Monday 29 December 2014

Saying Goodbye to The Malazan Book of the Fallen

For the last four years of so, I have been working away on as a re-reader for the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. This was the year we completed reading the main series of ten novels, and these were my thoughts overall on the series.

I have no idea what to write. Seriously. I guess I shall tell you the story of this reread for me.

It’s that long ago that I don’t know if you remember this was originally supposed to be a reread for Bill and Stefan Raets - two people who had read the series a number of times and wanted to go through it again in depth for Bill, Stefan and I were all reviewers for at the time and, when Stefan unexpectedly had to drop out of the reread, Bill asked other Fanlit reviewers if they were interested in taking part.

At the time I was an upstart young book blogger, trying to make a name for myself and get involved in the community, and I said yes, without thinking about it. I knew it was a series of books I wanted to read and, honestly, how hard could it be? I also found out I would be paid for every post I made, and basically my day was made - being paid to read fantasy fiction? What a dream, right?

And then we started the reread.

And I (sorry, Steven, don’t look) HATED the first few chapters of Gardens of the Moon. I genuinely thought about pulling out of the reread, because how could I possibly engage with TEN novels of this dense, wordy, confusing writing that didn’t tell me ANYTHING. I didn’t know who these characters were, I had no idea what events we had fallen into, and what the hell were warrens?

I was a reader used to being handheld through fantasy, used to my authors not trusting me to make it on my own and giving me everything I needed to immerse myself. Suddenly I felt like I did when I first learnt to swim - terrified of drowning at every point.

But I didn’t drown then. And I didn’t drown in the reread either (thanks a great deal to Bill, and being able to read his wise commentary and summaries). I was nudged in the right direction when I got completely lost and sometimes allowed to splash merrily in the shallow end to help me get my confidence back up if I’d been through a troublesome section.

Also? I didn’t realise how much work it would take. Truly. For a normal chapter post, I will spend at least four hours on it. For a post where I have to do the summaries as well, it gets even longer. This was never easy - it was something I had to fit into my week all the time. And, as someone who soon took on a job as a slushpile reader and then as an editor, it meant my life involved a lot of activities that took up a lot of my time. But I’m not whinging. Because I know what Bill juggles, while still fitting this reread into his life. And he has been an absolute hero for taking on the bulk of the chapter summaries.

Anyway, partway through Gardens of the Moon, something changed for me. I wasn’t understanding it much better, but I was learning patience and trust. And that is the first point I want to make in terms of what I have taken out of this series: I now have a lot more patience when reading novels. I allow a story to unfold. I enjoy language for the sake of it. I appreciate the building blocks of story. Erikson gave me that.

I then discovered my affection was growing for certain characters. It’s Anomander Rake for me, back then and now, and forever. He became the character I waited to see on the page all the time. His first entry into the series still sends shivers down my spine. When we see him as the mighty dragon in the last convergence of Gardens of the Moon, I was beside myself with love. You know you always have that character who, no matter what else happens, never get displaced from your number one spot? He’s mine.

And that is pretty incredible to say in a series that has such dominant, memorable and fantastic characters. All written in shades of grey; all with realistic reactions and motivations; all with moments of humour and tragedy.

And so we eventually reached the end of Gardens of the Moon, and embarked on Deadhouse Gates, and I was lost to this series. I cried at a book for the first time in a long time. I recognised the sublime storytelling, that was building in layers. But before all of that, I was frustrated anew at Erikson - new characters? What about the old characters who I loved? Who are these new characters and how can I possibly love them as much as the ones from…. oh, I do love them. I love them hard. I am crying for their lives and what they achieved.

Personally, as an army brat, a lot of the military aspects of these novels absolutely resonated with me. I don’t think I’ve read soldiers written as accurately as I’ve seen here. When I was in the audience of a panel where Steve spoke about his favourite novels, it came as no surprise to hear that they were more military in focus, particularly books dealing with Vietnam.

The gallows humour of these soldiers; their frustrations with their commanding officers; their attitudes to children (protecting them above all) - all of it was something I’d experienced while living the military life over in Germany. For that reason, the novels became very special to me.

During the time we have worked on the reread, I took up the position of editor as Strange Chemistry and, more recently when that came to an end, become a freelance editor. And I can safely say that Erikson’s writing has helped me be a better editor. For one, it has allowed me to take a lighter touch when required in some edits. Or recognised that particular storylines might not seem to fit immediately into the novel, but that, when taken with another plotline, are absolutely crucial.

Over the years I’ve been reading Malazan, I have been to a number of conventions and been a panellist a few times, and it seems that, no matter the subject, I have been able to bore at a world class level on exactly how the Malazan novels achieve what other fantasy novels don’t touch on. I’m on a panel about how classic myths can be utilised in fantasy? Malazan. I’m on a panel about how sex is portrayed in fantasy? Malazan (with the added extra that rape is not used as a gratuitous method of punishment, but is considered, and the consequences are represented). On a panel about magic systems in fantasy, and how there never seems to be anything new? Malazan.

When on panels about the quality of writing, and choice of words, and challenges in reading - I hold up Malazan.

Worldbuilding. Writing technique. How history can be presented in fantasy novels. Subverting tropes. Grimdark AND nostalgic fantasy in one series? All of this happens with this stunning series of books.

Yes, I have bored many, many, many people with my passion for these books. I’ve quoted from them. I’ve told other people they HAVE to read them. And I’ve put down money for the Subterranean Press special editions. Why did I buy these special editions? Because the books are special. Because the reading experience is special. And because this re-read has been fucking special.

Yep, I come to our motley gang of commenters. Without you cheering us on, Bill and I would not have had the same fun. Without you arguing, and discussing, and shedding light, and presenting possible new theories, I would have been reading in a vacuum - and that would have been terrible when dealing with the Malazan books. They are made for book clubs, for discussion, for sharing, as far as I am concerned. So I thank you all for your contribution.

Lastly, a few favourites:

Favourite character: Anomander Rake
Favourite Bridgeburner: Fiddler
Favourite duo: Tehol and Bugg
Favourite funny character: Kruppe
Favourite tragic character: Beak
Favourite dragon: Silchas Ruin
Favourite god: Cotillion
Favourite frustrating dick: Quick Ben
What do you mean, that is just a cunning way to get a whole heap of favourite characters, rather than just having to pick one?? I can’t do favourites, I’m afraid. Just know I love every part of every one of these books.