The Bonehunters

The Bonehunters
Steven Erikson

I started reading Gardens of the Moon, the first Malazan Book of the Fallen, is 2007 or so. Many years later, I am through Book Six, though I have yet to write about any of them here. This is partly because I was already a third of the way in before Two Dudes even got off the ground, but mostly because I don’t know how to approach a ten volume epic in a single blog post. In fact, I’m not sure how to approach the whole of the Malazan series as a reader, let alone a critic. I believe the longest series I have read to this point in my life is six books long, when series is defined as a single narrative arc, not just stuff written in the same universe. Ten volumes, each a thousand pages or so each? I forget stuff inside a single book while I read, let along something I read four years ago.

Excuses aside, it’s time to talk about Malazan. My silent blog partner swears by the series, and any of our conversations about fantasy inevitably return to Erikson. I am not nearly the fantasy gourmet that he is, but I read many of what are now considered the roots of the genre. I am less up on current hits, but feel qualified enough to take on something major like Erikson’s Malazan and start to assess its position in fantasy. If the author ultimately succeeds at what I think he’s trying to do, Malazan will rank as one of the great, defining fantasy series of this era.

Before we dig in, I have one quick question. With all the outrage and arguing about grimdark, why does Erikson seem to get a pass? I rarely if ever see Malazan mentioned, though untold thousands have suffered grisly, horrid deaths and plenty of “bad’ people are viewpoint characters. Maybe the relative lack of rape? Too few f-words? I admit a hazy understanding of correct grit usage in fantasy, but these books seem a touch darker than, say, Shannara. Maybe I’m missing something crucial, or maybe it’s actually a pointless and silly argument.

Anyway, time to pull our heads out of the metaphysical clouds of genre. For those who are unfamiliar, Malazan Book of the Fallen is a ten volume fantasy series centered on the fictional Malazan Empire. The plot starts some time in Book Three, but doesn’t really get underway until Book Six. I suppose it demands a certain level of patience, but things are always entertaining enough to keep my attention. Erikson’s background in anthropology gives weight to the world building, which is stunning. Nothing in here is bland cliché, from the races and kingdoms on down to the salt of the earth types that form the core of the viewpoint characters. The world benefits from many years of gaming by the author and his collaborators, which is not normally the case. I can think of few bits of advice I would rather give to an aspiring author than, “Don’t novelize your role playing sessions. Nobody cares about them.” In this case however, Erikson’s deep experience within his own world is a huge plus.

One reason I waited so long to write is that figuring out what Erikson is after took me six books to get a handle on. (Or at least to think I have a handle on it.) My take goes back to some talks Jose, the other Dude, and I had about fantasy as a genre. We speculated, and I think most of us would agree, that fantasy offers the most freedom to the author of any genre, because anything is possible so long as some form of internal consistency is maintained. No constraints of the real world, of science, of history, or anything else. We just say, “Magic!” and nobody can impose any limits that the author doesn’t already set out. This may also be fantasy’s great curse, since the lack of walls makes it all the more frustrating when so much fantasy follows the same conventions. This tendency is at its very worst in epic fantasy, with its elves, dwarves, and farm boys of destiny.

Erikson seems to have looked at this situation and made two decisions. First, he is going to blow up every cliché possible. Second, he is going to write the epic-est epic fantasy ever. Sick of elves? How about Jaghut and T’lan Imass instead? Love battles between giant armies? What if the gods are physically joining in? Enjoy that thrill of the world possibly ending? How about the world, and all the parallel realms attached to it burning down? I’ve used the guitar amps turned to eleven joke before, but Malazan sets new standards. It’s like the Texas of fantasy – everything’s bigger – if Texas was a continent-spanning empire peopled with eight foot tall, invincible warriors, Houston burning down, Dallas decimated by plague, Tim Duncan (famous San Antonio basketball player) ascending to super-mortal status and slaying dinosaur-sized ravenous dogs, and mad wizards running rampant through Waco.

Come to think of it, this is a Texas I can get behind. Can we make this happen?

Anyway, Erikson keeps this insane contraption running through thousands and thousands of pages, with the operatic pathos plowing full steam through people’s souls, but just enough jokes and sidelong glances to convince me that he is utterly self-aware about the whole thing. Every time I think Erikson’s maxed out the chaos, he finds another dial marked “EPIC” or “AMAZEBALLS” to crank up. In the wrong hands (*cough* Michael Bay *cough*), it would all just be tiresome. With Malazan? Tremendous fun. It’s about time someone tossed out close European analogues and blew everything up. If we can make all of our own rules, why not go crazy? Why not push everything to the logical and narrative limit? Isn’t this why we read fantasy after all? Jose maintains that this is the whole reason the genre exists, and he will fight and die on this hill. We read fantasy for the jaw-dropping moments that turn our brains to jelly, the instant when horizons explode out past anything we’ve dreamed of prior, and the scenes of our wildest imaginings put down on paper. Or at least I do. Named swords and lost princes are cute, but I think it’s my right to demand more.

More in this case is Malazan, and it’s probably something every fantasy grognard should read. It is not however one of those places that any reader would want to visit. Malazanians must breed like rabbits to maintain the population, since the average lifespan in this place is about seventeen minutes. The series might have the highest horrible deaths per capita of anything I’ve read. Yes, yes, Game of Thrones, GRRM killing everyone, I know, I know. My understanding though is that he mostly targets people’s favorite characters. Erikson is more indiscriminate, randomly torching, plaguing, butchering, or magicking entire cities. The body count (and detailed descriptions thereof) may not be to everyone’s liking. That aside, it’s maniacally entertaining stuff. High level to be sure, since the reader is thrown to the wolves with no, “As you know, Bob…” breaks to catch anyone up, but a landmark bit of writing.

I will probably write more about this as I get closer to knocking out the whole ten books. There’s lots to say, especially if I turn the spoiler filter off. I’ll leave it here for now and hope that other readers sound off with comments that spark scintillating conversation.

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3 thoughts on “The Bonehunters

  1. NO! We are done with the GRIMDARK thing, no more arguments on what it means. DONE.

    I have only read Gardens of the Moon. Strange thing though, my review gets Google hits every damn day. Must be a series that was going strong before bloggers were big enough to take all the web space.

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