April 15, 2021

What I learned about reading (and life) from Malazan

I know that Malazan is a series that has been examined and reviewed to no end. And yet as a reader who just finished his first read through of the core ten book series, I can’t not talk about the experience I just had.
And it was an experience - the kind of experience I find most often in books, but is still rare and elusive. For lack of better wording- this series made me feel all the feelings.
So instead of reviewing Malazan, I thought I’d talk about what I learned reading Malazan.

  1. The first rule of Malazan is: Never talk about Malazan. Yes, it’s a bit different on reddit and r/fantasy (see this post as an example), but when you step out into the real world with the sun on your face, have you ever tried to talk about Malazan to someone else? Like, really tried? The complexity of the story, from the politics to the gods to the magic, defy easy description. I know, because I tried several times with my wife and friends, and it didn’t work. Mostly I end up gesticulating wildly in the air, trying to express my appreciation for this series and failing completely. And you can’t really recommend the books to a friend (unless you have very special friends), because it’s a hard series to dive into, and really only reveals its true beauty over the course of many loooong books. So the best way (or maybe the only way, if you’re not online every day) to enjoy Malazan is as a truly solo endeavor. And that’s okay.
  2. Reading slow is a powerful medicine against the ailments of the day. Like many, I’m someone who likes to read fast. Although I can’t hit the book-a-day rate that some manage, I’m still proud of being able to finish over fifty books a year, many of them epic fantasy. But this means reading a pretty decent clip. Unfortunately, reading fast just didn't work with Malazan. I ended up missing too much. Initially, I’d planned to break up Malazan through the twelve months of 2019, but as I neared the end of last year I realized I wouldn’t make my goal and extended my journey through 2020. Doing so allowed me to digest the books slowly, to work through them bit by bit. To my surprise, I found that I really loved doing so. When most people seem to be turning to fast-paced, bite-size leisure, I found a real pleasure and a break in the day by just reading a few pages of Malazan. It certainly took a long time, but the rewards were well worth it, and I'd even argue that Malazan is better when one has time to soak it all in.
  3. It's okay to struggle to understand a book. Malazan is dense, and Erikson purposely hides incredible amounts of information, making the series a difficult one to get into. One common reaction I've seen online to Gardens of the Moon is "I think I liked it, but what did I just read?" I very much felt the same, and its one of the reasons that I didn't continue the series the first time I attempted it (back in 2014). The style can definitely be off-putting. We're surrounded by plenty of chaos and questions in our daily lives - I think most of us tend to like a bit more order and understanding in our fictional worlds. But I think that having to work to understand Malazan makes the reward and impact so much greater when we do.
  4. Books are still the best medium for insights into life. I think it would be a fun experiment to take out all the scenes of characters marching and/or philosophizing and seeing how much of Malazan is left. Of course, if one did that, they'd rip the heart right out of the books. Malazan is without doubt my most highlighted series for this very reason. Over the course of ten books we see a tremendous variety of viewpoints argued and defended. In most stories, so much philosophy/arguing/debate wouldn't work. It would bore the reader to no end. (And I know that's the case for some with Malazan). But for me, it worked. Perhaps it was because I was reading so slowly, but I really enjoyed the endless conversations, thoughts, and asides. Combined with the situations the characters find themselves in, I feel like no other series has made me think more about Life with a capital "L."
  5. Life can be terrible, but it is still worth living. Did you know that Malazan is dark? I didn't when I started, not really. Not until I got to Deadhouse Gates, which to this day, leaves me speechless with its stunning story. I'm not sure I've seen a book that holds a mirror to the real world in quite the same way. The books contain both triumph and heartbreaking tragedy, and the reader is subjected to both extremes of the emotional spectrum. But one of the overarching feelings I came away with after finishing the series was that life, as difficult and tragic as it can be, still has meaning. And maybe meaning isn't quite the right word, because I don't mean to imply some fated or destined purpose. Perhaps better to say that life has value, even in our darkest moments. And that's a feeling I'll treasure.
  6. Humor is necessary. Did you also know that Malazan is hilarious? I'm not sure I've laughed so hard even at books that intended to be funny. But there were moments that had me laughing out loud, which is truly unusual for me when I'm reading. I tend to think it's because the books can get so dark that the contrast is even more striking. When a line lands, it lands well. But it serves as a useful reminder: humor is one of our greatest weapons against the darkness of our days.

In conclusion, Malazan has been one of the best reading experiences of my life. I can't recommend it (see point number one), but I understand why those who love it do with such fervor.