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