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What hast thou done to my mind?
on 17 September 2015
In the genre of fantasy, there are a certain number of tropes, which I could write about at great length, but would much prefer not to. Needless to say, Mr Erikson has decided to create a tale in which he makes a gargantuan effort not to fall into using the cliches, and this tale is the monstrous epic, called "the Malazan book of the fallen".
The tale itself has a simple premise, but like everything that Erikson writes, simple is a redundant word. There are at least a dozen plot lines within, and all of them build a complex tapestry of a world that the story is set in. The plot centres around the Malazan empire's efforts to conquer the continent of Genbackis. Their armies ran into difficulty a number of years ago, primarily due to the efforts of the warlord Anomander Rake, (a bizarre character, born in another dimension and who dwells in a giant floating rock), His ally Caladan brood (think Conan crossbred with Thor) and a shadowy mercenary company called the crimson guard. The Malazans ground on regardless, and by the time the book begins the only unoccupied city remaining in the north of the continent is Darujhistan. The jewel of the continent, it has so far managed to keep neutral in the war, but this neutrality will promptly be brought to an end as the Malazans advance south. The Primary malazan force, Dujek's host (let by the legendary general Dujek onearm) is recovering from the disastrous siege of pale, and so dispatches a crack unit known as the Bridgeburners to soften up the city before it's incursion. However, the host is exhausted, and is on the brink of mutiny.
Meanwhile, Rake is gathering support to defend the city, and there are shadowy happenings in the city's underworld. The assassin's guild is under attack, and a young thief called crokus is drawn into the struggle. A naive imperial officer called Ganoes Paran is also drawn towards the city, doggedly investigating an atrocity committed on imperial soil several years earlier, as is his superior. Worse, several ascendants (think Greek Gods) have set their eyes upon the city, and Oponn, the meddling Jesters of chance seem particularly set on causing chaos.
My Summary here is but the tip of the iceberg. Erikson has a massive cast of characters, and most are characterised solely through dialogue and actions, and as result his characterisation can feel shallow at times, but proves to be endearing in the long run, especially as he fleshes the surviving characters out wonderfully. His world is excellent, but the story is told in such as fashion that we understand very little of what is going on as it happens, and more through hindsight than as we read it (The book is one of the most rewarding that I have encountered to give a second reading) The characters usually know far more of what is going on than reader, and there are very few passages where characters will just spout exposition for the reader's benefit. Erikson weaves both his characterisation and world building into the plot quite adeptly, and manages to write each character's section according to the character. The bridge burners' passages are down to earth, embittered and darkly comedic, Paran's are confused and lost, but compassionate and human, Kruppe's are as incomprehensible as the character is. Crokus is a romantic, and through his quest to better himself we learn more of the world. The writing conveys the characters in a brilliant fashion, and this only gets better in subsequent books, as they are fleshed out more and more. He manages write according to each part of the story extremely well, given the difficulty of the shifts of tone and language used by the differing characters and differing situations.
The book does have a slight issue of being somewhat of a prologue to much of the series, as a lot is left unexplained until following books (being only halfway through myself I am still getting a clear picture of the world. The writing style is very hard to get into a first, and in truth for myself the book required a second reading (although I had other things on my mind that weekend), and some people might find it extremely difficult to get into, or become frustrated at the sprawling and somewhat confusing plot. However, it is worth the struggle. I have read other reviews calling him the "high water mark for epic fantasy", and I must be inclined to agree. Although, this is like no fantasy you will ever have read.