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Sunday, September 7, 2008

"You have chosen...unoriginally": Liveblogging Malazan Book of the Fallen

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, pages 1 through 139

Towards the beginning of chapter 4, Ganoes Paran, one of the main POV characters and a noble-born officer involved in a conspiracy, has just been killed by a god's assassin and Death sends a representative to meet him. Of course, Death's servant is determined by the dead person's own preconceived ideas. Ganoes at first imagines him as a confusing mix of races and deaths before settling on a skeleton. Which provokes the title quote from Death's servant.

There was plenty in the book that, prior to this point, had signaled GotM as different from Tolkien-esque high fantasy. This was the first moment that I understood Erikson's annoyance with stereotype and interest in subverting cliche. As much as I enjoy George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice, Steven Erikson frequently goes him one better at throwing monkeywrenches in the machine of fantasy plotting. Where Martin gives a puzzling prophecy, Erikson will give us a puzzling prophecy, that has been garbled by centuries of use, put in the mouth of an unreliable narrator.

After all, in a later book, Erikson will give us a society that totally misunderstands its' own creation myth because of a major climate change. And it makes sense! In addition, it is only a secondary plot point. These kind of things are seeded throughout the books. Do I need to explain further the brilliance of this world-building?

In Gardens of the Moon (so far), we've got the Malazan Empire, under the control of Empress Laseen who deposed the former emperor and his right-hand assassin under nasty circumstances. Since then, she's been waging endless wars that help subdue the Empire's rivals and also dispose of some Imperials of dubious loyalty. Think of those Soviet penal regiments that charged across mine fields and you've got the idea. One of these regiments is the Bridgeburners, that's been deployed to a disastrous siege along with the remainders of the Imperial Mage Cadre.

Meanwhile, two newly Ascendant gods named Ammanas and Cotillion have recruited a young girl from a fishing village in their bid to reenact The Manchurian Candidate (it seems) and placed her with the Bridgeburners. But the Empress has an inkling of what's going on and dispatched Ganoes Paran to take care of them. Then he gets killed and things start getting interesting...

That is a very long plot synopsis for 140 pages of story. But the story isn't confusing, at least, not to the extent of Dhalgren or Ada. Or, in more popular genre terms, the Urth of the New Sun series. Erikson's prose is clear and well-chosen and he's good at giving you enough info to get through until he lets something drop and makes the opaque translucent.

Also, a lot of this is stuff he establishes by showing the reader. You see a surviving mage figure out that, hey, that deadly blast of magic came from behind us, you see the Ascendant gods recruit the fisher-girl for their mysterious purposes. Often, the reader is figuring out these puzzles along with a character being introduced to this part of the world or society.

And what a world it is! While the Malazan Empire might come off as slightly familiar, Erikson is great at creating and establishing societies and traditions that make sense without feeling like warmed-over retreads of this fantasy trope or that real-world society. I don't read these books and say, "clearly this society stands in for medieval France or War of the Roses-era England." No offense to Guy Gavriel Kay or George R.R. Martin, but this capacity for invention is much closer to Gene Wolfe than anything.

So, as to the actual material in front of us:

  • The prologue does an efficient job of giving a taste of all the topics other characters will be discussing throughout the book (the Empire under the Emperor, Laseen's ambitions, the Bridgeburners' history pre- and post-coup, the fall of Dasseem Ultor), while not actually resolving them. The whole thing is told through the eyes of a young Ganoes Paran and Erikson is adept at the mix of naivete and keenness that a bright young teenager would bring to this strange encounter. Paran can tell the changes in Imperial bureaucracy and the strain in Laseen and the Bridgeburners' working relationship, but when he smells burning flesh in the air, he writes it off as an abattoir catching fire. Even though we know some incredibly vicious race riots are going on in that district.
  • Having read all seven books in the series, it's fun to reread the first one and see all the throwaway references that turn out to be really important. When Paran goes home on leave, we meet his sister Tavore, who speaks disparagingly of his more sensitive sister Felisin. First time through, I thought this was just to establish Paran's unhappy family. Now, knowing what's coming, I can't help but see Tavore and Felisin's tragic last encounter in Tavore's brusque (but not purposefully cruel) description of her.
  • On a slightly happier note, we meet our first Teblor (not Karsa Orlong, though) and hear characters wondering what the heck a Tiste Edur is and why they're so important? It'll take a while before we hear the answer, but when we do, oh boy...
  • In terms of invention, Erikson only starts showing how original this world is, often given glancing descriptions of races and civilizations that sound familiar to a fantasy fan, and only later delving into what makes them strange. The Moranth provide an excellent example. At first, the reader might think they're just a bunch of humans with flying machines and great ammunition. Once Paran gets on one of those flying machines, however, we start wondering if they're some ridiculously high-tech society that holds its' secrets close or intelligent humanoid insects.
  • And some of the other ideas in the book so far: a dying magician preserving his soul in a marionette doll, an immortal magician who travels around in his own flying moon, and teleportation pathways called Warrens that also channel supernatural energy and each have their own pantheon of gods! Some of these will get developed more than others, but the Warrens especially show Erikson's capacity for invention.
  • As far as characterization goes, I forgot that Ganoes Paran starts off as kind of a prig. Partly, that's because Erikson is careful to show qualities that will serve him well once he matures. And partly its because of the situations that he ends up being a prig in. If the guy who assassinated my country's former government ended up being my official escort to my new job, I'd be rude to him too. And then, just as he seems to shape up for tough times ahead, Erikson kills him! George R.R. Martin's best quality has always been his pull-no-punches plotting, but Erikson ties with him. Though in this case, Paran ends up sticking around. Death might not have been such a bad thing by the end of this book.
So, what thoughts do you guys have on the Malazan Book of the Fallen?


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