Tuesday 10 November 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 26

In 1981 two Canadian students began playing roleplaying games at college, using the Dungeons and Dragons rules. They didn't like them, so started playing around and changing the rules. They found that the traditional gameplay style - kill monsters for loot - was a bit simplistic, and pondered who these monsters were, the importance of character backstories and that crafting a campaign as a tragedy was even more satisfying than crafting one as a heroic and stirring tale of victory. In 1986 they switched to the GURPS roleplaying system by Steve Jackson and began consolidating the world in which their campaigns were set, a world dominated by numerous ancient races and one newly-raised human nation known as the Malazan Empire.

"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.


Mark Andrew Edwards said...

I greatly prefer Esslemont's work. I don't consider Erikson's prose to be that good, nor his plotting or his thematic choices. Deadhouse Gates is a good story but the whole series is too inconsistent, too annoying and too emo for me. I ended up donating all ten books instead of keeping them in my library.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said Esslemont writes relatable people. He does. I LIKE his characters. I hate most of Erikson's raping, murderous whiny ubermench.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this series on the history of epic fantasy, it is excellent. I look forward to each entry!

Erikson is quite polarizing -- I personally was barely able to finish Gardens of the Moon, and rate it as one of the most overrated books in epic fantasy. People whose opinions I trust have urged me to read Deadhouse Gates, but I just can't bring myself to try it.

Ghost said...

I always thought Mazlan would have been bigger if Deadhouse Gates had been the debut book instead of Gardens of the Moon. It was a much better book.

mixmastered said...

Nice mention of eriksons prequel trilogy and planned karsa sequel trilogy - but I'll give a mention too to esslemonts upcoming "path of ascendancy" trilogy, starting with "dancers lament" which is also out next year

Andy said...

Fantastic series of posts on the history of fantasy. You gotta turn this into a book.

One recommend you missed: Michael Scott Rohan. Nothing beats curling up with the Anvil of Ice on a snowy winter's night. Add if you love the sacrifice that Gandalf makes on behalf of the peoples of Middle Earth then you've got to read this trilogy to see how it compares, though the parallels are not obvious until the third book.

When you're all done with this series of posts you ought to do a final post on addenda and honorable mentions and include folks like MSR there.

Thanks again for a fantastic blog.

Adam Whitehead said...

Michael Scott Rohan, Mickey Zucker Reichart, David Zindell, husband-and-wife team Jonathan Wylie and a few other authors are in the bracket of being notable but not enough to get mentioned in the articles. They'll definitely get a mention in the book version.

GotM is a very marmite book. I know people who hate it more than any other fantasy novel but love Books 2-10.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I'm in the camp of those who liked Gardens of the Moon, nor did I find it difficult to get into. On the contrary, I loved the challenge. The whole Malazan is one of my favourite Fantasy series.

I suppose John Marco is another of those authors who will only appear in the book version. I remember The Jackal of Nar trilogy was a fun read, though not outstanding like the works of Erikson, Martin or Tad Williams, to mention just a few. Never read anything by Scott Rohan - I suspect his backlist is only avaliabe via ebook and I don't have an e-reader.

Unknown said...

Gardens of the Moon is the best book I have ever read, You are thrown in a world and you will either swim or drown in it.

Anonymous said...

I love your series, Adam, but I can't side with you on this one. Erikson's prose is absolutely turgid. He writes like he's trying to be "literary". It makes his descriptions of the world flat and uninspiring and his characters are barely believable in most cases. I agree that each book works fairly well on its own, but as a series I think it's a failure. Just for a start, we needed more of the Forkrul Assail before book 10; they come along and it's a case of "... and here's some super tough bad guys for our heroes to foil". That works in single books or episodes or films, but in a series which was built around the chaining of the Crippled God as a narrative device, I would have expected to see the Assail laced throughout the series (leaving aside the short section in which Orlong freed one, I can't recall reading about the Assail at any other point). As standalone books I'll read the first three volumes again some time, but after that the series is not worth the time.

Adam Whitehead said...

Hence we see Erikson's polarising impact in full force :)

John Marco is fairly solid, based only read the first JACKAL book. I really wasn't moved to read any further as it was very over-familiar.

Unknown said...


You're free to like what you wish (and I'll feel free to disagree). But implying that you're somehow superior because you were able to "swim" and others "drowned" isn't cool :|

I found GotM to be a poor book not because it dropped you directly into a huge unfamiliar world. I found it to be poor because the characters are unbelievable, and the plot is haphazard/nonsensical. I am not sure those are traits that an author can fix, which is why I haven't attempted Deadhouse Gates.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Hence we see Erikson's polarising impact in full force :)

Wait until you come to Bakker. :-)

Gabriele Campbell said...

BTW, I've just noticed that Rohan Scott's Anvil trilgoy has been republished as omnibus, so I could get me a real book. I hope it is better than Dragonlance which I recently tried to read (never got past the first book, and the reread on TOR.com doesn't sound particularly enticing, either).

kyle said...

1) "they have created the single most ambitious work of epic fantasy ever conceived" -- potentially this could go to Sanderson with his planned 60 book (or whatever the number is) Cosmere shared universe series of epic fantasy novels.

2) You're absolutely right on how polarizing Erikson is. I have read almost ever "big" fantasy series of the last 30 years but just cannot get into Malazan despite repeated tries. I "should" like it but I keep putting it down to read other stuff!

Adam Whitehead said...

Sanderson will get his own entry near the end of the series. I think a key difference is that the Cosmere mega-series is "big" but I think Erikson/Esslemont's goals are altogether more complex than that. Whether successful or not is another question, of course.

Mark Andrew Edwards said...

Deadhouse IS good, though you may not be happy at the end of it. Most of the books I can leave but the Chain of Dogs clearly borrows from Xenophon's Anabasis and it works as a result. But, lot's of books out there, the world won't end if you skip this one.

Anonymous said...

@Brett, perhaps you should read Gerrit's post again. Nowhere does he make any claims of superiority to you or anyone else. It's a fact that Erikson leaves his readers to sink or swim in GotM. Some people like that kind of book, some don't. I don't see Gerrit's statement as a value judgement.

Anonymous said...

Malazan book of the fallen is my favorite fantasy series of all time. While some of the books are slower than others, they are all pretty fast paced with great action scenes throughout. Nobody is in the same league as Erikson when it comes to showing large battles.

Unlike a lot of the other big fantasy authors, all the books have as you said(except Dust of Dreams) a clear beginning, middle and end, which is refreshing.

Shane R said...

Gardens of the Moon sounds awful to me. It sounds much too hectic and scattered for my taste. To me it sounds similar to The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass from Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials. I liked The Golden Compass but those other two drove me crazy. Can anyone tell me if Gardens of the Moon is much like His Dark Materials? I've heard great things about the Malazan series but this description really turns me off from the idea of trying to tackle it

Unknown said...

I have never commented on a blog before or indeed probably will again but felt compelled to in this instance. Much of the time what gives SF & Fantasy a bad rep and not considered by many to be actual Literature, is that they feel that the whole magic, different races, "unrealistic" (insert many other tropes) nature of these novels to be throw away and not relatable to real life. In fact, in many of the the great works of SF & Fiction this is completely the opposite - the author is - at the same time hopefully writing a very entertaining story - exploring the human condition - pain, suffering, loss, joy, love - all the things that drive human kind etc.

The fact that Erikson studied anthropology and archeology is not to be overlooked - it informs his work entirely. The 10 book run of the Malazan series is possibly one of the greatest works of Fiction ever produced. If you get the chance (and of course are interested enough) try to find some blogs Erikson wrote around being an author. He makes particular reference to chapters and themes from the Malazan series and gives you a little peep into what he is really writing about (his explanation of The Snake from later books in the series made me repeatedly cry coupled with him then dealing with some very attacking/negative comments was fantastic).

No judgement or anything but if you want something that speaks to the human spirit and all that entails then this series is essential (I also agree that GoTM is the weakest of all 10)

Adam Whitehead said...

"To me it sounds similar to The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass from Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials. I liked The Golden Compass but those other two drove me crazy. Can anyone tell me if Gardens of the Moon is much like His Dark Materials? I've heard great things about the Malazan series but this description really turns me off from the idea of trying to tackle it"

Not really. My recommendation is always to start with DEADHOUSE GATES, the second volume (but with a totally different story, cast of characters and theme to the first book), and see how you like that. If it's fine, double back to GARDENS OF THE MOON and go on from there.