The Wertzone Recommended Malazan Reading Order:
- Gardens of the Moon
- Deadhouse Gates
- Memories of Ice
- House of Chains
- Midnight Tides
- Night of Knives
- The Bonehunters
- Return of the Crimson Guard
- Reaper's Gale
- Toll the Hounds
- Orb Sceptre Throne
- Dust of Dreams
- The Crippled God
- Blood and Bone
- Dancer's Lament
- Deadhouse Landing
Standing outside the list for the time being: the six Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas are mostly self-contained stories exploring the backstory of three minor characters from Memories of Ice. They are fun but inessential. They can be read after Memories of Ice or whenever.
I haven't read the Path to Ascendancy novels (so far, Dancer's Lament and Deadhouse Landing) yet, so can't speak to their worthiness as books you can start the series with. However, it's worth noting that the Path to Ascendancy series is incomplete with at least two and possibly more volumes to come, so I would put them at the end.
As for the Kharkanas Trilogy (so far, Forge of Darkness and Fall of Light), you can read that right at the end or you can hold off until we know when the final book, Walk in Shadow, is coming out.
Rationale for the order:
The order is mostly in order of publishing, although with a couple of caveats. Night of Knives is both the oldest novel in the series (it was written circa 1987, but not published until 2004) and chronologically takes place before Gardens of the Moon. However, the events of Night of Knives are not particularly germane to Gardens (the "big event" takes place off-page). Instead, Night of Knives is more important for the characters it establishes on Malaz Island. These characters do not recur in the series until The Bonehunters, over 4,000 pages later. It therefore makes more sense to read Night of Knives immediately before The Bonehunters.
House of Chains should be read before Midnight Tides: the events of Midnight Tides are actually being told in flashback by one character to another at the end of HoC. I know some people like to move Midnight Tides up because if you read in publishing order it "spoils" the fate of that character in Midnight Tides, but that's a bit weird as a reason. Plus moving Midnight Tides up disrupts the expertly-paced flow of the first four novels with the alternating between Genabackis and Seven Cities. Dumping Lether in the middle, although chronologically correct, throws off the pacing. Plus it also means you have to wait several thousand pages before catching up to the Lether crew in Reaper's Gale (which has to be read after The Bonehunters).
Return of the Crimson Guard should be read after The Bonehunters. In terms of publication order this is correct but also in terms of internal chronology. More than a year passes between The Bonehunters and Reaper's Gale and Return of the Crimson Guard explores what happens during that year. In addition, Return has a major, game-changing ending which the later novels (by both Erikson and Esslemont) spoil. Delaying Return also means delaying the later Esslemont novels, which is a bad idea because of the way the later books interface with one another.
On different lists I place Stonewielder in different orders: it can be read immediately after Return of the Crimson Guard as this is chronologically correct (the two books are separated by a few weeks, and chronologically Reaper's Gale takes place after both books) or you can put Stonewielder after Reaper's Gale to mix things up a bit more between Erikson and Esslemont. However, Reaper's Gale ends with our heroes ready to go kick some backside in Kolanse. Putting Stonewielder after Gale means this storyline hangs for three full novels before we get back to it, whilst putting Stonewielder before Gale reduces this to two books.
The order is important because it places Toll the Hounds and Orb Sceptre Throne next to one another. Orb Sceptre Throne is the direct sequel to Toll the Hounds and Toll the Hounds does a lot of setup work for Orb Sceptre Throne which otherwise goes to waste or might be forgotten. Also, although Toll the Hounds is probably Erikson's best-written book it is almost the most obtusely weird in terms of plot movement and events (it's the longest book in the series but arguably has the least amount of actual important events taking place in it). It's a huge amount of set-up with only one bit of pay-off at the end. Orb Sceptre Throne actually has the rest of the pay-off.
Dust of Dreams and The Crippled God are one extra-long novel split in two for length, so they should definitely be read together.
Blood and Bone takes place chronologically at the same time as The Crippled God (literally, our heroes in B&B see and sense the world-changing events at the end of The Crippled God three-quarters of the way through the book) and extends beyond it, so should be read after The Crippled God. Assail then picks up and resolves some storyline left dangling from Blood and Bone so they work well together.
So, what's wrong with the Tor list?
The Tor list suggests starting with the Kharkanas Trilogy novels Forge of Darkness and Fall of Light. This is really not a good idea. The Kharkanas Trilogy is a prequel in the purest form, working better when you have knowledge of the characters from chronologically later on. In addition, whilst Forge of Darkness is divisive, Fall of Light is easily the worst-regarded Erikson novel published to date. Having it as the second book in the series I think would be a major mistake, as I've seen that novel drive off eighteen-year veterans of the series who've been with it since Gardens of the Moon was published eighteen years ago.
Can you just read the series sequentially and not bother mixing up Erikson and Esslemont?
You can, but I would strongly recommend against it. Although some readers are less keen on Esslemont as a writer than Erikson, it is inarguable that Esslemont's books are fully canon and Erikson does refer to them in his later novels. This is particularly egregious with regard to major events that happen in Return of the Crimson Guard; having them spoiled by later Erikson books is very lame compared to seeing the events happen as they should. In addition, Esslemont and Erikson paced their books and the events within them on the basis of their publication dates being mixed up, so it is more effective to read them with that in mind.
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