Reaper’s Gale: Malazan redefines fantasy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Steven Erikson Reaper's Gale Malazan Book of the FallenReaper’s Gale by Steven Erikson

In modern fantasy literature, there are certain select works that define the genre such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire, the Shannara novels by Terry Brooks, and Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Chronicles among others. Highly deserving of that same esteemed distinction is Steven Erikson’s Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen: Incredibly ambitious, fearlessly imaginative, and immensely satisfying on every level — emotionally, intellectually and from a purely entertainment standpoint — Erikson’s Malazan books not only celebrate the genre, but are redefining fantasy right before our very eyes.

What’s so special about Steven Erikson’s Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen?
Personally, I think that answer varies depending on the reader, but for me it all starts with the breathtaking magnitude of what Steven is trying to accomplish with his ten-volume series. For between the scale of the worldbuilding — which extends from many different races, customs, religions, geography, climates and background histories and mythologies to various gods, ascendants, soletaken, warrens, holds and other magical rules and properties — a narrative that weaves together dozens of subplots and timelines into a cohesive whole, and literally hundreds of character viewpoints, Steven Erikson’s Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is, in my opinion, unrivaled by any other series when it comes to sheer scope and vision. And that’s not even taking into account the five additional Malazan novels being written by co-creator Ian Cameron Esslemont, the three novellas by Erikson, and whatever other plans the duo may have for the world. In short, the Malazan series is just awe-inspiring in its ambitiousness and, to be honest, a bit overwhelming even with all of the accompanying maps, glossaries and Dramatis Personae (thankfully an encyclopedia is in the works). But you want to know what’s even more impressive? The fact that the authors have really only scratched the surface of what this world has to offer.

Of course, what’s ambition without the abilities to realize one’s vision? Fortunately that is an area where Mr. Erikson excels. For instance, the world of the Malazan novels isn’t just large; it’s detailed, almost to the point of obsession. So even as fantastical as things can get, especially regarding the book’s frequent magical occurrences and some of the more larger-than-life characters, the world itself and its peoples are real and alive in a manner that is all too rare in fantasy literature. As far as the narrative, Steven Erikson is an absolute artist when it comes to storytelling — gracefully juggling numerous point-of-views, subplots, and timelines that ultimately come together into a series of trademark convergences that are some of the best payoffs that I’ve ever read — including Coltaine and the Chain of Dogs, the dramatic events at Pale, the shocking betrayals at Y’Ghatan and Malaz City, et cetera — not to mention the author’s uncanny ability to consistently surprise the reader with the unexpected directions he takes the story.

Character-wise, it just doesn’t get any better than this. Ranging from gods, shape-shifting soletaken, ghosts, and other inhuman creatures to wizards, assassins, soldiers, and whatnot, Steven Erikson covers a whole spectrum of personalities that is shocking in its diversity, the extreme number of viewpoints, and the surprising depth that he offers each character, even down to the meaningless nobody who only gets 2-3 pages of face-time. Specifically, Erikson writers characters that are 1) undeniably iconic — Karsa Orlong, Anomander Rake, Tehol Beddict, Bugg, Cotillion, Iskaral Pust, Icarium, Apsalar, Kalam, Quick Ben, and most of the Bridgeburners / Bonehunters are personal favorites 2) easy to care for, and 3) wonderfully complex, possessing layers underneath layers that superbly shades the area between good and evil. And let’s not forget the audacity in which Steven handles his characters. In other words, minor players become major players, heroes become villains, villains become heroes, new characters are continuously introduced, and no one is safe from death. In short, expect the unexpected.

Of the magic system that is found in the Malazan books, I can’t say that it’s the most original or best developed concept that I’ve ever read — personally I prefer the Allomancy/Feruchemy ideas found in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series — but it is one of the coolest. A lot of that has to do with how ridiculously powerful the magic can be, resulting in a number of seriously badass characters and destructive confrontations that, along with much of the series’ thrilling action sequences, are written with tremendous flair.

Lastly, I absolutely love the tone of the books, which is a darker, grittier and more realistic approach to fantasy — there’s cursing, obvious sexual innuendo, and viscerally descriptive scenes of violence offset by a healthy dose of black and witty humor — that reminded me a lot of Glen Cook’s excellent Black Company novels. Not surprisingly, the author is a huge influence of Mr. Erikson’s and Reaper’s Gale was actually dedicated to Glen Cook.

Individually, Gardens of the Moon (Volume I) is usually considered the weakest book in the series, mainly because of structural issues that make it somewhat confusing to read, but for me Midnight Tides (Vol V) is actually my least favorite of the ones released so far, although I have a much greater appreciation for the novel after completing Reaper’s Gale. I’m not sure if there’s any one book that I enjoyed more than the others, but volumes II through IV — Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice, and House of Chains — were all excellent and I also really enjoyed The Bonehunters (Volume VI). As far as Reaper’s Gale, the seventh volume in the Malazan sequence is easily the longest book in the series thus far (900+ pages), but I wouldn’t say it was the strongest. Personally, I thought the story moved slower than it normally has, and a number of the subplots like the Letherii/Edur politics weren’t as compelling, but as usual the payoffs at the end were just mind-blowing and absolutely worth the journey. In fact, I’d have to say that some of the revelations and resolutions in the book were the best in the series, particularly those involving Onrack, Beak, Trull Sengar, Hedge, Toc the Younger, Tehol Beddict, and Bugg; although there were a couple of storylines — regarding Redmask and Karsa Orlong — that were underwhelming. Each volume in the Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen has its share of strengths and weaknesses if you look at them separately, but only by viewing the series as a whole can readers truly grasp the brilliance and significance behind Erikson’s masterful epic.

I highly recommend Steven Erikson’s Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen to anyone who hasn’t discovered the series yet — which I feel is still vastly underrated despite all of the acclaim that it’s received so far — especially if you call yourself a fan of fantasy. Granted, I understand that the series won’t appeal to everyone considering the overwhelming number of characters and viewpoints, the non-linear narrative, the darker tone of the books and the series’ immense complexity and ambitiousness, but even if Erikson’s Malazan novels sound like nothing you would normally read, at least give it a try. Otherwise you’d be missing out on one of, if not the most, seminal work of fantasy fiction to be published in the 21st century. Erikson’s Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is easily the best fantasy series that I have ever read.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen — (1999-2011) Publisher: The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting and bloody confrontations. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet Empress Laseen’s rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins. For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, surviving cadre mage of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to mourn the many dead. But Darujhistan, last of the Free Cities of Genabackis, yet holds out. It is to this ancient citadel that Laseen turns her predatory gaze. However, it would appear that the Empire is not alone in this great game. Sinister, shadowbound forces are gathering as the gods themselves prepare to play their hand.

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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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