"Come at me, bro. Oh, you are. Carry on."
Steve Rune Lundin and Ian Cameron Esslemont both studied archaeology and anthrapology at university and, like many in their twenties in the early 1980s, get embroiled in roleplaying games. They co-developed a world between them, one that eschewed D&D's Vancian magic system and standard races in favour of new civilisations. Some of these were still familiar, such as the elf-like, immortal Tiste divided into many bickering sub-races, but some were more unusual, such as K'Chain Che'Malle. These were, effectively, sentient dinosaurs who used a form of magic based around gravity. More interesting was that the world featured actual scientific evolution, with several distinct life-cycles of each race existing over a period of hundreds of thousands of years, and a highly complex magic system based around the manipulation of other universes (or "warrens").
By 1987 the world had grown complex and deep enough that the two friends felt confident enough to start writing fiction based on it. Esslemont was first off the blocks, penning the short novel Night of Knives about the apparent assassination of the Malazan Emperor on one stormy night in Malaz City. It failed to sell, but emboldened by the earlier book he wrote a much longer novel about the civil war that would envelop the empire some years later, Return of the Crimson Guard. That also failed to sell. For his part, Steve Lundin developed a comedy movie script based around the misadventures of the regulars at the Phoenix Inn in the city of Darujhistan. This also failed to sell. Lundin then rewrote the movie script as a novel, in which the Phoenix Inn Regulars play only a small role, called Gardens of the Moon, completing this in 1991. This also failed to sell.
Perhaps sensing a developing pattern, the two writers went on to other things. They studied, taught and worked in many other countries, wrote other things, got married and had lives. And maybe the Malazan stories would have stayed in the box if it hadn't been for Steve Lundin's tenacity. In 1998 he published a mainstream novel about some boys finding a dead body. This River Awakens was only a modest success, but it got Lundin some attention and an agent. He shopped Gardens of the Moon around in the UK and found a market eager to find the next Robert Jordan or Terry Goodkind. Bantam Press and Gollancz, the SFF imprint of Orion Books, ended up in a brief bidding war over the book and its possible sequels. This resulted in Lundin getting a massive advance for £675,000 (almost $900,000 in 1998 money), a then-record for a debut fantasy author.
To present Lundin as a new and fresh author, it was decided to give him a pen-name. He chose the name "Steven Erikson", based on family names, but it also helped as it would likely place his name next to Ian Esslemont's, should the latter's own books ever take off.
"We must withdraw! We cannot repel firepower of that magnitude!"
Gardens of the Moon & Deadhouse Gates
Released in 1999, Gardens of the Moon attracted strong critical reviews. Fantasy authors like J.V. Jones and Stephen Donaldson praised the novel, with authors in particular impressed by Lundin's bravery in jumping straight into the action with no scene-setting or exposition. Readers were noticeably cooler on the lack of hand-holding or spoon-feeding in the opening of the novel: the book did well, but it didn't have the phenomenal slaes required to pay back the immense advance the author had received.
There was also a creative crisis behind the scenes: Lundin had started working on the second novel in the series, provisionally entitled Memories of Ice which was a straight sequel to Gardens, picking up with the same characters a few months later. Halfway through the novel and with no backups to hand, his computer suffered a catastrophic failure and over a hundred thousand words of material went up in smoke. The prospect of starting again proved too much, so he picked up a story thread he'd been holding in reserve. He moved over to a storyline unfolding on another continent with a completely different set of characters and events. It was this novel, Deadhouse Gates, that he delivered to his editors as the second volume of the series, to their possible confusion.
This unorthodox storytelling approach worked wonders. It allowed readers to start with either Gardens or Deadhouse as the first volume of the series, it painted a much larger, more vivid picture of the world and it showed that this wasn't going to be another ongoing endless series with an interminable metaplot. Lundin had signed up for ten volumes with Bantam, but each novel in the series was going to stand alone with some characters and subplots continuing, but not the main storyline. For a genre whose longest-running series have displayed a repeated tendency to get bogged down in structural issues, this seemed to be a wise approach and a way of avoiding those issues.
Gardens of the Moon is set on the continent of Genabackis, where the Malazan Empire is trying to secure the entire landmass in the name of the Empress Laseen. Standing against them is a rough and barely-coherent alliance consisting of the forces of the Warlord Caladan Brood, mercenaries such as the barking mad Mott Irregulars and the pride-wounded Crimson Guard, and an enigmatic group of powerful Tiste Andii led by the legendary god-sorcerer Anomander Rake. The two armies clash outside - and the skies above - the city of Pale. The Malazans win the resulting battle but only at an extreme cost in lives. Unable to muster the forces for another assault on the next city, Darujhistan to the south, the Malazans infiltrate their elite sapper unit, the Bridgeburners, into the city with orders to bring down its defences from within. At the same time, the regulars at a tavern in Darujhistan, the Phoenix Inn, are drawn into a complicated plot involving inter-noble conspiracies, unusual creatures in the streets and an archaeological dig outside the city which, of course, all goes a bit wrong.
As openings go, it's a strong one, mixing the city-based adventuring hijinks of Fritz Leiber with the vast, epic scope of Robert Jordan. Lundin's own strongest inspirations were Stephen Donaldson, whose moody introspection can be found in Lundin's characterisation, and Glen Cook, whose lean, sparse prose, utterly fantastic naming conventions and murky morality find their descendants in the Bridgeburners and the wizards (both scheming and wise) of the setting. However, Gardens of the Moon is also bitty and inconsistent, whirling through settings and locations with little rhyme or reason for the first couple of hundred pages until it settles down in Darujhistan with its more focused storytelling. Those crazy opening chapters may have featured an impressive magical battle sequence but they also featured wizards reincarnated as sentient puppets, massive murderous hounds whose significance is completely unclear and a lot of time spent with two characters who appear to be the main protagonists until they both die for no readily explicable reason just a few chapters in (one gets better because reasons and the other amalgamates into a gestalt magical superentity of unclear purpose; are you taking notes?). Luckily the book settles down for some awesome scheming, politicking, adventuring, bed-hopping and rooftop sword fighting, with lots of scenes where badass mages stare moodily out of the window and portend portentously. Then the final battle takes place in which Godzilla briefly shows up before being captured by a magical sentient house that literally grows out of nowhere.
Deadhouse Gates, on the other hand, has a more straightforward story. For decades, the desert continent of Seven Cities has been ruled by the Malazans. With the Malazan Empire's armies fighting on Genabackis, missing on the continent of Korel far to the south or having to police increasingly unruly parts of the home continent of Quon Tali, the natives of Seven Cities have begun plotting a rebellion, the Whirlwind. The arrival of a prophesied seer unleashes the uprising. A detachment of the Malazan Army has to march some 1,500 miles through hard terrain, escorting tens of thousands of refugees and facing attack all along the way. A normal Malazan unit would stand no chance, but this is the 7th Army, commanded by Coltaine, war leader of the Crow Clan of the Wickan tribes. Coltaine leads his refugees on the epic journey that will become known in legend as the Chain of Dogs. At the same time, several Malazans journey to the Holy Desert Raraku in search for the mysterious Sha'ik and an immortal amnesiac journeys out of the wastelands with a concerned companion trying to guard him from his own past. There's also a load of shapeshifters up to no good, and a buried jade statue which someone unwisely starts messing around with an ends up causing a god to faceplant into the mortal world, with long-lasting ramifications.
Gardens of the Moon is a fun - if completely barking mad - novel but Deadhouse Gates is brilliant, being a much deeper, darker and more human book. Threads of heroism and tragedy wind their way through the narrative until you can't tell which is which any more, building up to one of epic fantasy's few genuinely tearjerking endings. The Chain of Dogs has all the themes, drama and complexity of the modern Battlestar Galactica, recast in a fantasy environment and with a conclusion that notably does not suck. And some of the weird magic stuff going on in the background proves to be immensely important to the endgame of the series, and works on a whole new level when reread later on. Gardens of the Moon is good, but Deadhouse Gates is one of the very finest epic fantasy novels ever written.
A similar description can be applied to the third book in the series, Memories of Ice (which Lundin eventually did rewrite and finish), which addresses deeper questions of morality, destiny and culpability against the backdrop of a confrontation with an enemy utterly lacking in remorse or humanity. After Memories of Ice the series becomes arguably a little more defuse. The author's prose skills increase and his interest in thematic development means that the latter volumes of the series, particularly the conceptually bold eighth volume, Toll the Hounds, become close to capital-L Literature. However, the saga does risk running out of narrative energy, with brilliant action sequences and moments of fine characterisation becoming separated by increasingly lengthy interludes of historical or thematic introspection that risk sapping the life from the books. Lundin is such a good writer that this risk almost never materialises, but it teeters on it too often for some tastes.
Still, the plot threads do come together satisfyingly in the tenth volume, The Crippled God, which does unexpectedly pull together and pay off an enormous number of plot threads. And Lundin's novels by this point had become enhanced by the arrival of Ian Esslemont's own supporting volumes.
Night of Knives & Return of the Crimson Guard
Ian Esslemont's Night of Knives was finally released in 2004, followed up by Return of the Crimson Guard in 2007. The two books were released almost twenty years after they were written, although both had been heavily edited and re-written to fit in with the Erikson novels. The publishers were wary of the linked setting of the two writers, so it was decided that Esslemont's books would focus on different areas of the Malazan world. The two works would support one another but would be completely readable on their own.
Night of Knives is a short book which focuses on Malaz Island, where the Empire was born, the assassination of the Emperor Kellanved and the ascencsion of Laseen, all against the backdrop of the harbour being threatened by the sinister Stormriders, supernatural entities that infest the seas between Malaz and the rarely-visited southern continent of Korel. It's good, but a little too vague in what's going own.
Return of the Crimson Guard is a much bigger novel, focusing as it does on the aftermath of the events of Deadhouse Gates and the following books with the eruption of a full-blown civil war in the Malazan heartlands. The Crimson Guard, whom the Malazans drove from the Quon Tali continent generations ago, return (hence the title) and all sorts of shenanigans ensue. There are huge battles, magical confrontations and lots of mysteries are explored and explained.
Esslemont is not as nuanced an author as Lundin, lacking the latter's sheer power of prose and ability to conjure together a tragic climax. But he's still a talented writer with a good line in characterisation and humour. His books are more conventional, but also more identifiable. In the core Malazan novels it's hard to get a feel for how the everyday person who isn't a millennia-old superbeing gets along, but Esslemont manages to get that down pat. His version of the world may be less epic, but it's almost more relatable and more personal. Not to say that Major Important Stuff doesn't happen in his books, but when it does it feels a little more in the human league of things. Esslemont is also good at bringing to life remote parts of the world, such as the oft-mentioned but never-seen (in the Erikson books) continents of Koral, Jacuruku and Assail.
As of 2015, the two authors have published seventeen novels: ten volumes of The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson and six of The Novels of the Malazan Empire by Ian Cameron Esslemont. Erikson has also published Forge of Darkness, the opening volume of a prequel trilogy (the second volume follows in 2016), with a sequel trilogy to the main series focusing on the fan-favourite character of Karsa Orlong to follow. In 2016 Esslemont will also begin publishing a prequel series examining the founding of the Malazan Empire in exacting detail. Between them they have crafted one of epic fantasy's most exciting, interesting and different fantasy worlds. Although both authors have flaws, one thing is certain: they have created the single most ambitious work of epic fantasy ever conceived, and if they haven't quite succeeded in achieving all of those ambitious they have nevertheless created something extraordinary, and a series that should be required reading in the genre for showing the scope and scale of what the genre can be when it tries.
The Malazan series is epic fantasy at its biggest, more baroque and most widescreen, with vast armies, intimidating displays of magic and dozens of nonhuman races. But, shortly after Lundin began writing Gardens of the Moon, another fantasy mega-series began. This series started quietly, almost too quietly, with the story of a young boy who becomes the apprentice to an assassin in the employ of a king. And twenty years later this series would come full circle and conclude with that apprentice holding the fate of his world in his hands.