“There is no struggle too vast, no odds too overwhelming, for even should we fail–should we fall–we will know that we have lived.”
–from Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson
One of the peculiarities of my current job is that I have about one free hour per day during which I have no responsibilities and am thus able to read. Back in October, when I found myself temporarily out of books that interested me, I decided to turn to an unlikely source of inspiration: the epic fantasy genre. While I had once thought epic fantasy to be something I deservedly left behind in junior high school, the terrific HBO series Game of Thrones (adapted from the novels by George R.R. Martin) had reawakened my long-dormant interest in the genre, so I decided to seek out whichever series represented it at its contemporary best. The critical and fan consensus seemed to hold that Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen was the artistic peak of the genre, so I picked up the second volume of the series, Deadhouse Gates, and began reading. (It turns out I was lucky that the first book, Gardens of the Moon, was out of stock at the local bookstore. Written long before the rest of the series, Gardens is the weakest entry, lacking much of the depth and texture that characterizes the remaining volumes.)
Ten books (along with six novels by series co-creator Ian C. Esslemont, several novellas, a prequel trilogy in the works, and a sequel trilogy to come), about eleven thousand pages, and approximately three-and-a-half million words (not one of which is wasted) later, I have just closed the book on The Crippled God, the tenth and final entry of the series, and replaced it on a bookshelf now sagging and groaning under the combined weight of the Books of the Fallen. (The Crippled God was a book I found exceedingly difficult to read at work–toward the end, I kept having to put it down every few pages and take a break, lest I be seen sobbing in public.) Erikson’s series quickly grew to consume every waking moment of the past seven months of my life–when I wasn’t actively reading his books, I was daydreaming about them or scrolling through online discussions thereof. When others asked me why I hadn’t written any essays for this website for so long, I replied that Steven Erikson was to blame. (One other slightly unfortunate side effect is that Erikson’s books will render many readers incapable of appreciating any other epic fantasy–the Book of the Fallen is so good that everything else in the genre can only suffer by comparison.)
The purpose of this post is neither to review nor to analyze Erikson’s remarkable novels, but instead to persuade others–perhaps those who have never read epic fantasy, or those who have been interested in the genre but have no idea where to start, or even those who were apostates from the genre like I was–that the Book of the Fallen deserves attention not only as great fantasy, but also as a great work of literature, one of near-Shakespearean intellectual richness and density. What begins as a military fantasy about the exploits of an imperial army (not to mention countless other empires, nations, mercenaries, barbarian tribes, and religious orders; a vast pantheon of gods, ascendants, dragons, shapeshifters, demons, and other supernatural beings; and multiple non-human species and races) across several continents and dimensions on a world-saving mission, rapidly becomes a tragicomic meditation on whether mankind can redeem civilization, whether it can awake from the nightmarish cycles of history. Erikson’s true peers are not J.R.R. Tolkien or even George R.R. Martin but rather master stylists like Lucius Shepard and Gene Wolfe, whose works, like Erikson’s, should be noted for their deep and abiding concern with ethics and responsibility.
There are so many things that Erikson does extraordinarily well that he makes even a ten-volume epic look effortless. Erikson strikes a perfect structural balance between individual novels and the entire series, as each volume functions both as a relatively self-contained story, with a well-defined narrative and distinct thematic arc, and as a chapter in a much longer epic, one which is the among the most intricately organized works in the genre. (For example, the gradually-revealed historical chronology devised for the series dates back millennia. But as fans like to repeat to themselves, it’s best to keep in mind that “The timeline is not important.”) Once set in motion, his plots are ceaselessly compelling, but Erikson never sacrifices aesthetics for narrative momentum; on a sentence-by-sentence level, he is one of the finest writers in fantasy, with a precise, poetic prose style that is both muscular and elegant. He excels whether he is writing philosophical dialogues or interior monologues, witty banter and conversation (Erikson receives far too little credit for how hilariously funny he frequently is), vivid descriptions of setting, visceral action scenes, or sequences of gritty, often brutal violence.
The Book of the Fallen does not merely deconstruct fantasy cliches, it eviscerates them with an unprecedented level of verisimilitude and rigor. A former anthropologist and archaeologist, Erikson’s books reward one’s intellectual engagement with the humanistic themes woven throughout the immense tapestry of his text. First and foremost among these is a complex and profound ethical discourse, central to which is the ideal and the practice of empathy, the difficulty and the necessity of compassion. (I think Erikson would agree with the famous line from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” : “We must love one another or die.”) Erikson writes about friendship and love more convincingly and movingly than just about anyone. His massive cast of characters is admirably diverse and egalitarian, and his protagonists are unforgettable for their fierce likeability as much as for their realism.
But Erikson’s most impressive achievement might be this: he has restored the centrality of the epic to our literature. Sometimes fans like to ponder whose story Erikson is telling in his series, and it’s indeed difficult to discern who the central protagonist(s) might be among such an immense ensemble. This question, though, is missing the point. Like any great epic poet, Erikson is telling our story–that of humanity itself. If the title wasn’t already taken, one might just as easily call his masterwork War and Peace, but Erikson titled it the Book of the Fallen for a reason. It is emotionally wrenching throughout, as mortality hangs over each page; every moment of triumph and hope is thus so much more affecting because it feels earned. When Erikson draws together his narrative threads and themes at the climax of each book (and at the climax of the series), the effect is almost overwhelming.
To be sure, the Book of the Fallen is exhaustively long and complicated, especially for those unfamiliar with epic fantasy, but Erikson places enormous trust in the reader’s memory and intelligence. His series is also relentlessly, compulsively readable; intellectually thrilling; and emotionally gripping. Read it, and witness the great epic of the twenty-first century in the making.