There comes a time in all of our lives when we will experience the loss of a loved one. Upon that loss, we will probably go through what is commonly known as the Five Stages of Grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is a hard time.
For me, I have found that when I finish a particularly brilliant book or series I experience similar feelings of grief. I’m emotionally exhausted, bereft, and feeling upset that there are no more books to come. My favourite characters are gone, forever. There is nothing so contrived as the Five Stages of Literary Grief; I don’t deny the book is ended or get angry, or any of those tropes. But I think there can still be a benefit from talking about the experience.
That’s what I’ll be doing here upon finally having completed Steven Erikson’s masterpiece, ‘The Malazan Book of the Fallen’.
Caveat: I am well aware there are more books coming, and there are even more books coming from his partner in the series, Ian C Esselmont.
There is something distressing in that moment when you flip onto the last page, seeing how the text doesn’t reach to the bottom of the page and, more often than not these days, seeing a different font-size alerting you to the fact you have finished the series. It’s bad enough with a trilogy. Finishing Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series I was left wanting more. So what hope did I have reaching the concluding pages of a series which had run into ten thick, thick books?
Closing the back cover down on the end of ‘The Crippled God’ was surreal. Finishing the Malazan Book of the Fallen was a different experience for me. It was like that moment after Lord of the Rings when it all became apparent just how different this particular piece of fiction was. It became apparent that there is a need for a label beyond fiction so that we can categorise what we’ve just experienced. Schindler’s List is not the same movie as Bad Boys, despite their respective merits. The latter is done for entertainment, the former is done to educate; to tap into a different part of the human mind and prod the sedentary thought process of a lazy population.
Steven Erikson sets you up for that feeling at the very beginning. In the Preface to the Gardens of the Moon redux, he writes thus: "In writing Gardens, I quickly discovered that ‘back story’ was going to be a problem no matter how far back I went. And I realized that, unless I spoon-fed my potential readers (something I refused to do, having railed often enough at writers of fantasy epics treating us readers as if we were idiots), unless I ‘simplified’, unless I slipped down into the well-worn tracks of what’s gone before, I was going to leave readers floundering. And not just readers, but editors, publishers, agents…"
Start reading ‘Gardens of the Moon’ and you’re already lost. Who are the Malazan’s? How’d they get to Pale and, hang on, where’s Pale?! What’s a High Fist and why does he only have Onearm? And what on earth – if Earth it be – is Burn’s Sleep?
This was history. Fiction unlike anything we’d ever encountered. Sure, Glen Cook had gone before and done something similar, and decades earlier than that J. R. R. Tolkien had come along and given us a complete world, languages and archaeology included. But Erikson went that one step further. He took what he’d learnt from both Cook and Tolkien, and then ran with it, bringing along moral inquisitiveness and a mirror to humanity as he went.
So what happens when you finish all of that?
The same thing that should happen when you finish reading an account of the Battle of the Somme, or the African-American Civil Rights Movement. You should have learned something. You should be changed! There must be a shift in your perception of reality, at least a portion of it. Fair enough; maybe Erikson’s work doesn’t touch on every aspect of the human condition – and certainly not the fragility of life that Glen Cook reflects in his ‘Black Company’ series – but Erikson sure as hell brings you close to the edge of what it means to be human, and then leaps across the gap and shows you everything in full relief.
How does it make you feel, really, to consider the sheer frequency with which we set to killing one another over something so trivial as where our imaginary border-line is placed? What is your reaction to the death of children left to fend for themselves?
Without a doubt, this is a fantasy novel and, as a result, has taken these examples to the extreme. But, then you have to start thinking … how far are we from the extreme? How are the wars depicted in the Malazan Book of the Fallen at all different from those we have fought ourselves? In what manner is The Snake different to the thousands of children left starving and defenceless throughout Africa and Asia?
Close a novel. Bring that back cover to rest for the last time on top of near a thousand pages of story. Breathe in. If you aren’t thinking, if you aren’t one-hundred percent focused on what you have learned, then you’ve missed the point entirely.