Here I give my personal interpretation of an argument about Malazan that is again given a different explanation, as well ramble on general considerations about what happens to very big book series that are written across many years. It’s once again converted from a forum discussion.
“GOTMism” is a term being used when the plot in “Gardens of the Moon” is not completely coherent with the story told in the rest of the series. Often readers explain these problems as “retcons” and motivate them with the gap of years between the writing of the first book in the series and the rest. Including the idea Erikson improved as a writer. I was never totally persuaded by these explanations and over time I built my own explanation that seems to me more logical and complete. One aspect, for example, is that I read “This River Awakens”, written before GotM final version, and I found prose of a quality than in my opinion substantially exceed that of GotM. So the idea of Erikson “massively improved as a writer” didn’t go quite well with the fact his first book is so absolutely excellent. Yet you still can feel a significant improvement going from GotM to the following, Deadhouse Gates. The writing does improve. The other aspect of why the retcon idea isn’t exhaustive is that events weren’t simply incoherent with how the plot was explained later on, they remained incoherent even when examined in isolation. Some stuff in GotM doesn’t make a lot of sense even when you consider just GotM as a context. So it’s not just a case that can be written of as a “change of mind” on the part of the writer.
So my explanation is different, I think the Malazan series went through different stages, as it happens with oversize, ambitious projects, and you can see those effects directly in the books.
Here I try to mix a forum post where I wrote my interpretation and explanation of what usually appears as an inconsistency, leading to some overall considerations on how the whole series is written and is shaped, and how it evolved.
Tayschrenn: Can someone remind me what is was that he did in the battle of Pale, revealed in MoI, that showed that he wasn’t actually trying to kill Malazans/Bridgeburners as previously suspected?
It’s a retcon, really. I think the excuse was that he thought the tunnels were safe but it could be classified as a GotM-ism.
That’s too much a tangle of plot for a completely satisfying explanation, but not really a retcon. The thing “mostly” makes sense, but it’s still rough and poorly executed. Lots of those characters swap positions behind the scenes and their motivations aren’t well explained.
I think I was able to give it an overall sketchy explanation in the Tor re-read, and that explanation was later confirmed by Erikson. Though I don’t remember exactly how it worked.
Tayschrenn’s position changes with the arrival of the adjunct (soon after the siege), so you see the contradiction of the character because there was an actual change of tasks. The Bridgeburners DID plan to replace Laseen on the throne with Whiskeyjack, so initially it was true that Laseen was against them and gave Tayschrenn the order to continue the purge. Those purges (that were actually triggered by Paran, indirectly) were required by Laseen to seize control, since her rule was of course not legitimate and pretty much no one in the army was loyal to her. They were all loyal to the previous emperor. Only later Laseen realized she couldn’t fight against the whole empire, and had instead to try winning their favors. She’s very paranoid, but not a fool.
It’s then Dujek that later tries to convince Wiskeyjack that Tayschrenn is not an enemy. So he might have been half lying for pragmatic reasons, or maybe it was Tayschrenn that managed to convince Dujek (who himself didn’t know of the Bridgeburners plan to replace Laseen).
My logic is Kalam’s plan was to replace Laseen with Whiskeyjack. That’s why one of the pebble was supposed to open a portal and bring over both Quick Ben and Whiskeyjack. But at that point the Bridgeburners on Genabackis side were in a deep mess with the Crippled God and Kalam too was in deep trouble and had to use both the pebbles before reaching Laseen (and Laseen wasn’t even there because she tricked Kalam). So during both MoI and DG the situation evolved so much that the plan couldn’t happen anymore.
The only tiny hook for this explanation is the very last two pages of Gardens of the Moon (and the general theme of Dune-like “plans within plans within plans” that is QB’s mantra, essentially, being always one step ahead). Go back and reread them. That plan is never mentioned again because it was just between Quick Ben and Kalam (since Whiskeyjack would never agree to send a squad to kill Laseen and claim the throne, their idea was to do everything on their own and then just toss the throne in Whiskyjack’s lap so that he couldn’t turn down the offer at that point, the empire without a ruler would be such a mess that WJ’s honor would have tied him to the throne as a sense of responsibility), and because its conditions change so much during DG that basically it only remains implicit. We only know Kalam was there to kill Laseen, and then decided not to for the reasons explained in the book. It’s only logical, but not explicitly told, that the plan couldn’t stop there. They had to have an idea about who should replace Laseen on the throne, and WJ, with the crippled leg and everything, made the perfect candidate. He was ready to become a leader instead of just a soldier.
It’s kind of weak storytelling when such an important sub-plot that drives most of the story through one book is so poorly referenced (the whole plan is implicit). But it’s a symptom of how Erikson worked: he already had the story in his mind, so it makes sense to him when he writes, but sometime he has a poor sense of what important information he didn’t pass to the reader. Scenes (and motivations) he knows happened between characters but that never directly appear in the book. That’s the actual big problem of GOTM: Erikson knows the story so well because he had it all so long in his mind that he consequently has a very poor grasp of what is there and what is missing in the actual books. What he wrote about is only a part of what he knows, and while writing he often lost track of what would be the exclusive reader’s perception. GOTM is like 30% stuff that happens in the actual book and 70% behind the scenes that is only tangentially referenced or completely missing. The rest of the series instead is built more and more directly on the stuff in the actual books (original material), and less behind the scenes (the world and history they built before the idea of the book series happened).
This does affect the quality of the book and contributes to lots of perceived problems. Including problems with characterization as you have so many characters with their own pre-existing history and yet a very quick and partial presentation that bypasses almost completely their motivations and personality (what drives 90% of other books). There’s a very perceivable lack of context. That presentation is too sparse, too weak, ultimately leading to a sense of plot moving without a clear logic. Stuff that just happens for no reason, and no emotional impact because you can’t actually engage with it.
*BUT* I don’t think this happens as just a direct consequence of Erikson suddenly becoming a better writer. I think this happens because of structural reasons on how the books are written. GotM was a book conceived to be based on a pre-existing world with its already established rich history. It was not a world built FOR a book series, it was a world converted to one. GotM moved from being a game-world to a movie script and only in its last stage it transformed into a book. A world invented for other reasons, crammed into a book. That means Erikson had to select what scenes to write about, what leave as background, and how. Some stuff is in, most of it is left out. This context changes as the series progresses, from the second book onward Erikson follows a clear outline, but the bulk of the material he works with becomes increasingly original, created and controlled specifically for the book. If GotM is an “adaptation”, as it happens when a movie is converted to a novel, the rest of the series is work conceived specifically as a book series.
The first few books are based on such a tangle of plot and behind the scenes, that are instead explicit in Erikson’s mind since it’s the bulk he worked and played on for such a long time, and the result is that lots of stuff is poorly explained or not given enough importance even if it moves important plots. As the series progresses we see progressively less pre-existing material, and so there’s also progressively less reliance on stuff that happens behind the scenes and that Erikson gives for granted even if IT IS NOT.
And that’s why, while GotM suffers because of those reasons, it also has that unique flavor of “pre-existing history” and in medias res story that the rest of the series tends to lose. You gain something but you lose something too. The story you read in the following books is the bulk of what’s needed, of what does exist. There’s less a sense of a vaster world that lives on. And of course this happens for practical reasons. When Erikson started writing he had this big world already built and established, he only had to cherry pick what to write about. A majority of scenes already existing that only had to be “adapted” on the page. But as the series progresses he relies more on original material, ideas that go directly in the writing. With a fast release pacing for every book he obviously didn’t have time for off-the-book worldbuilding, so what you read in the books becomes almost the totality of the “canon” of this fictional world. It goes all in. If GotM is a slice of a big story/world existing in Erikson’s mind, from DG onward Erikson pours all of his creativity directly on the page, there’s not anymore as much stuff that is left out.
It’s interesting because while Erikson gives up to the idea of continuosly building a world off the page and settles for just the bland illusion of it, instead GRRM, being more of an obsessive perfectionist, never gives up. But at the same time, as already discussed, he had a growing sense of frustration wasting hours of work on world-building off the page, taking away actual work on the book writing itself. And his “solution” was instead of broadening the scope (book 4 onward) to include all that side-material right into the book series. And we know the results. If Malazan gives up on some of that complexity, ASOIAF instead embraces it, and chokes on it. If Malazan “converges”, ASOIAF explodes out and we can argue whether or not Martin will ever be able to draw it all back neatly enough.
No solution is actually “better” than the other, but you can see how one has to deal with the pragmatic troubles of building a really big series.