Some Thoughts on Malazan Book of the Fallen

January 26, 2024

I just finished a very, very, very long read of Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series. This is the second-longest series I have every read, second only to The Wheel of Time. But Malazan stands out as perhapas the most unusual, most unique, and most impactful series I have ever read. It has been a long time since a piece of writing made me think this much. Allow me to explain...


It's long. Hella long. 11,000 pages across 10 books. 3.4 million words (over three Harry Potters, 7 Lord of the Rings, and 0.8 Wheel of Times). And it's not just pulp fiction that allows you to churn through a book in a week if you have the time: it is dense. At my very fastest reading pace between jobs, with no commitments during a dark, rainy couple of weeks, I think I finished a book in three weeks. And it was exhausting. Fast readers might pull off a month per book, slower early on.


It all starts with prose: Erikson might be an Ent. He rumbles along, describing characters, settings, historical events, personal backstories, historical events, and internal philosophical monologues almost in spite of the reader. You're along for the ride, but only if you run alongside the tracks, match the train's pace, and jump onto the caboose like some early 1900s vagabond. And you'll spend the next 11,000 pages fighting your way up to the engine, Snowpiercer style. The magic system, geography, races, names, cities, streets, command structures, transportation, and more all show up with the barest explanations. You will become a detective, figuring out what's going on almost purely through context clues. Upon writing that, I'm not sure that sounds that great, but trust me, if you love a rich fantasy universe or a reading challenge, it's an immensely satisfying way of digging deeper and constantly proving that Erikson really has thought all of this out.


The sheer breadth of the magic system, civilizations, races, timespan, food, characters, major events, battles, gods, and realms of this series is genuinely breathtaking. As in you will run out of breath just trying to explain the breadth, let alone listing everything in any of those categories. At the end of each book, you assume that the series can't possibly sprawl any further, or tease another mystery, or expose another layer of complexity... until the next book does. And then the next book does it again. And again. Literally until you reach the final book. The breadth of Malazan makes the Silmarillion look like the Hobbit.


I do not trust authors implicitly. This review, and of course the Malazan series itself, promises a lot. Enough that I mistrusted the author, even with the lofty recommendation of a close friend. I've read a lot of broken promises: A Song of Ice and Fire. The Name of the Wind (and the sequel). So I understand that sometimes authors bite off more than they can chew. The Wheel of Time (which I read partially as a shibboleth of commitment to epic fantasy series) doesn't break promises, but the original author did pass away before he could finish it and a lot of plot threads were severed or lubricated to make a clean ending.

So I naturally assumed that Erikson would cut some corners by the 8th, 9th, or 10th book. I thought loose ends would bother me at the end of Malazan the same way they did at the end of so many other series, where nitpicks and issues can easily tarnish my memory. Maybe it's the hundreds of hours and couple of years of reading time manifesting as some kind of sunk-cost Stockholm syndrome, but Malazan didn't cut corners. (I did take breaks with The Expanse, Hyperion, The Broken Earth Trilogy, and a whole bunch of history books, so it's not like I only read Malazan this whole time; doing that for two years might genuinely give you Stockholm syndrome)

But I can say that Malazan satisfied me in a way that few series ever have. The ending is not without its flaws; some plots end on a much happier note than I would ever have predicted, and not everything gets wrapped up in a neat bow. But I walked away form the second epilogue with a sense of content and finality I rarely get from a book series. It reminds me the most of finishing The Hobbit when my age still numbered in the single digits; I could barely believe just how much story, creativity, and universe I had just witnessed. And it reminds me of when I finished Anathem in my early teens, a book whose invented language and philosophy represented a huge leap past the James Patterson pulp I'd been devouring throughout middle school (bonus points to young me for reading an ebook copy that lacked the appendix defining Stephenson's invented words).

This is the thing that really convinced me that Malazan is something special, something more than just another epic fantasy: I felt like I had just finished literature. Something at a higher level of writing than any other fantasy book or series I have ever read. I haven't read all of Infinite Jest, Finnegan's Wake, or Ulysses, but I suspect the feeling is similar.


Empathy and compassion are deeply important to the core conflict of Malazan. You can tell how much Erikson believes in that core argument because of the sheer number of perspectives presented throughout the series: according to highly reputable online source JaminJedi, 453 separate POV characters.

Some characters seem interchangeable, such as the large number of soldier POVs that are used in aggregate to present battles, troop movements, and tensions. In these mosaic slice-of-life scenes, we bounce between different characters every few paragraphs, often spending less than a page per character. But the combined thoughts, words, and views of each character produces something richer than a commander going over a battle plan or even a single scene where one character moves around the troops. This feels like a new level of character writing I've never experienced before: instead of just writing individual characters (which Erikson absolutely does, don't worry), he's also characterizing groups of characters. And just wait until you get to the banter -- some of Erikson's best group writing happens in duos of two characters, be they friends, enemies, lovers, or all of those things combined.

Some characters show up early in the series and stick around for the full 10 books (don't worry, I won't spoil who). The grow, they change, and you find yourself rooting for them -- good or evil (not that anyone is truly evil in this series -- like ASoIaF, everything is about shades of grey).

Some characters provide a POV for a single scene, then disappear, never to be heard from again.

And sometimes you don't even know which character provided a perspective. Hard to imagine, I know. But it does happen (only occasionally -- and you can usually figure out who it was later on from context clues).

I've read a lot of books that use perspective to tell stories through more than just one set of eyes and ears (or one omniscient narrator's not-eyes and not-ears). But the empathy you develop for so many different characters across so many different cultures and worlds in this series is something else. And when you get scenes from the perspective of multiple characters, you're forced to reassess exactly what happened in the scene (if you've ever tried reading ASoIaF's Boiled Leather reading order and you gained a whole new perspective on Sam and Jon's interactions, you'll know a tiny bit of what I'm talking about -- that sort of thing happens a lot in Malazan).

The sheer number of POVs was a big challenge for me. It's hard to keep the characters straight when you jump between them so often. It's tough to get to know anyone individually, to build that emotional connection in just a few paragraphs. But don't worry: you have plenty of time to get used to it over 11,000 pages. One piece of advice? Try to read entire chapters at a time, they're almost always meant to be read all at once to convey a common theme and message. I know it's hard to believe that that's possible with so many POVs, and it's tough to keep reading the full chapter length if you're reading in bed and getting sleepy, but I promise, it's worth it. Remember that the scenes with the marines are almost always a big mosaic of what's happening in the entire military group and you'll wrap your head around it eventually.

Anyway, there's a huge amount of characters in these books. And they're somehow all unique, thoughtfully explored, and full of rich detail that helps expand the universe even further than you thought possible. You can write the coolest magic scenes and the most epic battles imaginable, but you need an emotional core of characters to grant weight to those scenes.


So if you've made it this far and you love epic fantasy (or just great fiction), give Malazan Book of the Fallen a try. You may wonder what the hell the titles means; you'll figure it out (at least twice, if not three or four times) eventually. I promise that it is a good name for the series, and you'll probably like it too once you understand.

You will laugh. You will cry. You will get very frustrated about the things that Erikson doesn't explain in the first or second books (feel free to reach out for a low-spoiler magic explanation if this holds you back). I really think every fantasy fan should try this series. It is something truly new (if something written from 1999-2011 can be called new), truly delightful, and worthy of being called the first epic fantasy literature I have ever read.

Special shoutout to Tor for their AMAZING Malazan Reread of the Fallen blog series, which provides a spoiler free summary, first-time reader reaction, and re-reader reaction to every single chapter of every single book of the series. Bill and Amanda did a monumental amount of work with this series and really helped me get a grip on the series when I was confused early on (and made sure I didn't miss any subtle plot points later on!).

PS: But maybe read the other big fantasy series first -- I'm midway through Mistborn now, and even though I like it, it is hard to measure up to the writing and scope of Malazan and I fear I might have broken my fantasy-reading brain.

PPS: If you try Gardens of the Moon and just find it too damn confusing because of the dozens of POVs, seriously consider picking up House of Chains. The first HALF of the book is all one single continuous POV of a new character in a new location so you won't hit any serious spoilers and you'll get to ease yourself into Erikson's style without fitting all those crazy characters and POVs in your head at the same time.