60-70% of each book felt more like a chore than a joy. Based on these early sections, I would have rated every book 2 or 3 stars. But then – BAM! – in the last 30%, everything converges in a heart pounding, 5 star conclusion. If only the final conclusion had been able to wrap everything up in a neat bow, then this would truly be one for the ages.
Word on the street is that a re-read improves the experience tenfold, and I’m sure Erikson’s genius is laid bare in light of actually knowing what’s going on, but I doubt I will ever put myself through all 10,000 pages again (nor will I read Esslemont’s Malazan Empire books). Knowing the commitment this takes, I can’t in good conscience recommend the series, but if you’re up for the challenge then give it a go.
Still, the masochist within me will likely look back on this experience with ardent nostalgia. This is real epic fantasy.