Saturday, 11 November 2017

Malazan Franchise Familiariser

It's entirely possible that, at some point in the last dozen or so years, you've asked for a fantasy recommendation on a message board, a Reddit post or on social media somewhere and immediately had someone scream at you "MALAZAN!", followed by an extensive list of caveats ("the first book sucks, but just stick with it!") and warnings ("Erikson will not SPOON FEED you anything, you have to work at it!"). You may have then looked up how many books there are in the series and how big they are, and immediately broken out in anxiety when you realised that there are now over 5 million words of Malazan material to get through. How to deal with this body of work? Time for a franchise familiariser course!

The Basics

The Malazan world is a setting for epic fantasy stories. It was created by Canadian authors Ian Cameron Esslemont (b. 1962) and Steve Rune Lundin (b. 1959), better-known by his pen-name, Steven Erikson. The two authors have written separate series in the same world, sharing characters and canonical events, but tend to focus on different parts of the overall story.

Steven Erikson is the more prolific of the two authors, having written twelve novels and six novellas in the world. Ian Esslemont has written eight novels to date, with more planned.

Erikson's work consists of the ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen series (which is generally what people mean when they say "Malazan series") and the first two volumes of The Kharkanas Trilogy, a prequel work set approximately 300,000 years before the events of the main series. Esslemont's work consists of the six-volume Malazan Empire series (which runs contemporaneously with the Malazan Book of the Fallen) and the first two volumes in the Path to Ascendancy prequel series, which is set about 120 years before the events of the main series. Erikson's novellas are known as the Bauchelain and Korbal Broach series and run alongside the main novels.

Erikson plans to write a trilogy called The Toblakai Trilogy, which will be a sequel to The Malazan Book of the Fallen, set five years after the end of the series. He also plans one more book in The Kharkanas Trilogy. Esslemont plans additional novels in the Path of Ascendancy series, although has not yet settled on a final number. The two writers have, from time to time, mused on directly collaborating on a novel or encyclopedia for the series, but there are no firm plans in place for this to happen in the near future.

So far the franchise exists purely as a series of novels: a planned comic adaptation of the first-published novel in the setting, Gardens of the Moon, never materialised and plans for a movie version of a storyline in the second novel, provisionally entitled Chain of Dogs, foundered for a lack of funding in the mid-2000s. There was some interest in adapting the series as a computer roleplaying game in the late 2000s, but this also came to nothing. A pen-and-paper roleplaying game has been mooted several times, but has never gotten off the drawing board.

The Canon

The Malazan canon consists of the following books, all published by Bantam Transworld (in the UK) and Tor Books (in the USA). In addition, PS Publishing has released handsome limited editions of most of the books in the series:

The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

  1. Gardens of the Moon (1999)
  2. Deadhouse Gates (2000)
  3. Memories of Ice (2001)
  4. House of Chains (2002)
  5. Midnight Tides (2004)
  6. The Bonehunters (2006)
  7. Reaper's Gale (2007)
  8. Toll the Hounds (2008)
  9. Dust of Dreams (2009)
  10. The Crippled God (2011)
An e-book omnibus consisting of all ten books is also available in the United States from Tor.

The Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach by Steven Erikson
  1. Blood Follows (2002)
  2. The Healthy Dead (2004)
  3. The Lees of Laughter's End (2007)
  4. Crack'd Pot Trail (2009)
  5. The Wurms of Blearmouth (2012)
  6. The Fiends of Nightmaria (2016)
The first three novellas in this series were collected as The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach (2009), with an introduction by Paul Kearney, Stephen Donaldson and James Barclay. A second collection has not yet been announced.

The Novels of the Malazan Empire by Ian C. Esslemont
  1. Night of Knives (2004)
  2. Return of the Crimson Guard (2007)
  3. Stonewielder (2010)
  4. Orb Sceptre Throne (2012)
  5. Blood and Bone (2012)
  6. Assail (2014)

The Kharkanas Trilogy by Steven Erikson
  1. Forge of Darkness (2012)
  2. Fall of Light (2016)
  3. Walk in Shadow (forthcoming)

The Path to Ascendancy by Ian C. Esslemont
  1. Dancer's Lament (2016)
  2. Deadhouse Landing (2017)

The Toblakai Trilogy by Steven Erikson
  1. The God is Not Willing (forthcoming)

The races of the Malazan world, by YapAttack.


The backstory of the Malazan world is long and complex. It can, however, by boiled down to the following:

Over half a million years ago, several races began evolving on a single planet. These "Founding Races" are known, in rough order of age, as the K'Chain Che'Malle, Forkrul Assail, Jaghut and Imass. The K'Chain Che'Malle appear to have evolved from a dinosaur-like species and are noted for their mastery of gravity through magic, such as the creation of vast flying cities known as Skykeeps. The Forkrul Assail are the most amoral of the races, appointing themselves judges over creation. Thanks to their powerful magic they are almost indestructible. The Che'Malle and Assail fought one another to near-annihilation, with the Che'Malle also divided by an internal struggle, the result of an attempt by one Che'Malle Matron to breed a new species. This resulted in a genocidal and xenophobic internal war.

Some time after this conflict, the Jaghut arose. A tusked species, the Jaghut had absolute mastery of ice as their primary form of magic. They were pacifists, but every now and then one of them turned to evil and conquest. These "Tyrants" were immensely powerful and destructive.

The Imass were a hominid species, evolving from an earlier, more primitive race known as the Eres. The Imass were tribal and relatively primitive (sharing some similarities with Neanderthals), but soon began learning more about the world and their origins. They worshipped certain Jaghut as gods, but later rebelled when they realised that the Jaghut were just another race. Many Imass were killed in conflicts brought about by Jaghut Tyrants. Eventually declaring the entire Jaghut species guilty for the sins of a relatively small number, the Imass fought a genocidal war against them, wielding powerful magic to make up for their lack of technology. Many of the Jaghut Tyrants were slaughtered, but the pacifist majority of the species chose instead to retreat and hide, using their ice magic to raise massive glaciers as fortress redoubts and places where they could go to sleep for millennia.

Realising the Jaghut meant to simply outwait them into extinction, the Imass underwent the Ritual of Tellann. This resulted in the entire species becoming undead, effectively immortal. Now known as the T'lann Imass, the species chose to wait until the glaciers collapsed and they could complete the genocidal work. This took over 300,000 years to unfold. In the meantime several off-shoots from the Imass continued to evolve: the Barghast and Moranth are among those races who evolved out of those Imass who missed the Ritual of Tellann, whilst humans were a race that evolved in parallel to the Imass, from the same Eres origins. The Thel Akai may have been a third hominid species whose descendants became the Toblakai, Tarthenal and Fenn.

Around the same time, another race arrived on the same planet from the other-dimensional realm of Kurald Galain. The Tiste were a race of immensely long-lived humanoids wielding tremendous magic and skills in combat. Originally a united species, the Tiste split into three sub-races: the Tiste Liosan (the Children of Light), the Tiste Edur (the Children of Shadow) and the Tiste Andii (the Children of Darkness). Bitter internal wars were fought between the three sub-races and within their own ranks until eventually they learned to avoid one another.

Also notable in the world are dragons, in this setting called Eleint. These are incredibly powerful creatures, far moreso than in most settings, but also (fortunately) quite rare.

Looming over all were the Azathani or Azath. An extremely enigmatic species, the Azathani took humanoid form but had godlike powers. The Azathani are believed to be responsible for the creation of the other species, the creation of the warrens and holds of magic and the mysterious phenomenon of Ascendancy. Ascendancy is the granting of immense powers to individuals once they achieve a level of power, worship or notoriety. The process of who Ascends and who does not is extremely obscure. Those surviving Azathani seem themselves to be unclear on how the process works, suggesting they may be the last surviving remnant of a once-greater civilisation who no longer understand or remember their point of origin. Related to the Azath are the Azath Houses, magical prisons which appear to constrain those who try to use their power in an unbalancing or destructive manner. The Azathani seem concerned primarily with the maintenance of a balance of power between the races and forces of the world, and avoiding the destruction of the world itself.

At some point the human First Empire arose on the continent later called Seven Cities, along with the Kallorian Empire on the continent of Jacuruku (with possible colonies on its sister continent of Korelri). The two empires were the first major human powers to arise in the world. The First Empire was, somewhat, civilised but the Kallorian Empire became, under the rule of the High King Kallor, corrupt, evil and dictatorial. Approximately 112,902 years before the Battle of Pale (the event which begins the contemporary events of the novel series), eight powerful mages opposed to the High King conducted a ritual which summoned a deity from another world, Kaminsod, whose power they hoped could be used to destroy Kallor. This event, the Fall of the Crippled God, tore asunder the continent of Korelri and devastated much of the planet. The gods and ascendants had to gather to chain the Crippled God lest his power obliterate all life on the planet.

Three gods - K'rul, Draconus and Nightchill - then confronted Kallor, aware that he had become a threat too great to ignore. To their horror, Kallor had burned his own empire down to the bedrock and slaughtered the entire population. He used the power of this sacrifice to curse the three gods to tragic fates. They in turn cursed him with life unending, never to ascend.

1,163 years before the beginning of the series, the goddess Burn, the living embodiment of the planet itself, was forced to enter a slumber due to the presence of the chained Crippled God, whose very existence was antithetical to her.

In the year 1058 of Burn's Sleep, the Malazan Empire was founded by the mage Kellanved and the assassin Dancer. A mighty human nation, the Malazan Empire would eventually span four continents and rule over tens of millions of lives. In 1154 Kellanved and Dancer disappeared during the night of the Shadow Moon in Malaz City and were succeeded by Laseen as Empress of Malaz.

The events of the Malazan Book of the Fallen proper begin in the year 1163 of Burn's Sleep, with the Malazan Empire launching an assault on the free city of Pale on the continent of Genabackis, which is allied to the formidable ascendant Anomander Rake of the Tiste Andii and the Warlord Caladan Brood, another being of tremendous power. The battle opens with the elite Malazan military formation known as the Bridgeburners going into action, unaware that this engagement will completely change their destiny, that of the Empire and that of the world.

A map of the Malazan world. Map by D'Rek of the Malazanempire forum, letting and continent placement by myself.


The setting for the Malazan books is a single, unnamed planet. This planet consists of seven major continents and numerous smaller islands and subcontinents. These are as follows:

  • Quon Tali: equatorial continent, home of the Malazan Empire (founded on Malaz Isle, just off the coast). The setting for the novels Night of Knives, Return of the Crimson Guard, Dancer's Lament and Deadhouse Landing.
  • Genabackis: large continent north-east of Quon Tali, the location of the city of Darujhistan. The setting for the novels Gardens of the Moon, Memories of Ice, Toll the Hounds, Orb Sceptre Throne and (possibly) The God is Not Willing.
  • Seven Cities: the world's largest continent. The setting for the novels Deadhouse Gates, House of Chains and The Bonehunters.
  • Lether: the world's second-largest continent. Fairly remote from the other landmasses and rarely visited until late in the series. The setting for the novels Midnight Tides, Reaper's Gale, Dust of Dreams and The Crippled God.
  • Korelri: the shattered continent to the south-east of Quon Tali, consisting of the subcontinents of Korel (or Fist) and Stratem. The setting for the novel Stonewielder.
  • Jacuruku: the jungle island-continent located south-west of Quon Tali. The setting for the novel Blood and Bone
  • Assail: a much-dreaded and mysterious continent located south of Genabackis and east of Korelri, the setting for the novel Assail.

The primary focus of the books is the Malazan Empire, a relatively young nation founded on the island of Malaz off the coast of Quon Tali which rapidly conquered the entire continent before expanding into Seven Cities, Korelri and Genabackis. The Path to Ascendancy novels charts the founding of the empire and Night of Knives is set on the night that Empress Laseen ascends to power.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen proper begins with the Malazan Empire attempting to conquer the continent of Genabackis in the face of stiff resistance from the native Free Cities, allied to the Tiste Andii led by Anomander Rake, the mercenary army led by the Warlord, Caladan Brood, and the rebel Quon Talian army known as the Crimson Guard, under Prince K'azz D'Avore.

The Jaghut Tyrant Raest confronts the Eleint Silanah Redwings, by Michael Komarck.


Magic or sorcery is an important part of the Malazan series, although Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont have refused to outline the "rules" of their "magic system", feeling that mystery is part of magic's innate appeal.

Magic in the Malazan universe is related to other dimensions and realities. These other dimensions were originally called Holds and mages could access them to perform wild and untamed feats of magic. Over the course of many tens of thousands of years, the Hold magic metamorphosed into the considerably more refined and powerful form of magic known as Warrens. A mage opens a portal to their warren and taps its power to create intended effects. Warrens/Holds are also actual places and mages can physically enter them and use them as shortcuts to re-emerge elsewhere in the world.

The older races can also access the Elder Warrens, which are keyed to their specific races (Kurald Galain for the Tiste, Omtose Phellack for the Jaghut etc) and are more powerful than the Paths, the types of Warren accessible by humans.

Some can also tap the completely wild and untamed powers of Chaos, that exist outside of creation. This is exceptionally dangerous.

Anomander Rake, by Michael Komarck.


The Malazan Book of the Fallen unfolds in an unusual, non-linear fashion. The first book in the series, Gardens of the Moon, is set on the continent of Genabackis and depicts the battle by the Malazan army for control of the city of Darujhistan. The second novel, Deadhouse Gates, moves the action to the continent of Seven Cities with almost an entirely new cast of characters. The third book, Memories of Ice, returns to Genabackis and takes place after Gardens of the Moon but simultaneously with Deadhouse Gates. The fourth book returns to Seven Cities again. Book 5, Midnight Tides, is a prequel to the rest of the series and is set on a completely different continent, Lether.

This "rotating continent" structure is possible because the Malazan series does not have a single, over-arcing narrative like Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire. Instead, each Malazan novel is (more or less) self-contained, with only subplots continuing between each novel. It's only at the end of the Malazan Book of the Fallen that these subplots become the main story, and this is resolved in the two-part novel consisting of Dust of Dreams and The Crippled God. The Malazan Empire sub-series uses a similar structure. The Kharkanas, Path to Ascendancy and presumably Toblakai series are each more traditional and linear in structure.

Entry Points into the Series

The Malazan series is notable for having several different "entry points" for new readers: Gardens of the Moon is the traditional starting point for new readers, but Night of Knives, Deadhouse Gates, Midnight Tides and Dancer's Lament are all viable starting points as well. Part of this is down to the perception that Gardens of the Moon, written considerably earlier than most of the other books, is confusing and unforgiving, not to mention is less well-written and has some odd continuity issues (given that Erikson wrote it almost a decade before the rest of the series).

However, given the immense complexity of the series I would, in general, recommend following publication order as the preferred reading order of the series, with the caveat that if Gardens of the Moon is really not working for you, you can skip ahead to Deadhouse Gates and come back later to finish Gardens.

Quick Ben, Kalam and Whiskeyjack of the Malazan Bridgeburners assess the suboptimal health of the mage Hairlock in the aftermath of the Battle of Pale. Art by Michael Komarck.

Conception and Development

Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont conceived of the world circa 1981 as a setting for roleplaying game adventures, initially using the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1st Edition) rules and later the GURPS system when they wanted something more flexible. They quickly evolved from "hack and slash" adventures to a more narrative-based form of roleplaying, deeply rooted in character, comedy and tragedy.

Esslemont wrote two novels in the setting, Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard, in the late 1980s but they failed to sell. Erikson wrote a film script called Gardens of the Moon which also failed to sail. He converted the script into a novel in 1991, keeping the name, but it also failed to sell. Erikson finally got several non-genre works published which attracted the attention of Bantam UK, who finally bought Gardens of the Moon. In 1998 Bantam and Gollancz fought a brief bidding war for the rights to nine sequels, which Bantam finally won by awarding Erikson an advance of £675,000 ($1,125,000 in 1999 money), one of the largest advances in fantasy publishing history (and possibly a still-unbeaten record for a debut author).

Gardens of the Moon was published in 1999, but Erikson hit a snag when his computer blew up halfway through the writing of Memories of Ice, the originally-planned second volume in the series, with insufficient backups. Unable to face rewriting the novel straight away, he instead wrote what had originally been conceived as a later book in the series, Deadhouse Gates. This situation inadvertently gave rise to the series' continent-rotating structure.

Erikson wrote the nine novels and 3,116,000 words (after the already-completed Gardens of the Moon) of the Malazan Book of the Fallen in about twelve and a half years. The series was written in bouts of Erikson living in both Canada and the UK, writing in coffee shops for four hours a day, five days a week. To complete the series in this timeframe, Erikson did not write multiple drafts and did not engage in extensive rewrites. He also did not pay exacting attention to matters of continuity, to the occasional despair of readers. However, the series attracted significant critical acclaim. Sales did lag behind, mainly due to American publishers not picking up the series until 2004. By the time the series was completed in 2011, it had sold over one million copies. However, the first two books in the Kharkanas Trilogy sold poorly by comparison, forcing Erikson to rethink his approach and delay the conclusion to that trilogy in favour of writing a sequel series revolving around the fan-favourite character of Karsa Orlong.

Ian Esslemont was busy as a working archaeologist, so could not capitalise on his friend's success at first. Eventually he got Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard into print in 2004 and 2007 via the small press PS Publishing, before Bantam UK and Tor picked up his series. Initially his sales trailed Erikson's significantly, but by the time of Dancer's Lament's release he had overtaken Erikson with sales-per-book.

Karsa Orlong by Ylva Ljungqvist.

The Future

Steven Erikson is now writing the first book of The Toblakai Trilogy, which will pick up the story five years or so after the events of The Crippled God and focus on the plan of the Toblakai warrior Karsa Orlong to destroy civilisation on the Malazan planet.

Ian Esslemont is working on the third volume of The Path to Ascendancy, continuing his story of how a disgraced mage and assassin working out of a run-down bar in a backwater town on a forgotten island forged one of the greatest empires in the history of the world.

Further Reading

The main online fan community for the Malazan series can be found at Malazanempire. Steven Erikson has a new Facebook page. The Malazan Wiki is a good resource for those confused by some (or all) aspects of the series.

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GoodOldSatan said...

Those seeking assistance with interpreting and understanding this series should also check the very helpful Malazan Reread of the Fallen, hosted by Bill Capossere and Amanda Rutter (available @

wps said...

I was hooked from the preface of the first book, never understood 'the first book sucks' complaints. Incredible series that the author actually finished in a timely manner. Fantastic post Adam!

shiznatikus said...

So, how bad are the continuity gaffs you mention? I've long hesitated to pickup this series due to the time commitment necessary to read it all, but if it has significant internal inconsistencies I may not pick it up at all.

Anonymous said...

I believe the authors have cited Glen Cook's Black Company series as an influence, which may be useful to know. As in Cook's series, you generally see events from the viewpoint of the grunts and NCOs rather than from the viewpoint of generals or noble warriors. And Erikson in particular injects moments of black humor into his novels, along with occasional discussions of philosophy or politics (one of which appeared to predict the 2008 stock market crash a year or two beforehand). Not every reader was appreciative of these digressions, to judge by the reviews on Amazon, but they are one of many aspects that give the series its unique character.

mixmastered said...

I’ve been holding out for the second collected tales of bauchelain and korbal broach, but idve thought it would’ve been announced by now. Perhaps it’s not quite the slam dunk I thought...but surely it’ll appear at some point?

Tayschrenn said...

Great job sir.

Unknown said...

The first book most certainly does NOT suck. It's a mercifully linear beginning for a very complex world.

Actually I feel like reading Erickson is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Only at the end can you really understand what you are reading.

By the way, I really enjoy Esslemonts books and am just finishing Kewnveds Reach (Part 3 if Path to Ascendency). I high recommend it for anyone who wants to learn about the beginning of the Empire.

For the beginning of the world and elder peoples and gods, the Karkanas trilogy is great.

However O cannot imagine beginning anywhere but with the Garden of the Moon.

JRE said...

In the ninth book of the main series. I will finish the series, but don't think that Malazan comes close to being the best fantasy series of all time. Very interesting and breathtaking at some points, but some real weaknesses (meandering, interrupted plot lines, weak climaxes, endless parade of characters that are largely interchangeable, exhausting philosophizing). I stopped caring about so many of the storylines because nothing is ever really explained (mostly hinted at) and the big reveals are almost always underwhelming (even when you've waded through thousands of pages to get there).