So. In my last post, I mentioned a lack of commentary on the genre as a whole. I have only just started to begin my own, this is all fledgling stuff, but I thought it would be a good idea to start commenting on some of the notable books in the last few years, what’s great, what’s not, and maybe even comment a bit on some of the overrated stuff floating about. I know some of my rambles – seen in the first three posts, were a smidgeon long (ha) so I’ll be brief, promise.
First and foremost: Steven Erikson and his epic Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. What is there *not* to say about this ridiculously talented man? His series redefines the concept of ‘epic’ in ways no other series possibly can. I don’t simply think he’s the best of our time, or that he’s ahead of the rest, I think he’s the best there has ever been and not just by a little – this isn’t something I had to wrangle about endlessly in my mind, he is simply leagues ahead of anyone else. It’s almost embarrassing. I can’t possibly begin to tell you all about his magnificent behemoth of a series, not here, not in brief, so I’ll settle for discussing what I love most about his work.
What Erikson reveals in his sprawling, schizophrenic storytelling, is the conceit of modern fantasy narration. In most fantastic literature we have huge, foreign worlds filled with enormous scaled conflict, with vastly different cultures and religious beliefs (you would hope) and generally a whole lotta unknowable shit. And yet, despite all that, the protagonists of most of these books seem to have it all figured out – the antagonist is revealed to them early on (through an overheard conversation, prophecy, cryptic message, outright attack/war) and their path is almost always easily discernible.
What I love most about Erikson’s work is what everyone else pretty much hates: the confusion, the manic storytelling and character shifts — so much happens without explanation, so much of consequence occurs without it being immediately known (if ever) and when you think about it, that’s only logical. Here we have one of the largest worlds I’ve ever encountered, one of the most detailed and different and sprawling cast of characters (there must be an easy 200) – what is the likelihood that all of these characters would know of all the events of consequence?
What is the likelihood that they would be able to retrieve that kind of information in any kind of time to be able to affect change? Why should they be doing things in a linear narrative fashion following an easy to understand plot line? For your convenience? Well, fuck you. That’s what Erikson does for fantasy. He gives one big fuck you to the conventions, to the narrative coddling so prevalent in fiction and fantasy today.
Think about it. It’s not like today where there is a constant stream of news that we’re easily able to retrieve and remark on. Even better, some of those epic events mentioned have far ranging subtle impacts that only manifest years down the track, in ways you’d never expect or imagine and some of those events are so minuscule to begin with, it’s astonishing to watch the cascading ripple effect – nothing is left untouched by Erikson. So at first glance, all is chaos and no one knows shit — and it is so, so, so fucking refreshing because when you have gods, demi-gods, ascendants, high mages, hundreds and hundreds of cadre mages and different magics (warrens), along with roving armies attacking one another, for different reasons, from different ages – if anyone had the slightest fucking clue what was happening, or if anyone said,
“I know what all this means! It means we have to go over to the Very-Important-Mystical-Location and turn off the tap someone left on!”
You would just shake your head and say, ‘Bullshit.’ It’s a marvellous thing he’s done, to present this chaos, this thousand-stream convergence of character stories and yet never lose control, never seem like he doesn’t know what’s happening. You can’t help but look upon the rest of the genre, including old favourites, and think how little sense it makes for everything to be so clear to the characters — there is entirely too much certainty in too much fantasy. Too many authors bend the rules. And this is the biggest whine readers have about this astonishing work – “Oh, it’s confusing.”
Aww diddums. Go back to Harry Potter. Go back to The Sword of Shannara or David Eddings. Go back to something that is safe and conventional and follows comfortable patterns you’re familiar with. I’ve recently come across a thread about this on Absolute Write and I was astonished and horrified to see this masterpiece referred to as a copy of D’n’D – what utter garbage. I actually felt sick to my stomach to see such limited understanding, and this seemed based off the fact that he had a character cast of hundreds and the readers never got the time to get “attached” to any one character.
It is a mark of superb characterization to be able to capture the essence of someone through action, through dialogue and through minimal exposition. Erikson does it again, and again, and again. What is so impressive about this series isn’t just that it outweighs every other in scope (by leagues) or that it’s filled with spectacular, wonderfully different characters that speak with markedly different voices and have startling different worldviews (like real people, don’tcha know) and ideologies or that it’s narrative structure is brilliant in it’s refusal to bow to simple conventions and one-dimensional plot-lines or that the magical system is delightfully strange and inextricably organically linked to the world and the way it functions (it’s not just a ridiculously bloated fanciful system dumped on to a world with no apparent link between cause and effect, natural formations, socio-political growth or cultural identity).
No, none of that which is done better than any other could possibly hope to achieve, none of that is what impresses me most. It’s the style and the realism — at face value, even the hardiest of fantasy fans should be shaking his/her head at the kinds of notions Erikson deals with, but Erikson’s brilliance is in using a mishmashed style containing most of the elements of the New Wave – dark, witty humour laced throughout; concept of evil as human corruption and error; vivid violence and unrelenting action; gritty, flawed characters in a gritty, flawed world -but he employs that style within a world as detailed and dense as our own but on a scale that is definitely epic and old.
He combines the best of both worlds, with an ever expanding but fully fleshed cast with ever diverging stories that create this incredibly complex tapestry and more, more than that — it is not just random, it is all part of what is gradually dawning to be one spectacularly intricate story that spans thousands of years (given it explores the impacts of certain ancient, monumental events today). His work is like the ocean — huge and placid seeming but with millions of unknown creatures and undercurrents that we can’t see working beneath the surface and thus able to break out into a ‘spontaneous’ storm capable of drowning away civilization in an instant, before returning to dormancy as the tides and currents shift and change once more.
Is it perfect? No. It is too purple at times, a touch self-indulgent, and a little too overtly preachy in getting certain metaphors across at ‘meaningful’ moments. But it’s the closest fucking thing to it that we’ve got, that’ll we’ve ever had and likely ever will – it is THE epic. And it is without peer.
Something else that I adore about this 10, 000 page monster (I made that number up but I’m pretty sure it’s close to that) is that I cannot recall even once being able to predict the outcome of a scenario — he managed to always surprise me and this, from someone who can generally give you the entirety of a plot from merely reading the blurb.
Richard Morgan’s ‘The Steel Remains’ –for a detailed explanation of why see my first and third posts (mostly third). However, I really did like the war aspect of the story – the idea for the veteran of the war, who already built a legend via the “great struggle” of his time and his trying and failing to match that legend is great. Very cool concept.
Another book that doesn’t live up to it’s potential is N. K. Jemisin’s ‘A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ (Inheritance series) – she has some great, interesting concepts (homosexual gods, for instance) for sure but her confusing narrative structure quickly became more irritating than intriguing (flickering between her future, dying self and her current, thriving self) and for me, didn’t really add anything to the story. Rather it felt like a thinly veiled attempt to stretch and cover a lack of substance – there’s plenty there, no doubt, but the simplicity of the story would have worked wonders had it been told without artifice. As it is, it feels a little contrived, which is a shame.
Overrated Authors of the Day: Patrick Rothfuss/George R. R. Martin
As per my promise to keep this short, stay tuned for my upcoming explanation re: Rothfuss and Martin.