Having long since caught up to George R.R. Martin's progress in finishing his A Song of Ice and Fire saga, I've been on the hunt for some fantasy methadone to make waiting for the man a little more bearable, but, most importantly, only if it doesn't make me wonder why I'm not reading something else. (It's always been much easier to find well-written science fiction.) One such series that's regularly suggested in Google searches is Steven Erikson's 10 volume Malazan Book of the Fallen (e.g., this site suggests it's one of the best, as does NPR's list). I was wary, since its densely imbricated world has its origins in Erikson and co-creator Ian Cameron Esselmont's formative years as role-gaming enthusiasts (the latter has his own series of novels based in the same diegesis). But most writers don't have Tolkien's background in history, language and mythology, so the counterfactual worldbuilding has to come from somewhere, I guess. Besides, Martin himself has been influenced by gaming and my goto critic of weird fiction, Jeff Vandermeer, seems to admire the series. So I tried the first book, Gardens of the Moon, only to suffer through it until page 221 (of 484), when I threw in the towel. The possibility of nine more volumes of this:
The flat tone of her voice told Toc that her invitation had not cost anything -- and this horrified him, shook him to his very core. A quick glance showed a similar response from Tayschrenn and Dujek, though the latter veiled it.
was too much. It doesn't matter who the 'her' refers to or what the invitation is (it's the Adjunct Lorn, FYI, inviting the person who killed her family, the sorceress Tattersail, to the dinner table as a show of political tact), only that without knowing anything about what's going on, you can tell exactly what everyone's emotional reactions are and that this woman is very capable of coldly repressing her own. There's no character opacity here: even though Dujek "veils" his reaction, the narrator assures the reader that this character, too, is "horrified." Page after page, the book reads like a dungeon master telling his players what they're facing. Erikson hollows it out further by assigning every character clearcut roles from the D&D manual: a thief, an assassin, a soldier, a mage, a god, etc.. This is adult fantasy only relative to a lifetime of reading Dragonlance novels.
'Dark' is another adjective that gets thrown around when this series is discussed, but it's a matter of being told how bad something is, never shown. For example, on p. 77, the sacking of the formerly free city of Pale by its blood enemy, the Moranth:
Faintly, beyond the cries of carrion birds, came the wail of men, women, and children dying beneath the sword.
What makes this dark is that the reader is seeing it through the perspective of Sergeant Whiskeyjack, who's one of the primary protagonists, although he's fighting on the side of the Malazan Empire, which does what empires do, namely colonizes free people. The Empress Laseen has made a deal with the Moranth where in exchange for their service, they get to exact vengeance for their longstanding enmity with Pale. The reader later learns that some 18,000 citizens were slaughtered, and the streets ran red for days while the Malazan troops only watched. But who are these stats? "Men, women, and children" -- that's all. How were they killed? Painfully "beneath the sword." Is this supposed to feel any more traumatic than when Galactus devours some nameless planet on his way to Earth in a Fantastic Four comic? More like a bad roll of the die.
I ran across this perverse defense of Erikson as some tough-minded writer's writer, compared to Martin's readerly style:
Martin will ALWAYS reach a larger public because his writing is much more approachable, making easier to connect with story and characters. Erikson, deliberately, writes in a different way and doesn't care to win the reader over. He doesn't care to make sympathetic characters that readers find easy to connect to.
That seems to me to get it exactly wrong. Erikson isn't like Borges, rejecting psychological realism, but rather spoonfeeds the reader everything he or she needs to know about the characters' inner workings. Martin, on the other hand, actually requires his readership to make many inferences on subtext and a memory for previous events in order to possibly grasp what's going on. If a character's actions are morally questionable, it's because the reader actually has to question those actions based on events that have been described. This is the opacity I alluded to earlier. Did, for example, Robert Baratheon really love Ned Stark's sister, Lyanna, or was it more a matter of sick fixation on a girl who actually loved then Prince Rhaegar Targaryen? Robert's version is that Lyanna was kidnapped and raped by Rhaegar; the Targaryen side of events is that Lyanna ran off with the prince. The only thing that's definitively known is that her disappearance led to the rebellion, the end of which had Robert ascending to the throne. What actually went on is a matter of hypotheses based on a variety of stories that are told throughout the series by characters possessing motivations that aren't exactly forthright due to their ideological alignments. Had Erikson written this series, he would've likely stated up front that Robert was fooling himself, end of mystery. The only "mystery" remaining would be when characters might catch up to the reader's knowledge that Jon Snow is really Lyanna's son, not Ned's. Thus, it's the cognitive demands on an active reader, not realism, that separates Martin from Erikson.
Ugh. I'm going to read Eco's new novel, then back to my quest for a good fantasy series. Next up will probably be Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.