Malazan, Malazan, Malazan… Has there ever been a more overhyped and disappointing and just kind of Emperor’s New Clothes-y series of novels in the history of the fantasy genre? Maybe, but I can’t think of it, unless it’s Thomas Covenant.
I mean, I read six books in. So I can’t say I wasn’t part of the problem. I really loved this idea of a fantasy world with a detailed history that spanned back hundreds of thousands of years, and the fact that there a lot of undead/semi-dead/ex-dead parties involved in all these various wars, but good god it was flawed. I think, ignoring the issues with bad dialogue, endless lore-dumps (which to be fair are also part of the charm), and personality-free characters (I mean, I bet if I took dialogue from say, ten of the main characters, no-one who had only read the books once or twice could identify who said it - they all have the same “voice”, despite affectations), it has two flaws which are kind of hard to detect initially, but just keep coming up over and over:
- Tonally, it’s a complete fucking mess. I’ve never seen any book with such poorly-handled and inconsistent tone. Sometimes it is outright trying to be comedic, but the dialogue doesn’t indicate it, and the subject matter is inappropriate, and I only know it was because the author said so. Other times, it’d deadly fucking serious about something both hilarious and stupid, and again, the tone of the writing and so on is indecipherable. In the last book I read, there’s an entire massive subplot which was apparently supposed to be funny, but there’s no way to really detect that, and it isn’t. And we’re supposed to take this parody-level idiot of a character, who is like a magic libertarian economic genius in a bathrobe (ugh - he is the very definition of the word “douchebag”) largely seriously, and to not see him as a parody of other, vaguely similar characters in genre writing (albeit usually in sci-fi). He’s practically a Terry Pratchett character, only in a Pratchett novel he’d end up being banged up by the Watch or something.
Which brings me to the second issue:
- The fucking characters. I know Malazan is based on an extremely long-running pen and paper RPG campaign played/DM’d by the author, which spanned two systems (AD&D 1E, then GURPS), so a little bit of silly business is to be expected, but good god you can basically see the characters who were Player Characters in the RPG (or the dreaded GMPCs, even worse) a fucking mile off. They’re all ludicrously overblown and ridiculous nonsenses of characters, who are just a giant pile of tropes and overpowered abilities and eye-roll-inducing magic items, with some sham of a personality. Now to be fair, several of them do have style. Which is unfortunate, really, because it helps mask just how profoundly fucking awful they are. And what’s really sad is, a list by fans of “best Malazan characters” is a basically a list of these totally shit characters, these fucking embarrassments to writing. The worst offenders are Anomander Rake, who I am sure I have mentioned before, and is clearly a 13-year-old D&D-player’s idea of “Elric but, like, totally badass!”, and Tehol Beddict (aforementioned magical libertarian), who is a 16-year-old who just read Atlas Shrugged’s fucking terrible idea of totally badass character for a fantasy campaign. He’s definitely from when the game was in GURPS, because everything about him screams “GURPS character”. Let’s not even talk about Icarium, who is such an edgy fucking teenager of a character that it’s one keeps forgetting he’s immortal, not 14.
I feel slightly sick just typing about them.
I don’t consider the Malazan series a total loss. If you’re going to write fantasy, or DM fantasy RPGs, they’re full of good concepts you can steal, and the writing and characters serve as a valuable lesson of “what not to do”. Plus I will always have a soft spot for undead neanderthals.
Yup. I feel like Stanley-Robinson’s Mars trilogy really gave me expectations about The Expanse that it never even came near to reaching.