Meaningless mind games, right? Devoid of significance. Nothing but self-indulgence, and for that vast audience out there – the whispering ghosts and their intimations, their suppositions and veiled insults and their so easily bored minds – that audience – they are my witnesses, yes, that sea of murky faces in the pit, for whom my desperate performance, ever seeking to reach out with a human touch, yields nothing but impatience and agitation, the restless waiting for the cue to laugh.

And so the Malazan saga ends… What? This 360k fat tome wasn’t the great finale? You say there are four more, even fatter books (and more)? That’s impossible because the whole world already fits comfortably into this book.

Oh, I’m sorry. It truly took me an insane amount of time to finish this one, and the book’s size, or its ambition, weren’t the cause. I just have an unexplainable compulsive habit that makes me delay the things I’m most invested in. A compulsive desire to accumulate and preserve the best stuff and lock it away in a treasure room for some later ideal time that never comes. And as with all compulsive habits, it takes a great amount of willpower and perseverance to defeat it, at least for a moment. I *have* succeeded a little, I’m up to Malazan #6, after all, and to add to that there’s Forge of Darkness and four novellas. But since reading this one book truly took me forever, it’s harder to gather all the pieces scattered through the months and *years*. I’ll try anyway to gather some thoughts, and then I’ll change the recipe, from now on (well, maybe).

This is Malazan #6, then. It marks the middle point of the overall cycle and its structure reflects it. It seems people’s opinions shift with time, but originally this specific book wasn’t a favorite among Malazan readers. The reason was that it had to gather everything from the previous five books, and not simply in a linear way because there are at least three separate “blocks” of story that until this point had been kept distinct within the confines of one dedicated book to each (more or less). So all five of these preceding volumes have to flow into this one, passing through a kind of choke point. And then readers also didn’t like that this volume doesn’t have a proper conclusion, as instead happened with the preceding ones. The overall impression was that this one was working like a transition, like an impossibly huge chariot that Erikson struggled to set once more in motion, so that it would then keep going for the second half of the series. A sort of typical middle book in a big series, that has to do the heavy lifting to reposition properly all the pieces and gain momentum once more.

But it’s not so rare that these days readers point at this one as their favorite book, instead, or close to the top. And that’s the book I actually read. The objective breadth of the thing indeed defies that of preceding books, but I didn’t notice a struggle. Page by page, right from the beginning, it feels Erikson is simply having fun, and that the movement, despite the load, is a breeze. As if he pushed aside all the pressure of having to lock together these two halves of this giant series and instead was focused on making the best of every scene. In my opinion, it has a vitality that is unprecedented and makes the most of what made the fifth book a different but good one. It’s… the first Malazan book, and the last. Maybe it’s not even a good thing, but I felt as if Erikson gave it all here. It didn’t feel like “let’s do a laborious, meticulous build up”, it felt instead as if Erikson went *all* in, without sparing anything. Who cares if there’s nothing left, this might as well be the last day on earth, give it all you have. Till the last drop.

As with all the greatest things, the context is reflected in content. Erikson knows the pressure of the series. That pressure is higher exactly at the middle point (and then again at the end, I guess). And Malazan pressure is of a kind that cannot be sustained by anyone. But that’s Malazan, the spirit. Going, with a mad grin, against all odds. And that’s why it’s fun. Because Erikson knows there’s no other way, it’s all a gamble. It’s all a leap of faith, invigorating and blissful. The brink of the world. And you cannot take it seriously. It’s important that you don’t take it seriously. This is the spirit of the characters, and the spirit I feel in the writing. It’s fun, it’s lively, it’s inspired. It doesn’t suffer at all for being a middle volume in a big series.

Things were not well. A little stretched, are you, Ammanas? I am not surprised. Cotillion could sympathize, and almost did. Momentarily, before reminding himself that Ammanas had invited most of the risks upon himself. And, by extension, upon me as well.

The paths ahead were narrow, twisted and treacherous. Requiring utmost caution with every measured step.

So be it. After all, we have done this before. And succeeded. Of course, far more was at stake this time. Too much, perhaps.

Writing, as in shadow. What you see is all there is, and the shadow warren is metaphor. A world that constantly shifts. Delicious metafiction!

Emerging from Shadowkeep, he paused to study the landscape beyond. It was in the habit of changing at a moment’s notice, although not when one was actually looking, which, he supposed, was a saving grace.

Concretely speaking, the structure is a mess. But why not? It works. Erikson seems to have recognized that fans liked the third book best, and so decided for a similar recipe. Instead of having a prolonged build-up, leading to a big convergence that ties everything together to blow it up all at once, here one can recognize two “apexes”, one coming relatively early in the book, and another to the end (but is not the end). But these two focus points aren’t actually accelerations that follow slow build up, because the rest of the book has a myriad of big events, high points that are worthy enough of a series finale, in different contexts. Something big is constantly going on. Cities explode, the sky falls. In Malazan it might as well be the routine, but not to say these events are downplayed or lack a relevant heft. It’s all a whirlpool of constant awe.

The structure is STILL a mess and the thing groans and wails under its pressure. You forget about characters, because they might as well disappear for 300 or more pages. They might return, perfectly timed, or maybe their personal journey is over in this book, you don’t know. But you also don’t care, because the attention is on what is present. In the moment. And that’s always fun or spectacular, or intense or troubling. Page by page, I don’t think anything is wasted here. It’s the specular opposite of bloat, it’s a compression of every story, of the whole world.

It might be a problem? It might as well be. This is compressed Malazan. All the things I know about Malazan. You can read around the internet complaints about all the “philosophizing” and I recognize a symptom here. The symptom is that all “big” Malazan themes return, from all the angles, all the different, ambiguous faces. I was joking at the beginning, but it does feel like this book *exhausts* itself. When you zoomed back the view to encompass the whole world there’s nothing left to say or see. This book circumnavigates the Malazan world. There’s nothing left to say, because everything is already contained. Between the lines or in the lines. Every digression is a conclusion. Full stop. Silence.

Rock was bone. Dust was flesh. Water was blood. Residues settled in multitudes, becoming layers, and upon those layers yet more, and on and on until a world was made, until all that death could hold up one’s feet where one stood, and rise to meet every step one took. A solid bed to lie on. So much for the world. Death holds us up. And then there were the breaths that filled, that made the air, the heaving assertions measuring the passing of time, like notches marking the arc of a life, of every life. How many of those breaths were last ones? The final expellation of a beast, an insect, a plant, a human with film covering his or her fading eyes? And so how, how could one draw such air into the lungs? Knowing how filled with death it was, how saturated it was with failure and surrender?

Heboric fought on against the knowledge that the world did not breathe, not any more. No, now, the world drowned.

Malazan triumphs and is most agile under pressure because Malazan already broke all the reasonable rules. This book has “flaws”, but because it refused to comply. You are on board or you aren’t, at this point. Malazan can only be judged in respect to Malazan. You can take different angles of analysis. I did, as usual. But I also realize it doesn’t matter. You’re either on board or you aren’t. Malazan taught me to think. To see the whole range, the breadth of the world.

Is characterization good? I’ve read along the years plenty of complaints about Malazan and characterization. There’s always some validity, but Malazan did change the rules. Here a character can be as well a comedic relief, and not much more. Does this give justice to the character? Nope. It doesn’t feel like a true character, it doesn’t feel true. It’s not perfectly grounded, it’s not perfectly believable, all-around. There’s a fantasy-like floaty-ness, of “let’s pretend”, and plots too neatly aligned for an effect. It betrays that necessary(?) feeling of solidity and meaningfulness. There’s plenty to analyze and criticize if you bring with you your categories and criteria. That matters too, but in the end Malazan refuses to comply. What I noticed is that this book uses characters as walls to bounce a ball. You might think this diminishes those characters, but it’s a way to hold up a wider story. Each bounce creates a contrast. When you move from a scene to another, somewhere else, you notice there’s a thematic link, that these scenes talk to each other, speak to the reader. It’s a ray of light bounced around, transformed in its color and angle. A contrast to show you, the reader. You don’t stay with a character. You go in, step out, plunge back in. It’s a constant, deliberate movement so that instead of *closing* the perspective, it opens another. That’s why I said it taught me to think, because it refuses to stay static and affirm itself. When point of view affirms itself, authority follows. Being inside a character can mean being walled in. Trapped in that manipulation. Malazan gives a feeling of sublimation, of transcendence, because those characters aren’t an end to themselves, but they build toward something more, explicitly, the reader. And this doesn’t feel like a betrayal to those character, it feels the need to find meaning in a world where there’s none. The famous “witness”. The book of the fallen.

The world, Ahlrada Ahn knew, was indifferent to the necessity of preservation. Of histories, of stories layered with meaning and import. It cared nothing for what was forgotten, for memory and knowledge had never been able to halt the endless repetition of wilful stupidity that so bound peoples and civilizations.

Muted, from the streets of the city outside, there rose and fell the sounds of fighting, of dying, a chorus like the accumulated voices of history, of human failure and its echoes reaching them from every place in this world.

There is nothing left to understand. This mad whirlpool holds us all in a grasp that cannot be broken; and you with your spears and battle-masks; you with your tears and soft touch; you with the sardonic grin behind which screams fear and self-hatred; even you who stand aside in silent witness to our catastrophe of dissolution, too numb to act – it is all one. You are all one. We are all one.

We are all one. One ray of light, distorted by perspective. You learn to think not when you close yourself in your point of view. Neither you do when you move within another, to get caged there. You learn when you step back, when you free yourself of those chains. Not to deny point of view, but to breathe deep and face whatever there is. Out of pure self-interest chained by necessity. Reality pushes you there into that unavoidable necessity, a book can make you step back and embrace something larger than your immediate howling needs. You cannot find meaning without creating it.

If Game of Thrones can feel like a brutal survival game where you just cross the names of those who die to see who survives to win what’s left, in Malazan who dies is more important than who survives. Eyes wide open. There’s only legitimate rage against an unjust world, and whatever momentary relief you salvaged. It’s already all fucking lost, all gone. And it’s because it’s all gone that it’s important you remember. That defiant look in the face of the impossibility is the purest Malazan’s soul. That mad challenge of Human versus God. Meaning versus emptiness.

Malazan #6 is easily the best book in the main series, because it builds on what came before and because it keeps delivering as if this were truly the Grand Finale. I’d still somewhat put Forge of Darkness on top, but because of personal preference for the writing and tone. FoD is Malazan, but also different. For this sixth book I was expecting a marathon that was going to validate itself at the end. Or a laborious climb necessary to reach lofty ambitions. I feel it’s the opposite. It constantly renews itself, page after page, line by line, it’s lively, *fun* to read and meaningful.

It also did take me up to book #6 to realize that Fiddler is a bard, and that “The Malazan Book of the Fallen” isn’t actually a book, but a song. (and, with Malazan, it’s never about the revelation, it’s about the implications)

One Comment

  1. “Malazan #6 is easily the best book in the main series, because it builds on what came before and because it keeps delivering as if this were truly the Grand Finale. I’d still somewhat put Forge of Darkness on top, but because of personal preference for the writing and tone. FoD is Malazan, but also different.”

    Always a treat to see your Malazan reviews. And based on the above quote, I can’t wait to hear about your reaction to Toll the Hounds, as I think in many ways it predicates the tonal shift going into Forge. As The Bonehunters is Malazan at it’s most compressed, TtH is Malazan in it’s rawest elemental form. Erikson steps into frame fairly clearly there, drawing aside the curtain and seeming to speak to us through the explicit use of a narrator, though he does give us little more than a peek. Erikson at his messiest (writing through the death of his own father) strikes on something primal and essential, conveying the immeasurable weight of grief, even though some would say that TtH is when Erikson really begins to get insufferably philosophical.

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