Posts tagged ‘fantasy’

The Crippled God: In which Steven Erikson is the best some more.

This is not a review. Mainly because then I’ll have to go re-read the entire series again in the light of this book, and I don’t think my stomach can take it just yet.

Also: there be spoilers here. Many. Maybe. I’ve not written ’em out yet, but I did draw a spoiler dragon that I’m dying to put up somewhere.

spoiler dragon

First thing: What a thoroughly excellent book The Crippled God is. Steven Erikson is such a nice man: he doesn’t clear his throat, stick his nose in the air (as well he might, as the writer of many millions of really good words) and be all “Ahem. Here is my existential treatise you guys. It’s full of doom and gloom with brief flickers of hope and some redeeming moments of compassion. Make sure you accord it proper respect.”

Instead he writes it into this tightly-plotted, suspenseful story that’s bursting with strange characters, random machinations, giant battles, creepy bits, funny bits (The first time Tehol Beddict shows up, in a Brys flashback, I giggled so loudly that the auto guy slowed down on the Ring Road so as to turn back and look worriedly at me.) and insanely miserable bits. He even manages to sneak in bits so maudlin Dickens would be iffy about them. And it is fully awesome.

Over the last nine books, Erikson has introduced us to about eight hundred characters, each oozing all kinds of kindness and nastiness and plans and general coolth. Shoving them all into this book’s giant convergence means that whoever your favourite ones are, you probably feel a bit short-changed. I, for one, would’ve gladly skipped most of the other sub-plots if it meant more Quick Ben/Kalam, Hellian/Urb and Shadowthrone/Cotillion. The vast amount of plot also means fewer jokes, and less random sitting around and complaining — I’ve read lots of reviews of Malazan over the years, that are less than thrilled with all the verbal back-and-forthing in the series, but I’ve always loved Erikson’s conversations. He is at his best when he has two characters playing off each other. There’s a reason all my favourites come in pairs. Then there’s Erikson’s sibling thing – eighty percent of everyone’s troubles have to do with their siblings, somehow. I was a bit disappointed we didn’t see Quick Ben’s sister in this book, actually. He’s so loony and untouchable, and she’s one of the few characters who really upsets him, that you know them hanging out together would’ve been priceless.

I was also slightly let down by the great coming together of all the plot points – mainly because I didn’t want them to. I love the way the series is full of these loose canons randomly ricocheting off each other and somehow getting stuff done. The knowledge that some of them were actually, to some extent, controlled, made them much less fun, I thought. The other reason this upset me is ‘cos I liked Shadowthrone and Cotillion being snide, devious, awful people – retrospectively, their greater cause, while noble and all, made every time they appeared in the previous books cackling ominously a little bit childish.

*  *  *  *  *

Kaminsod (the crippled god’s real name) is my new favourite word. It’s a sneeze and an oath. “Kaminsod that cook,” the Duchess might say elegantly to Alice, choking on her soup and shunning her baby. “Why’d she put so much pepper?”

Or: “Kaminsod and bebother those dwarves!” Bilbo Baggins could huff when Thorin and co. invade his house and eat all his food.

Or: “You and your kaminsodden collection!” one could whuffle at one’s favourite dust-connoisseur friend in a moment of anger.

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April 2, 2011 at 3:20 pm 3 comments

anime and i: in which miyazaki makes me a nicer person

I just re-watched Miyazaki’s version of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and it’s churning up this strange and unwilling fondness for anime in me. (It did the first time too, but I dismissed it as an aberration.) Even though Miyazaki changed vast chunks of the plot, even though the characters have the giant eyes and tiny noses of anime that normally annoy me so much, and even though strange airships blimped around the entire time, I can think of few other book-based films which I actually liked enough to watch again. Certainly no comic or fantasy-based film has ever left me anything except indignant and nit-picking: there were always a million small things, and often some huge things, that rang clangily hollow. The only exception (Even movie-Watchmen‘s slavish adherence to all things except the giant squid seemed, somehow, to lack the intense hysteria of the comic) is Sin City, which exactly replicated the filthy noir quality that I loved in the comics, where what you couldn’t see in the heavy darkness loomed large over what you did see.

As with Sin City, the implication by enshrouding that there is an entire world that is new and strange to the reader seems to work very neatly in Howl’s Moving Castle. What happens, I suspect, is that animation has an abstract quality that makes it so much easier to watch and re-imagine in the watching than an actual film. So even though Calcifer the fire demon (for instance) didn’t look like the Calcifer in my head, he was an excellent abstract of said Calcifer-in-my-head.

The whole realism thing is, of course, inherent to (non-cartoon) cinema, and perhaps I should stop watching altogether. Films are obsessed with maintaining the appearance of reality*. Any self-respecting film would try to show you what a Calcifer would look like if Calcifers existed in our world, bound by its optical laws. Except, in doing so, it misses the entire point of fantasy which is this: Calcifer does not and cannot exist in our reality. This is why he is a fantastic character. The only place where Calcifer exists and should exist, is elsewhere. This is why however magnificent FilmAslan is, he is still just a regular, if largeish lion, prancing around on screen. In making him realistic, most of the abstract qualities that hover around BookAslan (Aslan as stand-in for god, Aslan as inherently just, and Aslan as inherently unknowable) are obliged to go away, because there is no visual way to portray them realistically, and even swelling orchestral soundtracks can only do so much. Animation is, for me, particularly suited for rendering fantasy, because of the fact that it works with symbols and metaphors, rather than representations of reality: it gives you rough ideas, but the actual work happens in your head – as it should, to be truly fantastic.

Anyway. Back to Miyazaki. The characters are all very nicely distinguished, in the way they speak and move and hold themselves. Howl himself was completely unlike the way I’d imagined him, with his strange air of vulnerability. I liked, too, the way that it was his body that was the site of desire, not hers: both YoungSophie and OldSophie are more or less shapeless, wrapped up in stout shoes, layers of petticoats and voluminous gowns, while Howl’s body is depicted in slim, delicate lines. It’s Howl who is so obsessed with his own attractiveness that he sobs himself into a pool of green snot when his hair turns orange; later, he wanders around in a towel that slips coyly off, and it’s Sophie who determinedly does not to ogle. Howl’s vulnerability is constantly in play, in his repeated exhaustion, and the increasing frailty of his bird-form. In contrast, Sophie, even when aged, is satisfyingly solid. She is bursting with determination and stamina: she stomps determinedly up the very long and steep palace steps carrying a dog, even taking the trouble to pep-talk the Witch of the Waste through the climb; she cleans constantly, and she looks after all the other characters. Though Sophie’s degree of agedness careens wildly, and though she is voiced by two separate actresses (one for young and one for old Sophie) she is somehow tangibly always the same person: its her persistent vitality that holds the whole story together.

The war scenes combine just the right amount of realism (the blimps and the images of burning buildings are realistic in content, though not in form) and pure comic-ness (by comic-ness I do not mean comedy: I mean the quality of being a comic) as when the blimps have wings and let loose strange annoying giant insects, along with their bombs. The fact that none of this is actually in the book, made little difference: it is still a beautiful, intuitive and thoroughly original film which somehow manages to be Howl’s Moving Castle, in addition to all the other things it is.

So yes, I take back many of the uncharitable things I may have said about anime in the not-so-distant past. It can pretend to be as cutesy as it wants:  now that I know that it’s secretly all sharp steel and strange flourishes underneath, I won’t be fooled again. Sometimes, anyway.

*Even Bunuel and co could only manage to show us what would happen if our reality was a bit more fluid and random than it is. It was still, quite clearly, our reality – our pebbles and eyes and people and scorpions. Sometimes dreamlike, but never entirely other.

November 5, 2009 at 12:08 pm 4 comments

newness: in which I try my hand at honesty

First honest thing: I find wordpress a bit intimidating. I think it’s the sleekness. Blogger was sort of cheerful and goofy. It had low expectations and didn’t seem to mind whatever I said, even if it was awful. WordPress’s grey posting page has a steely, business-like look about it.

happydog1.8

Honest thing number 2: I wanted to hate Brandon Sanderson with a deep and dreadful hatred for being the non-Robert- Jordan person to write the end of the Wheel of Time series. But really, in some very specific ways, I think Brandon Sanderson may just be a better writer than poor Robert Jordan. Not a better plotter, and not a better world-builder, and not even necessarily better with character (more on this in a minute), but in sheer ability to make the now huge and cumbersome plots actually move. Remember that thing called urgency that Robert Jordan decided to forgo way back about Book 8 or thereabouts in favour of more Sea Folk customs and more low-necked green dresses slashed with yellow? Brandon Sanderson is all jumpy with urgency. And I have to sort of cheer him on for it. He clearly wants to get to the Last Battle (hint to BS: maybe spreading it into three books isn’t the best way to accomplish this?) and start the big bloodshed that some of us have been anticipating for almost a decade.

Other Wheel of Time related, possibly less true things:

1. Poor poor newly-pointless Mat, who has been my favourite person in the books all along. Give him a plot someone. Even a tiny little battle would do.  And stop trying to write him like the Wheel of Time’s sub-par version of Tehol Beddict. He used to have his own personality, remember? Ditto Thom.

2. Egwene finally justifies her existence! *drumroll* Even if all her adversaries did seem to just crumble without her having to try too hard. Still. I liked the way her civil disobedience thing played out.

3. If Perrin and Faile don’t die in the last book I am going to be very very upset. They are stupid and whiny and turn plot-gold into straw without even trying.

4. I’m not yet done digesting the many and strange metamorphoses of Rand al’ Thor. I am suspending judgement until the last book.

5. I can finally say I like Nynaeve. She has always been one of those borderline good characters for me. Sometimes she was so sneaky and clever and yelled satisfyingly at characters I disliked. The rest of the time she sort of collapsed internally and based her entire self-esteem on ugly clothes and strange power games and blamed every single person for her own stupidity. And then Robert Jordan would have some random person yell “Brave-as-a-Lion Nynaeve” and expect me to ignore the evidence of the last 300 pages.

I am happy to finally have her sensible and efficient and doing actual things.

5. The entire Aviendha plot-line annoyed me. She always comes off looking interesting from other people’s points-of-view, but her own is a bit boring. This is true for many of Robert Jordan’s women – their actions are admirable, but he doesn’t seem able to correctly describe the internal processes that end up with them doing those actions. Which makes me think that perhaps Sanderson’s nicest contribution to the series is this: he focuses on the actions of people like Egwene and Nynaeve (and even Tuon), and leaves some of their internal monologuing offscreen, for the reader to fill in.

Short version: I want to read more Wheel of Time. And I think I like this new format.

October 30, 2009 at 3:38 pm 3 comments

gritty


So I’ve been reading George R R Martin’s series (its called A Song of Ice and Fire, if you’re feeling masochistic) and the rant demon has possessed me. Since my rage is of an orderly compulsive sort,  I have decided to vent in numbered points.

I should add here, that for all its faults, the actual plot of the series is quite excellent. I know I will keep reading it obsessively just to know what happens next. And when Martin forgets to make people thoroughly miserable, all kinds of exciting things happen, mainly involving Daenerys and her dragons, and Jon Snow and his awesome friends. Which makes the rant slightly redundant, but who cares.
1. I don’t mind grittiness, in a general way, when it consists of a lot of non-bathing and death, but when it starts rolling around in the mud with torture and ruthlessness, and the writer in question starts making a game out of how much he can torture a character before they disintegrate, and then goes on to torture disintegrated people, it makes my head hurt. 
Murders are fine. I just tend to like my deaths clean. And quick. All this four-book long, excruciatingly drawn-out torment really gets to me after a while, and I start thinking wistfully of my thesis. For future reference, GRRM, when all your main characters are hardened murderers and your readers just feel relief with every new death, soon enough no one’s going to care enough to read further. Also you might run out of characters and that would be unfortunate.
2. Note to Sansa Stark, aged maybe twelveish, if that: Your life sucks. I’ve watched you get sold off to a louse by your oh-so-honourable father, I watched you sell out said father, I skipped horrifiedly through your endless list of beatings and strippings, I read on through your family dying/allegedly dying in awful ways, I even kept going when you were married off, and then kidnapped and then attacked by your mother’s creepy sister and her obsessive and dreadful husband. And I’ve had to leave out a lot of the comparatively minor stuff, for brevity’s sake. Stop being polite. It’s driving me insane. Yell. Get up and leave. Set things on fire. Kill someone. Just do something about it. Please.
Perhaps you could consider moving to a Georgette Heyer novel? I can promise you no one will try and marry you for another 2 years, at least, and what with your good breeding and wonderful politeness you will probably get a Happy Ending, and I can stop cringing when I see you in a chapter. 
3. And while I’m giving advice to fictional people:
Dear Brienne,
You are a girl. You’re also large. However, since you are also terribly capable of killing anyone you happen to dislike, please deal with facts a and b; the rest of us are managing quite well. Stop making me have to blush for your issues. Also, keep away from Jaime Lannister, who is a sister-doing, child-killing, lying, all-round louse. Now go kill some more people.
4. Resurrections. I just don’t like them. And resurrecting Catelyn Stark, was just low-down and stupid. She was pretty much played out, and honestly? I was relieved when she and Robb just died so I wouldn’t have to watch her agonise over Dead Ned anymore. Beric being brought back to life was, since it was a novelty then, cool. Bringing Catelyn back to life just trivialises a) her b) Beric and c) all the other people dying in the series (which is a LOT. See point 1 on grittiness).
5. GRRM: Child marriage is just plain creepy. Please stop it. You world is harsh and cruel, we GET it. Now stop with the paedophilia.
6. And Eddard Stark? Is not the paragon you seem to expect me to think he is. He was stupid. He knew almost everything we knew in Book One, and watching him passive-aggressively ruining the lives of a) his wife b) his children c) his stupid dukedom d) poor moronic Robert and e) the whole goddamn kingdom only served to convince me of this. An actual genuine good person, even if he had a death wish for himself, would’ve at least sent his daughters home and away from all the machinations in court, before he begged the evil people to destroy him.

If you look carefully, you might notice that almost everything horrible that happened in book two (and even some of book three) happened because Ned Stark spent book one busily navel-gazing, and whining about his honour, and refusing to actually do anything. Except scattering his family around the map in convenient bite-sized bits for anyone at all to attack.
Having relieved myself of all the rage, I feel obliged to say, again, that for all its many faults the series is thoroughly exciting. A lot of the characters is actual real fun people, some are dire wolves (wolfs? Probably not) and I live in hope of meeting an aurochs
More extinct animals and less torturing of sad people, I always say.
(Irrelevantly: it is very sad that the blogger spell-check cannot spell aurochs)

January 31, 2009 at 2:47 pm 7 comments

The Mists of Avalon

*****SEVERE RANT ALERT*****


Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Arthurian books are quite simply one of the most frustrating books I have ever read. The first time I read them, I found myself in a simmering rage for days, until the last book was done, and I put it quickly away.

This time, I found myself beginning to feel sorry for the characters, but I still wanted to knock some sense (and also spine) into them.

Essentially the books are a re-telling of Arthurian legend from the points of views of the major female characters. The books link paganism with eco-feminism in the society of Avalon, composed of priestesses to the Mother Goddess who represents the land. They represent older cultures and civilisations, sworn to plurality that exist before Christianity sweeps the land, preaching of a single god and singular good.

While the theme is an interesting one, the debate gets a bit repetitive. By the end of the books Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar have yelled more or less the same arguments at every other character in the book – Morgaine is the spokesperson of Avalon, and Gwenhwyfar that of Christianity at its narrowest.

While I couldn’t quite dislike Morgaine – her frustration with the book parallelled and fed mine – Gwenhwyfar is reduced to a caricature of piousness-cum-adultery who is no longer quite real.

There are four things about this book that make it such a frustrating thing to read:

1) We all know how it ends. Everyone dies or is miserable and war breaks out. There is nothing we can do about it, except wait for it. And Bradley *really* makes us wait.

2) The massive MPD that doesn’t miss a single character. This isn’t that much of a flaw – it is reasonably realistic, after all, and trauma has a way of making people behave uncharacteristically. Which brings me to:

3) For the characters, the books are one long trauma. It goes with the general theme of unavoidable tragedy, no doubt, but after a while the heaviness of the tragedy begins to pall – it is no longer tragic but just plain irritating.

4) The characters’ blind faith is a bit unlikely. Given that the sensibility is frequently pretty modern, even post-modern, and that Arthur and his companions are primarily *soldiers*, I find it a bit ridiculous that everyone is so religious. The conflict of faith is reduced to a (slightly simple) conflict between the pantheistic followers of the old Druidic religions and the monotheistic followers of Christ.

Personally, I would’ve found a conflict between faith and a lack of it a lot more interesting. The only main character who is frankly non-godly is Morgause – and her character is a strangely uneven. She is simultaneously sensuous and calculating, perceptive and utterly blind, and the scenes from her point of view don’t seem to quite add up to her actions. After three books that show her as pragmatic, shrewd, worldly, and ultimately someone who won’t randomly knock down the applecart, Book Four! Morgause is a fairy-tale witch. She plots frantically toward world domination, spills blood lavishly for a stupid spell to talk to her spies in Arthur’s court, she coos psychotically at Mordred. After three books that establish to us that Morgause couldn’t care less about anyone’s sex-life except her own (including her husband’s) she is suddenly there plotting to catch Gwenhyfar and Lancelot in bed together.

At some point, it is as if all Bradley’s good intentions towards the women characters, and all her reasonableness in making everyone’s motives understood are suddenly swept away by the demands of the very plot she is trying to subvert: Morgause is the evil witch everyone made her out to be, because if she isn’t then who is going to precipitate the final tragedy?
Mordred, likewise, flashes from sarcastic but earnest to Evil Plotting Child of Incest!, because if he isn’t why would he kill poor senile well-meaning Arthur?

The book’s frustrating-ness is inherent in its structure – both the reader and the characters are bereft of free will, as the story goes to its inevitable end.

The other thing I don’t like – and this is linked with the first one – is the way the characters keep refusing to take any responsibility for their actions. When he’s discovered in bed with Gwenhwyfar, Lancelot *kills* Gareth and a bunch of other people before running away with her. Later, he blames the whole episode on Mordred – and not say on the fact that he’d been sleeping with someone else’s wife for 30 years – for spying on him, and Gwenhwyfar ascribes the murder to what an awesome knight her Lancey-poo is.
Morgiane *murders* her stepson (so he won’t tell his father and her husband that she’s having an affair with his son) and calls it the “will of the goddess” ?! And Accolon, the brother with whom she is having the affair, buys it!!!
It was at that point that I decided that the bad end I knew was coming to everyone was richly deserved.

The reason these things annoy me as they do, is because the book is an attractive one. It deals in relationships and conflicts of interest and myth, and the world it creates is sometimes very compelling. The characters are all (to begin with, anyway, before the events of the book tire them out) strong and vital ones – you *want* to know what they think and what they’ll do. Arthur’s loves for and conflicts between Guinevere and Lancelot and Morgaine (and all they each stand for) are dealt with subtly and delicately. You rarely know exactly what his own opinions are, but the pressures on him are built strand by strand, until the whole narrative is taut with them.

And then, somehow, the moment of reckoning never comes. Viviaine, (the lady of the lake who is to confront Arthur over his betrayal of Avalon) is killed. After that, the momentum dissipates and the series never quite regains it. Morgaine is married off and drifts along playing an unconvincing Wicca game, Lancelot and Gwenhwyfar romance boringly and angstily, Morgause and Mordred plot a plot that is strangely empty (it is as if Bradley *knows* they are the bad guys and must go forth and do evil, but until right at the end they do very little other then smirk and make snide remarks), the holy grail is a plot device to kill off Galahad and Kevin the bard (whom I *really* like. More on him later) and Arthur pretty much stops caring about anything except Excalibur, which he hoards with random zeal, simply because its his big sister’s (Morgaine’s) and she wants it too. And everyone gets paranoid about aging.

The only person who deals with their own inner demons – and when I say deals with I mean like a rational adult, not random sulking/mooning/going mad/swooning – is Kevin the traitor Merlin. He is a cripple but somehow he is minimally angsty, unfailingly courteous, thoughtful and kind. It is ironic that his stealing the Grail from Avalon and taking it to Arthur’s court is punished with entrapment and death, while all the other characters get cheerfully (and piously) away with murder.
His path from being a druid to becoming a person who puts peace (even Christian peace) ahead of everything else is depicted as evolving with the times, not as the random fits (also known as the goddess) that take Morgaine, Igraine and Viviane from time to time, until they all become interchangeable.
In the end, when she comes in the barge to take a dying Arthur back to Avalon, even Morgaine can no longer tell which one she is. And while I understand that the whole Great-Goddess-who-is-every-woman-and-maiden-and-mother-and-wise-woman-and-crone deal is important to Bradley, taking away all your protagonist’s character and free will, and reducing her to nothing but a tool of a (possibly loony) goddess is *not* the most empowering story you can tell.

August 26, 2008 at 2:10 pm Leave a comment

Reaper’s Gale

Steven Erikson has – once more – managed to do what few people in the world can do with competence, let alone genuine inspiration: he has written a fantastic fabulous book in which every plot strand lives up to its promise. This may sound like a modest achievement, except for the bit where its actually pretty rare – there is always something which rings false. And except for the bit where Erikson has about 200 times more plot strands than average.

Most books begin well – interesting-sounding characters and situations are introduced and you settle down to see what happens to them. Usually, once you are reasonably familiar with the world the writer does various bits of misdirection, of setting up a situation and then dashing expectations. This may work to surprise and delight the reader or it may annoy you and make you wish you had stopped reading when the plot started turning trite. If the first say 20 Agatha Christies you read work in the first way, by the time you have read a few more you can pretty much pick out the murderer in every succeeding book as soon as he or she is introduced.

With every page Steven Erikson sets up new expectations and with every page he subverts one of your expectations in a delicious and unexpected way. Seven books down, Erikson’s plotting is so meticulous that I am neither bored nor in any position to guess the end. Reaper’s Gale kept me on tenterhooks right through – between the immediate plots and the long range plots and the characters old and new and the jokes and the neat, unassuming writing. (It is such a relief not to have to wade through florid descritions that have no bearing on the plot. For those of you who like your fantasy farcical there is lots of Tehol and Bugg. And Erikson is getting better and better with the comedy. There is something so irresistible when you can tell that a writer you like is giggling himself or herself silly as they write.) When the final twist is one so wonderful that it never even occurred to you; when you should’ve seen it coming because now you think of it all the evidence pointed that way but you didn’t ‘cos its just that twisted and Erikson is that much more loony than you are; when it is funny and touching and ironic, that, comrades-in-reading, is happily ever after.

In other news the monsoon seems to have hit; and I haven’t been able to breathe through my nose for days. Also I walked through what felt like miles of thigh-deep sewage water to get home a couple of nights ago and can inform those of you who haven’t done this before that in a flood the actual rain water is cooler than the sewage water, which is kinda warmish. So if you find yourself in a flood, follow the cool water – unless of course you happen to be walking in sewage water out of choice.

That’s all folks.

May 29, 2007 at 10:41 am 1 comment

It has been a while – partly because I’m lazy, and partly because i honestly haven’t had access to internet for the last month or so.

But there are somethings which must be shared immediately. Steven Erikson’s The Malazon Book of the Fallen has been among the highlights of the last few months for me, and finally relinquishing Book VI of it, The Bonehunters, (Thanks Ro. My eternal gratitude and Peter Wimseys are yours for the asking.) made me realise how overdue this is. You send me the Communist manifesto, I now present to you:

THE STEVEN ERIKSON MANIFESTO

The world of The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a bleak and difficult one. It is war-ridden in the most frightening way so that war is the only way of life. And as we read further, we realise that this has always been so. The word fantasy is clearly a misnomer – this is not the kind of world you want to fantasise about.

In the present, the Malazan Empire – the all-powerful force, against whom so many of our protagonists are pitted – is largely a background force; but one who is repeatedly revealed to be behind some large bit of the action. It controls vast amounts of land and people, yet its existence is as precarious as that of any of the millions of individual soldiers dying in its armies. (Not surprisingly, the army is pivotal – most of the action and the deep thinking happen in the camps.)

Intrigue levels are so high that the first three or four chapters of every book are completely baffling – you read blind, in the expectation of learning to see if you do it long enough. This isn’t a bad thing, though – Erikson drops enough hints to keep you fully occupied, so it’s like doing a cryptic crossword where if you get enough clues, you can begin to see the letters and fill in the last, tough ones.

Only, it turns out, this entire crossword is just one tenth of the big one.

We all know – theoretically – how important backstory is to a fantasy world, for without it there is no motivation, and the characters and plot become irrelevant to themselves. Very much like a detective novel, in fact. History is one of Erikson’s strong suits – he uses it to enrich and legitimise his books, just as the books themselves flesh it out.

In some ways the Malazan series is like a giant detective story, where each book is one chapter, dropping tantalising clues, and building up to the denouement in the last book.

Since we are only at book 6 now, I see little point in elaborating on the plot-lines – which are many and hugely complicated, and only getting more so with each successive book. A lot of the reading is merely figuring out which of the millions of sub-plots and strands is a red-herring, and which is important to the bigger picture. As it turns out, they all are.

The various strands come together, satisfyingly, in the end, pushing the series plot further. The books aren’t chronological – some happen simultaneously, and there is a lot of back-and-forth-ing, but the picture that emerges when they are put together is breathtaking.

But unlike a detective story, morality in the Malazan books is muddied and sticky and compelling. Imagine quicksand so fascinating you wilfully struggle harder in the hope of digging yourself in deeper and deeper, faster and faster, consumed by an urgent need to get to the bottom.

There is no one murderer (or even two) who is to be discovered at the end of the book – though there are plenty all along the way. Instead, the world is one of Kafkaesque helplessness – with every character plotting stubbornly towards an unknown goal – often at cross-purposes, sometimes together – though even then they maintain their own motives. And though against the large morass that is their world (pardon the repeated bog-metaphors) they are small and powerless, they all insist on plotting furiously, anyway. No one is Evil, and even if they were, no one is all Good either. Even the least likeable characters are provided with enough motivation to make them, if not sympathetic, at least empathetic.

As far as I am concerned, the characterisation is perfect – even though there are so many of them, Erikson makes every single one recognisable. It is not the kind of book where you can, say, name five distinguishing characteristics for each person. But then, I can’t name five distinguishing characteristics for any of my friends either. Instead of a set of characteristics, you come to recognise real people – you may not entirely understand them, you probably don’t agree about a lot of stuff, but you enjoy their company; they change, you change, it doesn’t matter; they are still distinct people to you. If you ran into even the most insignificant character on the road, you’d recognise it and go up to talk to it – though if you are spotting Erikson characters on the road, you might want to consider seeing a shrink.

And when they die (And they are always dying – it is a book of the fallen, after all) it is as if a real person is dead. You don’t cry and wallow and say that was beautiful, what an affecting book – you cringe and swallow and make funeral preparations, and wonder what they left you in their will.

There are Houses – of Dark, Light, Shadow, Death, Life, and so on – but these aren’t necessarily antagonistic, in fact as the series progresses so do the various alliances.

The methods employed by Light are as horrific as those employed by Dark – war.

In fact, the immortal Tiste Andii, the Children of the Dark (and their leader, Anomander Rake) are in many ways more pitiable than the humans – they have been so battered by their history, they have lost the will to live. Though war is common in these books, it never loses its horrific-ness. There is no attempt to legitimise war – even though most of Erikson’s most likeable characters are soldiers (in this world, Everyman is a soldier – a frightening metaphor for the saying that to live is to fight). Instead, the only stable moralities are those of necessity and compassion. I have deliberately avoided calling the book gritty – a phrase that, to me, implies a general hardening and detachment in the characters ability to deal with suffering. For Erikson, war is uniformly gruelling, there is no suggestion of sado-masochism, of pleasure in pain – killing is a soul-destroying thing, yet it is the only thing people can do in their desperate attempt to stay alive. The heroic bit of war is not in victory, but in the soldiers’ acceptance of its necessity, even as they see its inherent wrongness. This makes the books war scenes much more potent and disturbing than those of many other fantasy novels. (Don’t shrug innocently, Terry Goodkind – I am pointing at you.)

A dying soldier in most books has the (dubious) satisfaction of dying for a Cause. A dying soldier in The Malazan Books of the Fallen knows only that for him, the killing has finally ended, and that Hood will get him. It is a world Yossarian would approve of in its frightening meaninglessness. There is always a superficial reason for a death – usually because of one or more of the plots laid by all the powerful characters. But it is still eventually meaningless, nothing is achieved except a complexifying of the intrigue – the stakes are raised again, new alliances are formed, new players enter, but nothing changes for the soldiers.

There is an inexorability to the dying that is more powerful than anything Hood, the king of House Death – possibly, paradoxically, the least intimidating (and sympathetic) of the ascendants – can do. (Terry Pratchett’s Death, on the other hand would be much more understanding, I suspect. Forgive me, Steven, but there is nothing your Hood can do to supersede Pratchett’s Death as the real one in my head.)

The gods in this world (also called Ascendants) are not very omnipotent. And we soon realise that they are only a little more powerful than the humans, and the barriers between mortals, immortals and ascendants are not so much walls as much as thin lines that are regularly stepped across by the ambitious. (In fact, the last emperor of the Malazan Empire and his assassin seem to have ascended to become the big-wigs of House Shadow, just to escape being assassinated by the new Empress.)

The Empress is a (so far) shadowy figure; we learn of her only via other characters, tantalising fragments that help build up her mystique, rather than make her more tangible – no doubt at her own instigation. We know she was the head of the Claw (the deadly Malazan assassin squad) before she took over the throne. We know she is skilled enough at intrigue to pre-empt and dissuade attempts on her life and her power, to make all the most powerful people we have met so far wary of her. We know that even the immortals regard her as a viable threat to their freedom. (In one extremely poignant scene, the ascendant Anomander Rake explains to his ally (and ascendant) Caladan Brood that the reason for their antagonism to the empire is that they like a certain amount of chaos, to them it is freedom, while to the Empress and her kind, the immortals’ freedom threatens the ordered well-being of their human citizens. Plus, he adds wryly, they are automatically antagonised by the very fact that it is someone else, not them, who will rule the new stability.) It is a legitimate fear – the unravelling history shows us countless examples of new beings destroying the old ones in their search for a peaceful existence.

But we soon realise that some of this is coming to a head. Knowing the world as we do, it is unlikely that there will be a happy end where the High King is restored and everyone will live a peaceful rural existence, or even that there will be world peace. Since there was never a paradise, there is none to go back to.

There is after all, no true evil to be defeated – all the combatants are equally confused, hurt, and vulnerable.

The best the soldiers can hope for is that the Empire stabilises (and as a postcolonial member of an erstwhile colony, you will appreciate that this is a horrifying thing for me to say), concentrating on governance rather than expansion, so that it finds some peace – and so other races can find their own peaces too. Perhaps the gods and ascendants will find a realm truly separate from that of the other beings, so they will no longer use them in their manoeuvrings for power.

I like to think the mesemerising anarchy will go on for ever.

All we can say for certain is that since Good cannot triumph over Evil, there is one less Happy End in the world. But that’s not to say it won’t be a good end.

June 12, 2006 at 4:01 pm 3 comments


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