Category Archives: Malazan

Despite loving Malazan and thinking it has no challengers for what it does within its genre, I also do think it’s weak on certain aspects.

I tried to explain as a mix of aesthetic joined with depth and meaningfulness. The same as you’d get when looking at densely decorated architecture, but where each single decoration isn’t meant to be merely beautiful to stare at, but also with a dense symbolism and meaning.

Games, books, movies or whatever else, if there’s support for deep mythology and where no detail is left to chance. This myth comes from Tolkien. It’s not just in service of “realism”, and so immersion, but also as a way to reward digging and discovering what’s hidden in that depth. It means engaging with the medium, being part of it, enjoying revelations and epiphanies in those rare occasions when everything locks perfectly together, or perfectly realigns to show a new perspective.

Looking for hints, have your mind making the connections, slowly getting closer to find a solution, or a compelling interpretation. This is all about complexity and detail worth having. A medium that matures and takes itself seriously.

A lot of what I tried to describe in abstraction is already possible in the Malazan we have. It part of what makes it really good. And it is also what Malazan has in common with the approach to the lore and storytelling in the “Souls” game, including and in particular with the latest: Bloodborne.

Bloodborne is that aspect of Malazan turned into game. That aspect of active entertainment. Where the medium demands and requires that you engage actively. The problem is: Bloodborne does it even better.

If you know very little or nothing about Bloodborne then here’s an article that will tell you about story and mythology:

I couldn’t avoid thinking that the whole of Bloodborne not only would fit perfectly in Malazan, but it would be exactly what “Night of Knives” could have been if it was pushed to its full potential. Night of Knives is that same story, only missing that particular “heft” that is instead fully realized within Bloodborne.

The basic structure of the town turned into hunting grounds and dream dimensions bleeding into reality during a special night (and the moon), is not only the common link between the book and the game, but also the manga “Berserk” by Kentaro Miura, that we know for sure has been a major source of inspiration for Hidetaka Miyazaki, the designer of Bloodborne. These three, Berserk, Bloodborne and Malazan go hand in hand (and of course heavily influencing all three is Lovecraft). The only difference is that Malazan swallows them in a much bigger picture. Yet the other two seize aesthetic and mythology, that smaller slice, and realize them even better.

Not to say Night of Knives is a bad book, but it falls shorts (very short) of that potential that was there. And I’m thinking of a potential that not even Erikson could realize.

So this is what I’m trying to point out: some of the ingredients that make Malazan great are ingredients that went into Bloodborne. Those aspects that come out even more clearly in Bloodborne. And what Malazan lacks when compared not to similar works, but when compared to its own ideal potential, is what instead a game like Bloodborne fully delivers.

(Non-spoiler) quotes from the recent QA about the series on Tor. Erikson’s own words:

Writing it felt like more than one lifetime: it felt like hundreds of lifetimes, all crowded into a single place and a single time.

I died and was reborn a thousand times in these ten novels, and I wonder now how many times a single soul can go through that.

I laid traps for you time and time again, pits for your unwary headlong rush – the plunge intended to make you feel whether you wanted to or not. With luck, you stepped into a few of those. If I was a god, I’d throw you into every one of them.

That last one is almost chilling (see in the context of the “Magus” recent quotes here on the blog). I have this idea that Erikson isn’t completely conscious of the implications of what he writes, yet he shows being so lucid.

I randomly bumped on this old Erikson interview. A couple of quotes:

The dialogue that I have written that I remain pleased about is generally the tersest kind. The massive understatement. The line with a hundred volumes hiding under it, pages ready to explode but all, somehow, held back, contained. Exchanges where all parties skirt around what’s really going on. Evasions and the like.

Well, that’s what I like reading indeed :)

1: Finish what you start.

2: When a scene drags, when it gets brutally hard to get out the next line, the next word; when blood starts beading on your forehead, don’t switch scenes, don’t shift characters, don’t do any of the running-away things you might be inclined to. Push through. Everything up to that point was the lead-up to this moment, and this moment is when you learn – you learn how to write, what it is to be a writer, and all the reasons you possess for being one. That tight, claustrophobic place, is your call to courage. Don’t evade, don’t back away, don’t shift laterally. Keep going, until it hurts.

3: Finish what you start.

I was looking at Subterranean Press limited editions of the Malazan books and being quite disappointed at the art there. But then I always am with that sort of stuff.

For fun I decided to describe what I’d instead put on the covers. I’m not an artist, but this is the sort of stuff I see in my mind and that I think would look great. Obviously just the first five books, because I’ve still to read the rest.

1- Gardens of the Moon. Well, Pale. Camera at the ground level, bottom up. You see at a distance Pale’s high walls, enough to give the walls some details and impressive scale. The cover should have a sense of verticalness to it. So the eye is drawn right at Pale’s walls, imposing, going upward. But then the impressive vista should escalate in scope as hovering above Pale you have Moon’s Spawn, maybe very slightly askew. So no characters on the cover, just a wide view of the scene, to focus on scale and scope. It should give a sense of disproportion, as if you cannot give a proper size to the elements in respect to each other. Sense of wonder.

2- Deadhouse Gates. Chain of Dogs. I’d go with top down, a look at a valley far below from an high point, the Chain of Dogs going through it. Not close enough to really detail people, just again giving a sense of scale at the long trail going through the dry land. Capemoths and stuff. Warm colors along with a sense of bleakness in the environment. Could even play with dust forming up a skull-like shape, in the background, but very subtle.

3- Memories of Ice. Just Kallor on his throne of bones, right in the center of the cover, arms open wide, hands too, but relaxed, as in welcoming. The layout should have a sort of curve to it. So that Kallor is almost facing the center of the cover, while the bottom part of the cover is through a top down angle. In this part, the three gods. K’rul in the center (bony, accusing finger pointed at Kallor), Draconus on left (I can’t remember if he has the sword already, if he does, let it drag behind, like a sack barely held by one hand), Nightchill on the right. All facing away, toward Kallor, from this slightly top down perspective to give the image some depth. The cover should be black & white (I’d love a strict ink style, no shading), with some slight/faint bluish highlights.

4- House of Chains. Oh, think of Hamlet holding the skull in his hand. Only that Hamlet is Karsa, and the skull is a poor Malazan soldier (looking like a child compared to Karsa’s bulk). The cover should be almost like a silhouette in black. On the right you see Karsa’s impressive sword thrust on the ground. No detail, just a black shape, slightly tilted and about as high as Karsa. It should dominate the view even if aside. Karsa should be with a knee down on the ground, a massive hand completely wrapping up the Malazan soldier’s head, helm still on (and the whole body still attacked, not just a head). The scale of the hand should be massive, dominating the comparably small head, as if about to completely crush it in his hand. The guy is dead, but Karsa is lifting him, so he’s as if upward, hanging from Karsa’s hold, just the feet and lower part of the legs dragging slightly aside on the ground. The height of the guy should be almost level with Karsa, who’s kneeling down though, so bringing the height ALMOST on the same level. Exception to the silhouette style is: the scene has some depth to it, Karsa slightly on the back, the soldier slightly on the front. One trick is: Karsa isn’t looking at the skull, but right through the cover, right at the camera. The scene should also have a sort of dichotomy that fits well as a theme. In the back you see a forest at dawn, mountains in the background, or some T’lan construction (as in the book). But a peaceful, warm colored scene. Then there’s a sharp cut, with Karsa and the soldier almost like a dark silhouette, so much darker, but enough to give them a lot of detail. Just lack of color. So you have these two different levels, the warm background, and the very dark foreground. With Karsa frowning at the camera.

5- Midnight Tides. That scene at the sea, where the massive thing comes out out the water. Something inspired to the third picture you see here. Scene again based on wide scale, slightly tilted for dynamism. Camera from the land looking out at the sea. Looking like something straight out of the apocalypse.

Okay, to hell with boundaries. I make a sport of this blog confusing everything with everything else.

Reading Malazan book 6 I found a quote that is basically the Malazan formulation of the Kabbalah quote:

The gods, old or new, did not belong to her. Nor did she belong to them. They played their ascendancy games as if the outcome mattered, as if they could change the hue of the sun, the voice of the wind, as if they could make forests grow in deserts and mothers love their children enough to keep them. The rules of mortal flesh were all that mattered, the need to breathe, to eat, drink, to find warmth in the cold of night. And, beyond these struggles, when the last breath had been taken inside, well, she would be in no condition to care about anything, about what happened next, who died, who was born, the cries of starving children and the vicious tyrants who starved them – these were, she understood, the simple legacies of indifference, the consequences of the expedient, and this would go on in the mortal realm until the last spark winked out, gods or no gods.

Here’s again the quote from Kabbalah:

(about the question “What is the meaning of my life?”)

“It is indeed true that historians have grown weary contemplating it, and particularly in our generation. No one ever wishes to consider it. Yet the question stands as bitterly and vehemently as ever. Sometimes it meets us uninvited, pecks at our minds and humiliates us to the ground before we find the famous ploy of flowing mindlessly in the currents of life, as always.”

Then I happened on this page (with some interesting nice pictures), and I found this quote that metaphorically matches the previous posts on Free Will and being bound to a point of view:

The descent of the divine emanations concretized in cosmic creation is occurring at this moment, and the fact that the world is such or such a thing, for the modern mentality, or that in accord with our viewpoint we perceive this or that, is completely indifferent to the process of the universal creation, which is ongoing, even visualized from the horizontal viewpoint, and simultaneous, from the vertical projection.

The interesting part is the formulation of the system as “simultaneous, from the vertical projection”. Meaning deterministic. There’s no time scaling. Yet experience from within, our viewpoint, is bound to time and seen as becoming.

So this aspects of Kabbalah seems to retain (and explain away) the problem of compatibilism.

Related, but only if you are a particular type of crazy like I am, here’s a page of David Foster Wallace’s personal copy of Joyce’s Ulysses. Showing how a text with bi-dimensional perspective is given three-dimensionality because of 2nd level (recursive) observations:

You’ve seen me before putting together the most disparate things, while keeping a straight face and a serious tone. So here’s a quote excised from a review of an anime about “magical girls”:

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of using animation – and paintings, and music, and words, and etc. – to paint not so much the reality of the world, but the essence of it. If we want to see what something truly looks like, we have pictures and video that can do that, but a Van Gogh still holds up because it shows the world as perceived through the artist’s mind. Enzo once referred to Shinkai Makoto’s work as “more real than real”, and it certainly is in the way he meant it, but to me that phrase has always most resonated when an artist deliberately paints the world not as it appears, but how it is. The truth behind it, not just the reality that we see.

If I manage to write a review of “A Dream of Wessex” by Christopher Priest you’ll see how I’m following a red line of mythological journey, across many mediums, cultures, religions, philosophies and so on. That quote is very pertinent.

The basis, or the structure, of this discussion is what I wrote in “The Throne of the Soul” recapitulation. But already in this quote here you should recognize the important element: Cartesian dualism. He describes two ideas, one is the world as “it appears”, and one is the world as it is revealed through “art”.

What’s interesting in that quote is how he makes the fundamental error of inverting the scheme. He makes the distinction between the reality of the world and its essence. And he turns the “more real than real” into the world as it appears and the “truth” behind it.

What is “art” if not “interpretation” of the real? In my partial analysis of Tolkien’s mythology I examined the part about how art is often seen as a god-like creation. The desire to be like the creator. Tolkien explains this as a natural instinct built into human beings. But this deliberate act of creation should be considered as artificial, not natural (or “true”). We do not take the world as it is, we take the world as we want it, reshaping it.

Where do human beings dwell? If “Reality” is out there, then it’s almost impossible for us to reach it. There’s a membrane we aren’t able to breach. Plato’s cave. But for us, living on “this other side”, reality is made of meaning. Of patterns, symbols. To live and understand reality we rebuild it in a form that makes sense to us. This produces an heightened sense of truth. It’s not “deeper”, it’s somewhat heightened. The “truth” behind the apparent reality reveals the truth of the human condition. Not universal truth, or objective, scientific truths, the world out there. It’s the world “in here”, the one you get caged in your head. The one you live in.

A writer, painter or musician, creates a world through a series of signs. This becomes a secondary, separate dimension. With its rules that must usually be consistent. Characters immersed in that world will have to shape their model of reality, interpret things happening around them. They might be poets, musicians, painters. In a delicious recursive self-reference.

All of this features prominently in Malazan, for example. The post-modern aspect is about the “awareness” of the context. Not of the “ceiling of the world”, meaning the boundaries of the artistic creation, but of the interplay of self-reference. Of the writer writing, of the context that contains the created world.

In Malazan this often creates a delicious, playful interplay filled with double-meaning. A scene can be entirely consistent with the level of plot and artistic “sealed” world. And yet it can still be “aware” of where it comes from. Of the “truth” behind the magical trick. Of the writer writing.

This is a scene from “The Bonehunters” that I bet Steven Erikson had lots of fun writing:

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.

Cotillion set off for the broken grounds opposite him. Two thousand paces, and before him was a trail leading into a gully. Shadows roiled between the rough rock walls. Reluctant to part as he walked the track, they slid like seaweed in shallows around his legs.

So much in this realm had lost its rightful … place. Confusion triggered a seething tumult in pockets where shadows gathered.

I’ve mentioned before, and now is likely public knowledge, that both Ammanas and Cotillion are sometimes used by Erikson to play with this post-modern layer. On the explicit level that quote is consistent with characters and the world, but from my point of view it reads like playful meta-commentary on the writing itself, especially at that point of the overall series.

Maybe Ammanas and Cotillion “roles” are inverted, but this is the book where Erikson has to pick up all the threads he left behind after five volumes. It’s the first real “convergence” on the series as a whole. So, “a little stretched, are you” reads like something Erikson is telling himself, after all that came before and the monumental task still ahead. “The paths ahead were narrow, twisted and treacherous. Requiring utmost caution with every measured step.” This is again the description of where he’s at, writing the story. Meta-commentary on writing the series, self-reflection.

“Ammanas had invited most of the risks upon himself. And, by extension, upon me as well.” This is also the point in time when Esslemont started to publish his own side of the series. So again, it works as meta-commentary. On the sharing of ambitions, and risks.

“So much in this realm had lost its rightful… place.” This may be again about all the things that changed in the course of five volumes. Both in the story and outside it, I guess.

So be it. After all, we have done this before. And succeeded. Of course, far more was at stake this time. Too much, perhaps.” And here the determination to do it regardless of risks. You definitely can’t hesitate when you’re about to start writing the sixth volume of a ten volumes planned series.

The Shadow realm itself, where Cotillion and Ammanas reside and “scheme”, has similar metaphoric qualities:

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.

It has this dream-like quality. A sort of WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is). Until things aren’t seen, they lurk in shadows, indistinct. Writing is the same. You put signs on a page. Until those signs aren’t written, nothing exists. And nothing else exists outside what is written. What You Write Is All There Is. The Observer makes reality. The realm of Shadows and Illusions. The illusion of creation.

But then again this treacherous landscape can also concretely refer to the writing itself. Something you are writing may be working well while you are at it. It seems clear, with all the details in your control. But when you are juggling so many different characters and plots, things have a tendency to slip out of control while “you’re not looking” and busy working on some other part. And so the struggle to keep it all together, as if “looking everywhere at the same time”.

“Confusion triggered a seething tumult in pockets where shadows gathered.” This seems describing almost a rebellious behavior of the realm. The moment your grasp slips, the shadows start swarming, threatening what was certain just before. The shape of things. As if you lower your guard, uncertainty devours everything. Including the writer self-doubt. It’s an hostile realm. Cotillion and Ammanas are “usurpers”.

Finally, earlier I saw this link about an interview with David foster Wallace. And in it there’s another link to a different chunk of the interview that I find particularly interesting. DFW also was obsessed about self-reference. This part:

Whereas Cantor, yeah, codifies the transfinite, but Cantor’s paradox is the first step into Godel’s incompleteness and self-reference. It’s at once this beautiful climax of the two hundred years before it and the first note of the funeral dirge for math as something that you can just, ‘You know what, we can explain the entire universe mathematically. All we have to do is come up with the right axioms and the right derivation rules.’ I mean, Cantor’s paradox starts the wheel of self-reference.

I don’t know if you know much about Godel’s incompleteness theorem. But in a lay sense, Godel is able to come up mathematically with a theorem that says, ‘I am not provable.’ And it’s a theorem, which means that math is either not consistent or it’s not complete, by definition. Packed in. He is the devil, for math.

Cantor’s paradox, that whole ‘If it’s not a member of the set, it is a member of the set,’ and then Russell’s paradox about twenty years later, those were the first two . . . You know, when you start coming on a really interesting theme in a piece of music, you usually hear it in echo notes that foreshadow it, those are the foreshadowings. And I don’t imagine Godel would have come up with the self-reference loop if it hadn’t been for Cantor and Russell. [Sotto voce] Whatever. You’re not interested.

“You know, when you start coming on a really interesting theme in a piece of music, you usually hear it in echo notes that foreshadow it, those are the foreshadowings.” That’s a nice description of what I’ve been doing, in my reads and this post too. I’m following this red string that links all these disparate things. It doesn’t matter from which angle you start, because everything leads to everything else.

[Sotto voce] Whatever. You’re not interested.

I’m at about 140 pages into Martin’s A Storm of Swords and once again wondering about the causes of its popularity. I know that this third book is considered by far the best in the series, and that I have to expect things slowing down quite a bit in the next two books, so my expectations here are set very high, maybe that’s why I’ve found those first 140 pages not as the best prelude to the best book. The plot is stuck at the end of the previous book, and Martin needs all those 140 pages merely to go through each PoV to make a summary and set a new starting point.

That’s how you can write a huge 1000+ pages book and still give the impression that not much happened. The structure is rather simple, you have an average of 10-15 pages for each chapter/PoV and it takes about 150 pages to return to one. In the end this produces a 1000 pages book where a single PoV has about 100 pages of available space to tell its story, and 100 pages is the bare minimum to show some development, especially with the kind of detail that Martin writes in. That’s the formula to write these epic sized fantasy books. Just an high number of PoVs, fragmenting the story, but also offering that big breadth one expects precisely from this genre.

My question is why Martin and Jordan series were able to reach a huge popularity and the answer I offer is that both do something similar but from two different angles. I think the keyword is “accessibility”. Martin is popular because his series is what you can easily recommend to all sort of readers. That’s why it’s successful: because it’s a genre novel accessible (and written for) all kinds of readers. You don’t need to be a “genre” reader to engage with Martin story, and so this series can tap into the large audience of general readers.

Whereas Jordan retains a similar level of accessibility. His series also taps directly onto a huge pool of readers: all kinds of adolescent readers. The Wheel of Time has the power to engage all sort of “younger” readers. It’s like a LotR where uncool, clumsy Hobbits are replaced by young future heroes destined to conquer and change the world, becoming celebrities. Because of how it’s built, its strength is about tapping onto a certain audience, in a specific age-range but regardless of whether they are “readers” or not. Or even genre readers. The WoT can convert someone, making him a “reader” in the first place, and a “genre” reader as consequence. It does so because it offers characters and themes that appeal directly to that age-range, it’s the call of the adventure and the writer taking the reader’s hand, offering one of the most immersive and engaging experiences. It’s the stuff younger readers dream about, and it fully embraces it. It gives them the time of their life.

That’s why I used that distinction between “adult” and “young” fantasy. Martin’s series can be seen as representing “adult fantasy” that is extremely popular and successful because it can CONVERT adult readers into “genre” readers. On the other hand Jordan’s series is also hugely popular and successful because it converts readers, but in this case it’s more carefully aimed at an age range. What ASoIaF does for a more adult public, the WoT does for younger readers, recruiting them into “genre”. In both cases, these two series can rise so much in popularity because they draw from a huge pool of readers that aren’t limited by “genre”, and that’s why I’m putting the focus on “accessibility” and “conversion”.

There’s finally another element that plays an important role in all this. It’s usually the writer’s job to engage the reader and make him “care”, keep him reading and turning the pages. But I think this is an illusory description because it overestimates (and romanticizes) the writer’s power and ultimate goal. I think in the best case the writer can only work on the illusion of directing and manipulating the reader’s interest, while it’s probably more correct to say that the writer merely taps and rejuvenates interests that have always been there, with the reader. Like suppressed memories that seem to resurface unbidden. It’s a much more subtle touch, and far less powerful. More sleight of hand than magic.

So why is this sharing of interests important in the case of popularity of these series? Because it’s the real hook that makes possible to reach for that huge pool of readers. Think to Martin’s series. Or even “Fantasy” in general. The common response you get from non-genre readers is: why should I care? Why a normal adult guy who has more immediate concerns should waste hours of his life reading “fantasies”? That’s why the common answer is about conflating Fantasy with “escapism”. It’s the most immediate reaction. But this is also the key to interpret how Martin’s series can be so hugely successful at engaging readers who usually “do not care” about Fantasy. What’s the First Mover in Martin’s series? Family. If you think about it, that’s the whole core. That’s where his series sets its roots. That’s the link to readers who aren’t normally genre readers or have zero interest in reading genre fiction. Its strongest theme is immediately familiar. All the priorities of each characters are simply defined by where he’s born, that will then also define what place he’ll have in the Big Game. Martin has an archetypal grasp on what everyone cares about, and so the possibility to connect with all readers. The first generalized hook that powers the series is about family concerns, mothers worrying about their children. It’s universal even if it’s encased in “fantasy”, and it can immediately engage readers because of its familiarity. The “adult” aspect is merely related to a style. Martin’s series is built on PoVs and these PoVs are selected on a wide range. It’s “adult” because it requires to shift these projections, have interest in this wider range of perspectives, in their breadth and diversity. Adolescents are usually more narrow-minded and self-absorbed to care about what happens outside of themselves (and the WoT reflects this). Then Martin builds the structure of his game by giving voice to different sides, creating contradicting feelings in the readers since there’s not a privileged side the reader can be on (though this is mostly a well crafted illusion).

Compare all this to Jordan and you see why I brought up the “young” angle. The WoT targets younger readers exactly because it selects its PoVs within the narrower range of its expected audience. It more immediately offers PoVs that the reader can recognize and identify with, offering themes that are strong specifically for that audience. And then it at least tries to follow those readers as they get older, by trying to broadening the range of the story. So the WoT is the ideal journey, recruiting and converting “young adults” into faithful readers, and then trying to walk with them into their adult age. That gives enough universal power to explain the popularity.

Now consider Tolkien. In this case Tolkien wasn’t writing for a pool of readers already waiting in potential. He just chased his own interests. This is important because “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t an “accessible” book at all, and so this seem to break the pattern I described above. It’s true. LotR is actually way more “niche” and less accessible than both ASoIaF and WoT. It’s far less easy to pick up and enjoy. And it’s also not a book that easily converts readers that do not have a specific interest in the genre. So why it’s still so hugely popular? Just because it came first? I don’t think so. The reason why Tolkien remains so popular while not being accessible is, the way I see it, because there’s a huge cultural push that overcomes Tolkien’s accessibility issues. His world is now part of mass culture, and being so it means EVERYONE is exposed to it. There’s pressure that comes from general culture that goes in Tolkien’s direction, and so all kinds of readers are pushed in this direction. Works like The Silmarillion are still extremely popular if you consider how nigh inaccessible the book would normally be, impossible to sell commercially. But this happens solely because there’s a general culture push that makes readers overcome those barriers.

Consider Malazan. Malazan, compared to ASoIaF, isn’t easy to recommend at all. It has humongous accessibility issues. This is usually blamed on the “medias res” style of the first book, but I think it’s a wrong angle. The problem with Malazan accessibility is that it’s much harder for a new reader to care about. It takes maybe two chapter in ASoIaF for the reader to figure out what it is about. One chapter in the WoT. Only the Prologue in LotR to set the style. With Malazan the reader feels like hiding in the shadow and chasing after someone on his own obscure agenda. Erikson doesn’t take the reader’s hand and gently leads him on the journey. There are no immediate rewards. You just follow with your own determination, if you want.

Why should a clueless reader care? What’s the big motivation that makes someone pick up a so huge series and overall commitment? But that’s just one aspect. Another crucial one is that all Malazan qualities generate big contradictions. The first book already presents things on a scale that dwarfs most other fantasy series, pulling out all the stops. Then by the time one reaches the third book that scale grew EXPONENTIALLY to levels that are utterly unimaginable. Just unprecedented and with no parallels. And yet, this is counterbalanced by another side that’s deeper, serious and incredibly ambitious. Giving the idea of something that takes itself very “seriously”. This creates different angles that can explode into a strong contradiction. On one side you have readers who engage with the most overt aspects of the series, the breakneck pace of the plot, the insane power levels, great battle and big scale spectacular stuff. The more mindless fun and shiny stuff on the surface, if you want. And then there are readers who instead find all that childish genre reading and instead expect something more “adult” in ASoIaF style. Ideally, one would say that Malazan is a distillation of the best of both worlds, and then even goes its own way to achieve something completely new. But far more commonly readers come with their own set of expectations and what happens is that the average reader is killed in the crossfire of contradictions. “Adult” readers can barely suffer through few pages without branding it as nigh incomprehensible childish fantasy gibberish, while those who are in for the “fun” and immediate pay off felt bogged down later on when the story reveals a depth and requires the reader to engage with more than just the surface. This ends up giving a general and immediate picture of having the WORST of both worlds. It wants to be serious and pretentious, while instead being juvenile and terribly chaotic and rambling. A puzzle that can’t be assembled.

How could Malazan be more successful? Why should the average reader care? It’s definitely NOT aimed to readers who aren’t already “genre” readers. You could maybe picture some serious-looking university professor reading a copy of Martin’s series, but could you imagine him reading Malazan? You need to be part of that inner genre group to even be a potential reader. This already makes the pool of potential readers exponentially smaller. It’s already a niche with a niche interest. And then you can imagine where potential readers come from. Maybe they read on some forum some readers who say how Malazan is so much better (it’s rare, but it happens), and so they approach Malazan expecting something that can compare to ASoIaF. And are immediately turned off by how “genre” Malazan is. Ultimately it engages with a number of themes that aren’t exactly that broad in appeal. There’s very little of those immediate and familiar feelings that give ASoIaF its strength. Malazan is less a traditional narration sprinkled here and there with fantasy elements, the way ASoIaF is. It grasps and deliver what the epic genre is, and why its powerful. It knows where it comes from, and has no identity crisis, or narcissistic pretenses of being appreciated by “everyone”. But then it requires a reader with a very open mind, who can take the challenge of the big commitment and that doesn’t ultimately jumps to conclusion because the book betrayed this or that expectation. The wider the range of interests, the more chances to appreciate Malazan in all its aspects. But this really ends up producing readers who are me, you and a few others. You have to have already developed an interest on that stuff, and the open mind to fully enjoy the “young” and “adult” parts without the feel that they clash horribly with each other.

Finally R. Scott Bakker. He suffers even worse from what I described about Malazan. Even more you have to share the writer’s interest on those specific themes and angles he brings up. Even more his series is precisely aimed, with a very strong thematic focus. This focus is nowhere what you expect to reach a general public, the same as you don’t expect the general public to read his blog because of the content he puts in it. It’s simply stuff not planned or meant to tap onto a big pool of potential readers. If it becomes popular it’s simply because it’s so unique and exceptional that it becomes easily recognized, and so not swallowed in mediocrity.

But what happens then? That lots of readers, all kinds of readers, hear good things and so try Bakker’s books. If they don’t have a serious interest in those themes Bakker offers then they end up noticing just the violence. The violence becomes the point. The edginess, grittiness and all those things that are today negatively branded as “grimdark” as well epitomizing all the problems about misogyny and whatnot. This produces an overall hideous image of Bakker’s series. Seen right now on a forum: “It’s an endless parade of fantasy name salad combined with massive ruminations and internal monologues.” And that’s a positive side. Otherwise it becomes an accusation directly to Bakker of being an horrible human being. Why does all this happen? I think because once you “remove” that deep layer that Bakker engages directly (and it happens whenever a reader “doesn’t care” about that stuff) then only the violence and the ugly remain. They become the one aspect monopolizing the attention, without understanding that all that is built IN SUPPORT of the rest. One element observed in isolation from everything else, and the result is readers who end up feeling offended by what they are reading.

All this to say that it’s all a matter of aims. How big is the pool of readers you try to reach. And matters of “quality” don’t even prominently come up. Only huge cultural pushes can overcome a narrow aim, like in the case of Tolkien. Another example is Neal Stephenson. He also has a very narrow target, writing for those who must already have a serious interest in the things he deals with. Yet he can be so successful because the kind of “geekdom” that makes his public nowadays is so common and widespread that it also became a “general public”, creating a cultural push that isn’t so far from what I described about Tolkien. It’s a wider movement of general culture that makes niche themes become more widely shared.

But I think that at least for the foreseeable future the very big splashes of success (here I think even about the Harry Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games) will come from traditional and familiar narratives sprinkled by “genre” elements. Ending up with a broadening of the genre, indeed, but also reducing the genre to innocuous window dressing. That’s always the risk when some smaller cultural movement is swallowed whole by the mass culture…