There are few authors out there as divisive as Steven Erikson. The author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series has a substantial number of admiring fans who are quick to point out how his work is cutting-edge and original, how he explores important themes and ideas in the context of a huge fantasy series, and how he doesn't spoonfeed information to the audience but lets them figure things out for themselves. However, the critics claim that he is long-winded, unnecessarily obtuse (important plot points from Book 1 are still being explained and expanded on nine years and nine books later), his world is little more original than a Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting (complete with characters levelling-up between novels) and his series is too long, especially given the recent announcements of sequel and prequel series, as well as the books being written by Erikson's friend Ian Cameron Esslemont. When it is complete, the Malazan saga will stand at a huge twenty-two books in length, which makes even the lengthy Wheel of Time series look modest and authors like Scott Bakker and Scott Lynch (eight and seven books apiece planned in their series) positively unambitious.
It's an interesting situation. Even among his fans Erikson is divisive. Some fans think that Midnight Tides is the best book in the series, others loathe it. Some think Esslemont is as good as Erikson, others think he's poor. Some loved Toll the Hounds for its in-depth exploration of ideas, others hated its lack of action and incident, not to mention an apparently bewildering conclusion and unnecessary inclusion of extraneous characters (as my review indicated, I thought it was fine, although with greater hindsight it's difficult to see how exactly the book ties into the storyline of the actual series itself, but this will probably be addressed in the final two volumes).
Part of the issue is to do with what people expect from an epic fantasy series. There are elements that seem to go with the genre, such as magic, huge battles and a vivid secondary world (and reams of maps), all of which Erikson delivers with aplomb. However, an epic fantasy series, particularly a long one, requires some kind of central narrative drive or ultimate goal to the series, which is usually revealed in the first two or three books. Every time it looks like Erikson is giving us this, he suddenly reveals it's not the case at all. The Crippled God is apparently the main antagonist of the series (and the planned final novel of the original ten is named after him), but his motives are murky and he plays next to no role at all in several books. Erikson has suggested in interviews that his intent instead was that the reader would feel like they'd had opened a window at random on the Malazan Empire and, ten books later (or twenty-two now), would simply close it again. Whilst that is interesting as a literary device and technique, I think there needs to be more than just that for the reader after ten, maybe closer to twenty, thousand pages. There needs to be some kind of narrative arc and direction, and that lack of direction after eight books by Erikson and two by Esslemont seems to be a problem for some readers.
A big plus in some people's books is Erikson's worldbuilding. Erikson and Esslemont have created an enormous world with a dozen continents and subcontinents and thousands of islands, plus the dozens of races (past and present) that inhabit them, and different ethnicities and factions within those races. Each race usually has a different form of magic, a different history and motivating force. There are also the gods, dozens of them as well, and their conflicting goals and abilities. It's huge stuff. But on the minus side the worldbuilding is extremely broad but feels shallow. Whilst I am certain that the authors have bulging folders packed full of notes on the history of the races, cities and nations, very little of it gets into the books. Whilst a Robert Jordan fan could probably write ten thousand words on the history, people, customs and geography of Andor, for example, or a George RR Martin fan could pen an entire dissertation on the Targaryen royal lineage, a Steven Erikson fan would be hard-pressed to write more than a few hundred words about, say, Darujhistan or even Lether. I could also mention the timeline and chronology of events in Steven Erikson's work, but that path leads to insanity, so I'll pass on that for now.
Another problem is Erikson's method of explaining things. Essentially, he doesn't bother. For the first few books, this was fine. Rereading the first three to five books reveals a lot of hidden details and information concealed in plain sight, giving the world greater texture and the story greater resonance. The comparison may be dubious, but it's a bit like rereading Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and uncovering further layers of meaning, spotting Severian's lies more easily a second or third time around, and realising the story on the surface isn't the real story at all. However, Malazan doesn't go as deep as this, and is far too long for it to work effectively (Wolfe's completed series is actually shorter than any of Books 2-8 of Erikson's main Malazan sequence by themselves). It's difficult to keep the details straight over such an enormous span of time, especially as there hasn't really been much in the way of moments of clarification or revelation. The Jade Statue storyline has taken up many chapters in at least four of the novels (starting as early as the second), yet the real story of what is going on there is still confusing and bemusing, as I found out when I asked on Malazanempire what people thought the real story was and got several different replies. Six thousand pages after that story began, we are not much closer to any kind of explanation for that mystery, and I think that that can be called bad storytelling. There's keeping an air of mystery about certain plotlines and being unnecessarily obtuse, and Malazan frequently crosses the line onto the obtuse side of things, even to the point of providing highly-detailed maps for areas that aren't actually being covered in the book and resolutely refusing to provide maps for the areas that are.
In a sense, it is the Lost of epic fantasy series, with characters often refusing to explain things for absolutely no reason other than to be mysterious, and it gets old rather quickly. Of course, Lost pulled it together in its third and fourth seasons and did come clean on some of what was going on, but even if Malazan followed suit in its next book, Dust of Dreams, it would still be rather late in the day.
Although this commentary has been critical, I have to emphasise that I do like Erikson's books a lot, feel that the Malazan series is structurally ingenious, and that Memories of Ice is one of the three or four best fantasy novels of the last decade, with Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates not far behind. However, the law of diminishing returns is setting in and Erikson is suffering from severe 'epic fantasy creep' (how did we go from having to read 10 books to understand what is going on to 22?). His 'deep meaningful themes' are interesting, but are neither as challenging nor original as are often claimed, and do not make up for deficiencies elsewhere in characterisation, worldbuilding and pacing. What is annoying is that Erikson really could have done something truly amazing with this series, but the rush to get each book out every year (meaning minimal editing) and the apparent requirement for each book to be a thousand pages long regardless of the story requirements has compromised its overall quality. I will continue to read and hopefully enjoy the series, but I have no doubt it will continue to confound, confuse and divided fans of the genre for many decades to come.