The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson


Lemming of Discord
Jun 4, 2006
Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

On the continent of Genabackis the Malazan army lays siege to the city of Pale, which sits under the protection of Anomander Rake, Lord of the Tiste Andii. As the final battle begins, the elite Malazan unit known as the Bridgeburners and several High Mages suffer a calamitous betrayal. Their next mission takes them to Darujhistan, City of Blue Fire, where an even more dangerous showdown awaits...

Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen began unfolding back in 1999 with this divisive novel. Strongly hailed by authors from Stephen Donaldson to J.V. Jones as an important, breakthrough work and found utterly baffling by others, Gardens of the Moon has acquired a bit of a reputation over the years as a hard book to get into.

I've always found this suggestion to be overstated, just as much on this fourth reread as on my first fifteen years ago. Gardens of the Moon is a busy, bustling and striking novel which has little interest in slowing down to providing worldbuilding infodumps. You cling on for dear life and follow the story through or you don't. Still, the benefit of fifteen additional years of books from both Steven Erikson and co-creator Ian Esslemont means there are now other, gentler introductions to this world and this story: you can also jump on board with Erikson's Deadhouse Gates or Esslemont's Night of Knives or Dancer's Lament, which all have somewhat easier opening sections.

Gardens of the Moon opens with a bang and doesn't stop for 700 pages. In that time it introduces a whole, vivid world dominated by a powerful empire, dozens of characters, a whole new (and rather vague, at this stage) magic system, a dozen races, multiple gods, a prophetic Tarot card game, undead Neanderthals, a race of elves who are also dragons and more nods to other authors (from Leiber to Donaldson to Cook) than it's possible to parse in one read. It's a mess, without reasonable exposition or grounding in the reality the characters find themselves in.

But it's also a glorious mess. Erikson's imagination here is bigger than a planet, his prose is erudite and far wittier than any first-time author has any right to be (this was Erikson's second-published novel but was written many years earlier), and through the confusion the chaotic charisma of characters like Whiskeyjack, Anomander Rake, Quick Ben, Tattersail, Ganoes Paran, Kalam, Fiddler, Rallick Nom and Caladan Brood is clear. Yes, Gardens of the Moon sometimes feels like starting watching a movie that's already been on for a film, but that can also be quite good fun.

Once you get through the opening, confusing section at Pale, the action moves to Darujhistan where nobles scheme, assassins plot and thieves fight a clandestine war on the rooftops and things become a lot clearer. From there on it's an easier ride to the big climactic showdown, which is epic, impressive and random (not helped by a deus ex machina resolution, although on rereads when you know what the hell's going on this is much less of a problem).

There are other niggling problems, mainly relating to "GotMisms", worldbuilding and character tics that Erikson put into this book which he changed his mind about in the nine years that passed until he wrote the second volume, Deadhouse Gates. In particular, if the key theme of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is compassion, that theme feels a bit absent in this book as Anomander Rake shows an uncharacteristic amoral ruthlessness (compared to later books) and no-one seems to know anything at all about the ancient races and history of the world whilst later on everyone seems a lot more clued up (one of the more relatable things about this novel is that the characters are often as confused about what's going on as the reader, which is less the case in later volumes of the series). Still, these continuity issues are minor and understandable given the protracted genesis of the series.

Gardens of the Moon (****) is by turns bewildering, confusing, rewarding, exciting and intriguing. It will bewilder a lot of people, but out of that bewilderment will come understanding. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is the most accomplished work of epic fantasy published (predominantly) in the 21st Century to date, and this remains the best place to start, setting the scene as it does for its two successors, which are simply two of the finest fantasy novels ever written. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
No secret I'm a massive fan of the series, I never had issues with GOTM enjoyed the fast moving pace.
@biodroid I recommend reading the first three before deciding if it's for you.

Memories of Ice blew me away.

The battle scenes in his books are so intense that , when Im though reading them, im tired because it feels like ive been doing fight ing myself. That's how good those actions sequences in his books are . Erickson put's you in the action , he's that good a writer. :cool:
I never had issues with GOTM enjoyed the fast moving pace.

Same here, I loved it from the start - from the very first line, in fact - with the added bonus that it reveals hidden depths when re-reading it after reading the rest of the series, almost like it's a different book.
I read the first book on release and didn't bother with the ones that followed. The whole thing came over as a disjointed mess to the point where I couldn't be sure if it was a combined tale or a series of unrelated short stories lumped together.

I think it originally started as a screenplay.

I keep meaning to try the second book in the series and see whether that grabs me.
I think it originally started as a screenplay.

I keep meaning to try the second book in the series and see whether that grabs me.

There were moments that I enjoyed but on finishing I didn't have the urge to get the next volume.
The whole thing came over as a disjointed mess to the point where I couldn't be sure if it was a combined tale or a series of unrelated short stories lumped together.

The first book in this series is the only book in decades (maybe ever) I have started twice and didn't finish. I hate that there's a fantasy series out there that so well recognized and I haven't read it. I pretty much read 2 books a week and rarely have trouble getting into any book.
Worth noting that Book 2 starts on a completely different continent with a completely different cast of characters with a completely new storyline. It was written 10 years after Book 1 and is a much better, stronger book. You can read it independently of Book 1, and I often urge people to do so.
Worth noting that Book 2 starts on a completely different continent with a completely different cast of characters with a completely new storyline. It was written 10 years after Book 1 and is a much better, stronger book. You can read it independently of Book 1, and I often urge people to do so.

It can be read independently however GOTM gives you a grounding in the politics of the Malazan Empire and there are allusions to the first book with a carry over a couple of characters. I did have fun identifying one of them. Book 2 is possibly my favourite of the series.
Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

Madmen, seers and witches proclaim the coming of the Whirlwind, a rebellion of unprecedented ferocity, a scourge that will wipe the subcontinent of Seven Cities clean of the pestilence of the Malazan Empire. The rulers of the Empire pay no heed, denuding the occupied territories of troops to reinforce the faltering campaign in Genabackis. From that continent comes an assassin, a thief and a former plaything of a shadowy god, who are the unwitting harbingers of the prophecy, and from the east comes a broken women and a shattered priest, who will defy it. As the Whirlwind is unleashed, the Malazan Seventh Army is given an impossible mission: to escort thirty thousand civilian refugees from Hissar to Aren, more than a thousand miles, facing constant attack all the way. This is a task that no ordinary human can handle, only a legend.

Deadhouse Gates is the second novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, succeeding (but not a direct sequel to) Gardens of the Moon. Deadhouse Gates relocates the action to the continent of Seven Cities with an almost entirely new cast of characters and a whole new storyline. Although having read Gardens of the Moon will be a help in reading this book, it is not necessary and it is indeed not unknown for readers to be directed to Deadhouse Gates as their first Malazan novel. This unusual recommendation has a solid rationale: Gardens of the Moon is a fine novel, but one that has to overcome a confused and somewhat incoherent opening before it starts to make sense. In contrast, Deadhouse Gates ranks comfortably as one of the single greatest works of epic fantasy ever written.

Indeed, the year 2000 may go down in history as one of the finest for fantasy fiction. That year also saw the publication of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History and George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords, three of the defining works of the modern fantasy genre. Deadhouse Gates sits very comfortably in such company.

Compared to the potentially confusing opening to Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates follows four storylines in a much more linear fashion. In one storyline, and the most epic, the Malazan Seventh Army must cross the entire subcontinent, escorting a refugee train to safety. With echoes of Xenophon's Anabasis (itself later fantasised as Paul Kearney's The Ten Thousand), or even Battlestar Galactica, this is a story of epic battles being fought as the innocent are defended in the face of a remorseless enemy and - sometimes - their own hubris. It's here that Erikson establishes some of his most memorable characters, such as the Imperial Historian Duiker, the indefatigable Bult, the warlocks Nil and Nether, and of course, Coltaine of the Crow Clan, High Fist of the Malazan Empire having formerly been a bitter foe of it. Their story - the Chain of Dogs - is a stunning and gripping narrative in its own right, every league of the journey bringing with it new formidable obstacles to be overcome, new enemies to be defeated and new tragedies to endure. The Chain of Dogs is Steven Erikson's Red Wedding, except drawn out to the length of a novel: an emotionally taut and increasingly shocking story of heroism and betrayal on a colossal scale.

Most novelists would have settled for that, but alongside that epic story we have Erikson's most emotionally intense and internalised struggle, that of Felisin Paran (sister of Ganoes Paran, a key protagonist from Gardens of the Moon). Felisin, a pampered and spoiled noble girl, is arrested and sentenced to exile on a distant island, to toil in criminal slavery. She endures horrors that afflict her soul and she becomes brittle, angry and bitter. Eventually the story takes her to a destiny that she was not expected, and a responsibility she steps into for both vengeance and self-realisation. Felisin's story is hard to read but impressive in its emotional resonance. This is a realistic story, albeit also an incomplete one, with the other half of the story waiting to unfold in House of Chains (the fourth novel in the series; Book 3, Memories of Ice, returns instead to Genabackis and the story of the Bridgeburners).

Next to that we also have two smaller quest narratives: the story of Icarium and Mappo, two wanderers out of the wastelands whom we gradually learn are cursed to live a life of friendship, trust and bitter deception; and the story of some familiar characters from Gardens of the Moon, namely Apsalar, Crokus, Kalam and Fiddler, who are on a journey back to Quon Tali and a confrontation with the treacherous Empress, but who are sucked up instead in the chaos of the Whirlwind.

These four storylines - which ultimately combine to a degree - give the novel a sense of unifying coherence missing from Gardens of the Moon. Instead of the start-stop opening to that book, Deadhouse Gates starts much more slowly and traditionally, the novel gathering a relentless and inexorable pace as it evolves. Erikson's prose is vastly superior to Gardens, the result of the nine year gap that fell between the two books and slightly awkward circumstances that led to its creation: originally Memories of Ice was the second novel, but Erikson lost the manuscript to a hard drive error when he was halfway through writing it; unable to face it, he instead switched to writing what was supposed to be the third book in the series instead, inadvertently giving us the continent-hopping structure of the saga that would become one of its hallmarks. The result is a novel that fairly seethes with intelligence, memorable prose and ambition.

Weaknesses? A first read will occasionally brush against confusion (particularly the introduction of a certain jade statue and the events that spiral out from it), but beyond that there are none. Deadhouse Gates takes all of the strengths of Erikson's writing and loses almost all of the weaknesses.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen is many things. It is a comedy and a drama, but it is also a tragedy - as the title implies - and it is a series about compassion and humanity. Arguably later books in the series suffer to a limited degree from Erikson's increasing introspection at the cost of plot and character, but no such weakness is present here, or in the book that follows it. Deadhouse Gates (*****) is a fantasy novel that does that rare thing and makes you think and feel. It is a good encapsulation of the entire series.
Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson

A dark shadow has fallen across eastern Genabackis: the Pannion Domin, an empire of madness and death whose coming has been heralded by poison and chaos in the warrens of sorcery. The Domin's armies are now marching against the small city-state of Capustan, defended by an army of doubtful skill and the Grey Swords of Elingarth, a religious order of soldiers. Aware of this threat, the outlawed Malazan 5th Army - Onearm's Host - has allied with their former enemies: Caladan Brood's mercenaries, the Rhivi tribes, the Tiste Andii of Moon's Spawn and the city-state of Darujhistan. Their goal is to relieve Capustan and destroy the Pannion Domin. From the south comes another force, the punitive army of the Seguleh (consisting of an unprecedented three of the greatest warriors in the world). But the Pannion Domin is no mere mortal empire and three impossibly ancient, terrifying forces have joined together to spread its evil across the world, an evil which will challenge all that face it.

Memories of Ice is the third novel in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, returning the action to the continent of Genabackis, the setting of the first novel in the series, Gardens of the Moon and taking place simultaneously alongside the second, Deadhouse Gates. Memories of Ice is a direct sequel to Gardens of the Moon, so whilst is possible to start reading the Malazan series with Deadhouse Gates, it is not really possible to do so with Memories.

Like Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice consists of four major storylines proceeding in tandem. In the first, Onearm's Host has to ally with its former enemies to march against the Pannion Domin. This storyline follows the awkwardness of the former bitter enemies working alongside one another. In the second storyline, the entity Silverfox (created during the events of Gardens of the Moon) has summoned the undead T'lan Imass legions to undergo the Second Gathering, which will determine the future of the species and their endless (and increasingly pointless) war against the Jaghut, which has now spanned a quarter of a million years. In a third storyline, Toc the Younger and Onos T'oolan (both from Gardens of the Moon) find themselves on the other side of the continent, where they meet and ally with the Seguleh punitive army (all three of them) and the enigmatic sorceress Lady Envy. In the fourth, we join the Grey Swords as they strive to defend Capustan against utterly overwhelming odds. Numerous subplots - such as the fate of the Mhybe, Silverfox's mother whose lifeforce is inadvertently being consumed by her daughter; the journey of a T'lan Imass emissary with news of a desperate war on the distant continent of Assail; the misadventures of two necromancers and their long-suffering servants; and the story of Gruntle, a caravan guard who suddenly becomes something more - abound.

As with Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice is an epic and sprawling novel but which benefits from rotating its storylines on a regular basis to give the novel an impressive sense of momentum, so that it's 1,100 pages fly past at an impressive rate of knots once the story gets underway. That does take a little while, though. Memories opens slow, with the various forces gathering, and there's perhaps a couple too many intense strategy meetings near the start of the book as characters gather and discuss the plot. This is quite refreshing - the primary criticism of Gardens of the Moon is that Erikson fails to explain what's going on, whilst Memories of Ice is lot clearer on the stakes and what's happening - but it does mean that it takes a while for the story to start picking up.

Once it does, things don't let up until the end of the book. The storylines build towards a convergence (to use a favoured term of the author) in the city of Coral and it's fascinating to see the players moving towards this meeting. It's also interesting to see how our protagonists deal with having an unusual preponderance of force on their side, unlike the previous novel where the Chain of Dogs is up against superior odds all the way through the book. The combination of the Tiste Andii, the Bridgeburners, Caladan Brood, the Rhivi, the Barghast and, later, the Seguleh and the T'lan Imass give them an immense advantage over the Pannion Domin. This is later reversed when see what other forces the Seer can bring to the field, not to mention infighting within the alliance that threaten to shatter it, but it's unusual in epic fantasy to see characters realising the overwhelming power they have at their command and the moral responsibility this entails.

The Malazan series has always excelled in sometimes avoiding or inverting epic fantasy tropes and sometimes playing them straight, but always interrogating them. There is a lot of blood-letting, duels, battles and sorcerous enfilades in the series, but the cost of such violence is always laid bare. The core themes of the Malazan series (and one that I think belies its occasionally-claimed status as grimdark) are compassion and the moral cost of whatever conflict is to be fought. Actions result in consequences, some of which can stain the soul, and Memories of Ice is the novel that most directly, painfully and tragically deals with this cost, particularly through the moving story of Itkovian, the soldier who volunteers to carry the guilt and trauma of thousands on his own shoulders. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a tragedy and Memories of Ice is perhaps the novel that most dramatically embodies that, through the awe-inspiring finale (still one of the finest in all of fantasy fiction) at the city of Coral.

There are a few minor issues. In terms of pacing, the book takes a little longer to get going, so in that sense it's not quite as tight a novel as Deadhouse Gates (which is a clear 200 pages shorter as a result). Whilst the central conflict - the battle against the Pannion Domin - is resolved in this novel, the book is also a little more plugged in to the story arcs that will span the rest of the series, most notably the saga of the Crippled God. It's highly arguable - fans have been arguing about it for seventeen years so far - but it's also debatable that a late-novel act of profound treachery was set up a bit too obviously and supposedly intelligent characters should have picked up on that earlier and stopped it, but this feels a little bit too pedantic a complaint and one reliant on hindsight.

Memories of Ice (*****) almost matches the dramatic power and intensity of Deadhouse Gates, perhaps falling a little short in structure and tightness but making up for it with the sheer scope of the tragic (and traumatic) final battle. This is a fantasy novel about compassion, forgiveness, war, peace, sacrifice and everything inbetween, related through a huge cast of interesting and sympathetic characters. (Very) arguably, the Malazan series will never quite reach these heights again, but will often come close. One of the strongest books in the series and one of the very finest fantasy novels published this century.
House of Chains by Steven Erikson

North Genabackis. Karsa Orlong of the Teblor tribe sets out on a raid that will go down in infamy among his people and their neighbours. He plans to carve his name in blood and chaos across the north, and succeeds far beyond his original aims. But Karsa's journey also opens his eyes to a world that is far stranger than what he thought it would be.

Months later, the Malazan 14th Army arrives in Seven Cities to crush the rebellion known as the Whirlwind. Newly-appointed Adjunct Tavore Paran is untested, and so are most of her troops. Only a few key veterans can be found to hold the force together. Ranged against them are veterans of years of raiding and war, the Dogslayers and the formidable sorcery of the Whirlwind Goddess herself. The seeress Sha'ik's victory appears inevitable, but internal divisions threaten to tear her army apart. As the 14th Army marches on the Holy Desert, the Seeress chooses to wait. Elsewhere, a new threat has arisen: strange ships bearing powerful warriors sailing out of the western seas, seeking the Throne of Shadow on remote Drift Avalii. The god known as Cotillion seeks champions to defend the Throne, whilst one of those strange warriors - the disgraced Trull Sengar - turns traitor to redeem his honour, and that of his entire race.

For the three previous books in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson adopted a similar structure: the introduction of multiple plot threads which proceed in apparently isolated tandem for many hundreds of pages before meeting in an almighty final battle at the end. This structure didn't entirely work for Gardens of the Moon (due to a somewhat confusing opening) but was spectacularly successful for Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice, two of the finest epic fantasy novels published this century so far. For House of Chains, Erikson decided to change things up.

This is more of a collection of two separate novels rather than one long narrative. The first 270 pages or so form a continuous, self-contained story focusing on Karsa Orlong (think of Conan the Barbarian dialed up to 11) and his quite spectacularly bloody journey of self-realisation across Genabackis, a bit like The Pilgrim's Progress if the pilgrim was a psychotic ten-foot tall barbarian warrior wielding a sword so massive it would struggle to get into a Final Fantasy game. Karsa is the favourite character of many Malazan readers, for his clear character arc and growth (from psychopathic murderer to philosophical warrior-savant), his straightforward approach to solving problems (destroying them utterly), his clear nod to fantasy precedents (like Conan and Fafhrd) and his cool action scenes. However, it's also worth noting that in his origin story, he's also a bloodthirsty maniac, repeat rapist and murderer. Erikson himself has noted that Karsa is a problematic character and was intended to be so. Karsa's odyssey is fascinating, well-written (Erikson's growing confidence in his prose skills from book to book is impressive to behold) and raises important questions, such as interrogating Robert E. Howard's old notion that barbarism is the natural state of humanity with civilisation as a brief interregnum which will end as soon as natural resources run out. There's plenty of black humour in the sequence as well, and it does explain at least part of what on earth was going on with that ship in the Nascent (a plot thread that's been running for three books now), but it's hard to entirely enjoy a story which relies so much on human suffering.

The remaining 750-odd pages of the book return to a more traditional format, with multiple story threads unfolding in tandem: Trull Sengar and his rescue from the Nascent by a band of T'lan Imass; the misadventures of a Tiste Liosan warrior party (who learn that their overwhelming arrogance is not helpful when asking others for help); scheming and backstabbing in the Whirlwind camp; Crokus, Apaslar and Kalam being recruited by Cotillion for various missions; and the march of the 14th Army towards Raraku (a sort-of reverse Chain of Dogs, except we spend far fewer pages on it). The shorter page count for this sequence requires greater focus from Erikson, which he achieves admirably: each story unfolds with verve and pace, and there's less long-winded moments of moral reflection as Memories of Ice occasionally threatened to unleash. The shorter page count does occasionally mean that some story arcs are sold a bit short, and the occasional Gardens of the Moon-esque moment of total confusion (such as the introduction of a new pack of psychotic magical hounds who are not the same pack of psychotic magical hounds as those who appeared in the three previous books, but are very similar) does threaten, but is mostly averted.

The book is also something of an anti-epic fantasy, and indeed, an anti-Malazan novel in structural terms. When I first read the book fifteen years ago I regarded it as a massive anti-climax, as the novel builds and builds to what appears to be a huge conflagration which never quite arrives (we do get it in the sixth volume, The Bonehunters, instead, which makes me occasionally wonder if Erikson could have restructured things so Karsa's arc was removed to its own novel and the Battle of Y'Ghatan was moved into the end of House of Chains; I suspect this would not be practical). On rereads the reasoning behind the far less epic (although still very bloody) ending is much clearer, and more laudable. House of Chains is a dark book in a sometimes very dark series, but also a series where compassion and shared humanity are key themes. These themes are explored further in this novel and given greater weight, contrasted against the dark insanity of characters such as the loathsome Bidithal. This is good, but it can make for hard going at times.

House of Chains (****½) is not operating on quite the same qualitative plain as Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice. It's a faster and more concentrated read, but it's also a darker and much murkier one, where the reader has to follow some very unpleasant characters for large stretches of the book. It's also the most philosophically and intellectually stimulating book in the series so far, asking big questions and refusing to offer pat answers. For some readers House of Chains marks a shift in the tone and feel of series which they don't much care for, away from a epic fantasy narrative and more towards musings on the human soul (which threaten to overtake later books in the series altogether), but for others it's the moment that Malazan grew up and started staking a claim to being the most literate epic fantasy ever attempted. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
Ive been unsure weather start this or WOT. im leaning towards this at the moment. Its been a while since i read a long epic fantasy series.
I read the first four books of the series and was completely blown away. However, then I ran afoul of the writing-gap and knew that I did not want to re-read each and every book every time another one came out - having had a (very disappointing) bellyful of that with the WoT.

So I am in the lucky position that there is a massive series out there that I know I love - and I still get to read most of it for the first time. Gotta savour that for awhile!

Is there a recommended sequence of the books (mix the Esslemonts in between or read them afterwards?).
I'm waiting for the third book in Esslemont's prequel series to the Malazan series, once the series is complete I'm going for an epic re-read of all the books. I will closely study the time line and read each in chronographical order.
Is there a recommended sequence of the books (mix the Esslemonts in between or read them afterwards?).

It's probably not surprising that the authors recommend the published order.

You'll find that a lot of fan forums tend to recommend a mixed order, that is pretty close to published order:

Gardens of the Moon
Deadhouse Gates
Memories of Ice
House of Chains
Midnight Tides
Night of Knives
The Bonehunters
Return of the Crimson Guard
Reaper's Gale
Toll the Hounds
Orb Sceptre Throne
Dust of Dreams
The Crippled God
Blood and Bone

I have vague memories of this being Werthead's preferred order, and it's close to how I read them (though I maybe got a bit out with the later few, as I read as they were published).

There's also a roughly sequential order: The Malazan Authors’ Suggested Reading Order for the Series Is Not What You Would Expect Not quite as hardcore as Nixie might end up going (a proper chronological order will involve having a few books on the go at once, sometimes swapping between after a single chapter), but it keeps the timeline fairly straight.


A nice overview of the different approaches:
Suggested reading order

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