Archives: Malazan

Twenty Silver Jakatas per Gross Weight of Lembas

Building a believable fantasy world is a challenge. There is no precise recipe, but there are ingredients. One of those ingredients is a sense of an economy, the suggestion that in the lands the characters live in, visit, or simply pass through there are people farming, building, manufacturing, and trading. This doesn’t require a treatise on local coinage or an exegesis on the bailment laws. But a writer who wants the world to feel lived in and vibrant will hint at activity occurring at the margins of the action, that daily life goes on even if the hero isn’t present and that that daily life is of the mundane, work-a-day sort we all experience.

Some writers do this exceedingly well. J.R.R. Tolkien sits at the head of the table of world-builders. MIddle-Earth feels real. He mentions dwarves passing to and from their mines. He builds inns and fills them with travelers. He describes roads and highways and indicates their decay and growing disuse, both suggesting a dwindling of trade and hinting at a time of greater commercial activity. He builds a world of increasing provincialism, of commerce becoming increasingly localized, of long-distance trade growing ever more hazardous. It aids tremendously in making Middle-Earth seem an actual, historical place, and the inhabitants as real as your Aunt Joan.

Robert E. Howard pulls off a similar trick. I’ll write at some later date about his strengths and weaknesses as a world-builder. But the Hyborian Age of Earth, when Conan trod the jeweled  thrones under sandaled feet, does seem alive with ships, caravans, and traveling merchants. The cities appear to bustle with buying and selling. Often Conan is in some hinterland or other, but the reader still gets the impression that somewhere there is a core of nations whose inhabitants are constantly trading, squabbling, and intriguing. The sweat of the laborers, the goods exchanging hands, the clinking of gold coins, all seem real, adding to the verisimilitude.

Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Land never seemed believable to me. I never got the sense that his communities could actually function. They seemed facades, Potemkin villages, or sets thrown up in the desert for a Western. I never got a sense of a working economy, how these people could live, where their stuff came from, how they exchanged goods and services. Now that might have been deliberate on Donaldson’s part. He may have been trying to reinforce the suggestion that this was all a hallucination. But once he introduced a second point of view character from Earth, that red-herring slipped out of the net and swam off.

This isn’t to say that a realistically portrayed world is essential to quality fantasy literature. E.R. Eddison’s Mercury doesn’t require a mention of trade routes or the types of crops the farmers grow in Demonland. But what Eddison is writing is akin to a fable. Like Lord Dunsany and William Morris, what he wrote were long form, adult fairy-tales. With these writers you always have the sense that someone is telling you a tale, you never fall into believing it to be a story told of a real place. You don’t get the immersiveness of Middle-Earth (a fairy-tale, perhaps, but one with solid foundations), or Westeros, or the Malazan Empire. You can almost imagine yourself falling through the pages into Hobbiton or King’s Landing.

And if you did, you just might be able to get a job.


The “Malazan” Novels: An Appreciation

The “Malazan” Novels: An Appreciation

Steven Erikson and Ian Esselmont managed a rare feat: they transformed their role-playing game campaign into a series of interesting and readable novels.  It’s a trick worthy of remark.  Some of the novels Steven Brust and of China Mieville show evidence of a similar exploit of literary legerdemain.  But given that most role-playing games are, by nature, a distillation of existing tropes, a deliberate homogenization, it is truly impressive to see something unique emerge, a story that doesn’t appear to be the equivalent of a fourth or fifth generation photocopy.

The seams do on occasion show through in Erikson and Esselmont’s books.  While they’ve rebranded the demi-human races as laid down by the Ur-RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, an observant reader can get glimpses of the original product beneath.  “Edur” instead of “Eldar” (or elf.)  “Trell” instead of “Troll” (or some form of ogre/half-ogre.)  The clues are there, though in fairness they’ve rendered such archeology a pointless exercise; their creations are essentially sui generis.

The magical systems are fresh, showing no evidence of derivation from the Vancian system employed by D&D.  But at least one character wears his class openly on his sleeve.  Karsa is quite clearly Erikson’s effort to explore the Barbarian class as well as taking Robert E. Howard’s ruminations on barbarism versus civilization out for an extended exploration.

The books provide plenty of evidence to refute those who still claim that fantasy is “merely”* escapist fiction, with no greater merit.  The books explore philosophy, archaeology, historiography, religion, politics, war, psychology.  In fact the very depth, and the fact that the two writers show no hesitation to throw the reader deep into the woods without map or compass, dissuades some readers from tackling the pile of doorstops that comprise the still-ongoing series.

Well, I’m not dissuaded.  I may not agree with the Erikson or Esselmont on certain points of politics or the ideal aesthetic of the female figure, but I’m sold on these novels and I’m in for the long haul.  In fact, after writing this, I need to return to “Blood & Bones.”

Happy reading.

*See J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous remarks on escapism.