Malazan — Book of the Fallen: some thoughts

Aditya Gaonkar
5 min readMay 16, 2021

Epic fantasy has been my favourite genre of fiction, maybe because it involves letting one’s imagination run amok. Steven Erikson takes this to the next level in his amazing 10 book series.

I am currently in my second read through of the series. The first time, I had completed the 8th book and had begun the 9th book, when I began grad school and thus reading took a backseat (regrettably). Now, I’ve started reading the entire series again and I plan to read the numerous companion books written by Erikson and his collaborator Ian Esselmont (all consider canon) which alongside the series amount to more than 20 books! (I expect this to take like 2–3 years, after which I plan to pick up another behemoth, Wheel of Time after a break from fiction).

This post basically relies on my first read of the main series and whatever I’ve read so far. I don’t intend this post to be a full blown review, but more of an argument for why people interested in epic fantasy should give this one a shot.

Erikson begins the first novel “Gardens of the Moon” with these words in the preface: “In the years and many novels since, certain facts have made themselves plain. Beginning with Gardens of the Moon, readers will either hate my stuff or love it. There’s no in-between.Naturally, I’d rather everybody loved it, but I understand why this will never be the case. These are not lazy books. You can’t float through, you just can’t. Even more problematic, the first novel begins halfway through a seeming marathon– you either hit the ground running and stay on your feet or you’re toast”. This indicates the level of confidence Steven has in his rather unconventional approach to narrating the series and the faith he shows in his reader, where he doesn’t handhold you through it and simply allows you to digest things at your own pace to finally catch up, or you give up out of frustration.

I remember how I felt the first time I read Gardens of the Moon. It felt akin to being thrown into a hurricane and being asked to swim for the first time in your life. Unlike the usual fantasy novels I had read (LoTR, ASOIAF, Harry Potter mainly), Erikson basically throws you into events without any preamble and excepts you to keep up. The narration doesn’t spawn from a single character and branch out slowly (like the usual way you expect epic fantasy to work), but rather you’re thrown around from one current to another, until you either give up out of sheer frustration or start enjoying this rather unconventional way of introducing one to a new world. I had actually given up midway into GotM many years back, but for some reason I decided to pick it up again from the beginning and having read half of the book made the difference, as I could start connecting and understanding things better.

As Erikson states in that part of the preface I’ve quoted, this series isn’t an easy read one can do on the beach while chilling on a vacation. It requires flipping back a few chapters ago to refer to something which makes sense now (or as I’ve done sometimes, visiting specific pages on the excellent Malazan wiki). The myriad characters and storylines are indeed challenging to keep up with, as is understanding the system of magic present in this universe.

Why is this series “Book of the Fallen”? Largely because it deals with flawed humans, non-human peoples and gods. Here gods can be torn down, defeated and even killed by lesser beings. Humans can become “ascendants” into godhood, or worse than humans. There are instances of great bravery and sheer cruelty narrated in the most heart wrenching ways possible.

Probably the best thing about this series is the way characters are developed and the interactions between characters is portrayed. You can only like people like Dujek Onearm, Whiskeyjack and their Bridgeburners squad, Kalam Mekhar, Quick Ben, Anomander Rake, Tehol Beddict, Fist Coltaine, Adjunct Tavore Paran, Apsalar etc. The interactions of the Bridgeburners, Tehol Beddict with his manservant Bugg, Duiker with the various people in Coltaine’s Chain of Dogs is some of the best writing in fiction I’ve ever come across. As are various storylines, like Whiskeyjack narrating to Anomander Rake the formation of the Bridgeburners (a rather short story nonetheless), Coltaine leading the refugees of the Chain of Dogs across Seven Cities continent and it’s absolutely gut wrenching ending (no more spoilers!), Tehol Beddict’s machinations in Lether, Ganoes Paran’s story across many books, Karsa Orlong’s absolutely mad journey from his homeland to another continent make for amazing reading.

Unlike your usual fantasy where you can clearly delineate a protagonist and an antagonist, it’s very hard to do so in this series. It’s an ensemble of characters, all with their own motivations driving them to do things. Yes, there are characters who definitely do more good or evil than the other. But overall, it’s much more grey than your usual fantasy when you want to analyse characters.

A curious aspect of the series is how many situations and scenarios seem to mirror our own world, and some dialogues might make you think that Erikson is basically commenting about our own societies at large. His training as an archaeologist clearly shows in his writing, as you can find paragraphs describing old, forgotten ruins of civilizations extant thousands and even hundreds of thousands of years ago, when Erikson gets the chance. The sheer guts Erikson shows to set a book in the middle of the series in an entirely new continent with an entirely new cast of characters (Book #5, Midnight Tides) is really commendable. That level of confidence in oneself and one’s readers must be rare among authors.

Does this mean the series is flawless? Absolutely not. Erikson’s style of focusing too much on describing the scenario can feel verbose and as mentioned previously, the way of introducing the reader to the series in the first book itself might be flawed, as it’s just way too unconventional (I can understand if you give up 3–4 chapters into the first book, although I might judge you ;) ). The story might feel tedious or overwhelming to keep up with, as there are too many strands. The lore might feel unclear, as the history is only given in bits and pieces. The system of magic might confuse the hell out of you, as it doesn’t involve wands, staff, chanting spells etc, the way you expect magic to work in usual fantasy. These are some potential flaws with the series, but in my opinion that’s what makes it special. They aren’t the usual flaws you might expect, like half baked story and characters, but indeed more sophisticated flaws which even can be thought of as features.

If you are an epic fantasy fan, have read some series like LoTR, ASOIAF and are looking to challenge yourself, this series might just do it.

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Aditya Gaonkar

IC Design Engineer. Retired FC Barcelona fan. Interested in physics, mathematics, philosophy, memes, epic fantasy. IIT Madras and Columbia University alum.