Thursday, June 9, 2011

Smart Novels with Really, Really Long Plots

Two and a half cheers for Steven Erikson.

I know when I write this I split my readership in half and risk losing you both.  One of you is a big Erikson fan and is now offended.  The other is scratching his head and saying, "who's Steven Erikson?"

Steven Erikson just published the tenth (!) and final volume of his epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen, of which I just finished book four.  The whole thing is something like three and a half million words long.  I really, really, want to like this series.  It's inventive in its details and it's inventive on an industrial scale.  The story world is huge and the story goes back in time hundreds of thousands of years (there are lots and lots of characters in the story who are that old and who are still around, machinating for their various ends).  It's fantasy for archaeologists, with tells and ruins and flint weapons all over the place.  It's fantasy for anthropologists, with curses and customs and folk magic in abundance.  It's fantasy for gamers -- Erikson and his fellow Malazan author, that other dude whatsisname, made up this world originally as a setting for a GURPS campaign.  It's got some literary flair and boldness; it starts in the middle of the action in a big way, and Erikson is not shy about filling it with his poetry (which may or may not be a plus).  It's got all kinds of cool fantasy races without ever dipping into the well of elves and dwarves and hobbits.  In its special effects, at least, his magic system is cool and different.

So you should both read it, at least the first one, The Gardens of the Moon.  But I just don't love it.  So here are what I think are the reasons why.

Everyone in the books is a soldier or an assassin, and that gets boring.  There's way too much carnage.  I rarely describe mayhem as "pornographic," but some of this really is; Erikson lingers lovingly over the descriptions of piles of mutilated corpses.  I don't enjoy that.  The depth of the backstory means that there's lots and lots of conversations where characters stand around and tell each other about Things of Grave Import that Happened in the Past.  I know this is a problem for heroic fantasy generally, but Tolkien gets most of it out in one scene in Rivendell -- with Erikson, every fifty pages I have a conversation where someone tells me one more little snippet about Kellanved and Cotillion and what they did and what their plan might be.  Ugh, too much.  There are too many characters.  I mean, this is really cool from the perspective that it makes me feel like a whole world has been created, but I can't care about all two hundred main characters, and in the end I find I don't really care about any of them.  Heck, half of 'em I can't even keep straight.  Never did a book more justly include a list of dramatis personae at the front.

So where do I end up on all this?  When I'm not reading the series, I think about how I should get the next book and read it.  And when I am in the middle of one of the books, I mostly feel tired.  I guess Erikson wins, since he's got book dollars out of me.

Two and a half cheers.

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