Almost from the first time I heard of them, I was told to tread with caution where Steven Erikson’s Malazan books are concerned. Even his diehard fans say this series is hard to read. Some even intimate that The Malazan Book of the Fallen (the series’ official name) is the most difficult epic fantasy series to read of any written by a living author.

I was about sixteen when I picked up the first volume, and I backed off after just a page or two, thanks to these accounts of the Malazan learning curve—and not actually due to anything I was reading. Now, in the middle of book three of the series, I seriously wish I’d pressed on instead of moving on in search of simpler series.

Malazan isn’t really so hard to read. It’s complex, to be sure, and Erikson doesn’t hold readers’ hands like some other authors do. But I’m convinced that thousands of epic fantasy readers are missing out because of exaggerated reports about the challenges of reading this series. Many readers also steer away, unfortunately, because of the vigor of Erikson’s valiant fans, who can, in their zeal for the books, often attack and insult potential readers.

I believe there’s a lot of happy middle ground, so here’s my take and TLDR pitch for the series: If you love unique epic fantasy, you should seriously consider reading Malazan. It truly isn’t that hard to digest—and there’s assuredly as much to admire as Erikson’s fervent fans proclaim.

First, some background and a few notes on the Malazan learning curve.

What is the Malazan series about?

Malazan is a story about: godlike beings breaking free from their imprisonment; an empire crumbling, rallying, and redefining itself; a squad of veterans fighting to survive; individual people struggling to stay individuals (not just pawns in ascendants’ hands).

Readers often have a hard time describing the plot because there are, in fact, many plots. In fact, the interweaving of so many is one of the sources of difficulty for most readers, although most Malazan storylines by themselves will feel plenty familiar to fantasy readers.

Is Malazan really that difficult to read?

This is a legitimate question. Here are some of the things real world readers say about Gardens of the Moon (the first book in the series) in Amazon reviews:

“Erikson seriously erred beginning this story in medias res.”

“What I found… was a turgid, impenetrable mess.”

“Everything stops reading like nonsense about halfway through.”

“Things seemingly come out of no where [sic]. No explanation. No rules.”

“The book is too difficult.”

And here are a few comments from experienced reviewers:

Library of a Viking: “I barely understand a single thing.” (commented in the middle of book two.)

Daniel Greene: “This is for epic fantasy fans only.”

Bookborn: “I thought I was too stupid for the series.”

While I tend to disagree with the tenor of the comments above, coming to grips with Malazan is obviously a challenge for many smart readers.

Malazan does indeed come with a learning curve

The dramatis personae in Steven Erikson's epic fantasy novel Gardens of the Moon

Some authors tell you three or four times how everything works in their fantasy settings. Erikson respects reader intelligence a lot and spreads his telling more thinly. Sometimes he lets you figure things out all on your own, which can make it difficult to read Malazan.

Easy example: Characters in Malazan refer often to the unfortunate dead crossing Hood’s Gate. Erikson doesn’t sit down and go into expository detail about Hood being the god of death or his worship being one of a few sanctioned religions before the Malaz conquest of Kartool Island. He generally just lets characters say things like, “He’s already at Hood’s Gate.” There’s enough context to figure out quickly what these characters really mean.

Not so simple example: Erikson famously assumed that hordes of readers would deduce the identities of several new ascendants (gods, more or less) based simply on the timing of their ascent. In book two or three he says outright, “Those new ascendants are in fact such and such characters.” I read book one and most of two without ever putting the pieces together—as have almost all Malazan readers out there. (Sidenote: it doesn’t actually matter whether readers picked up the hint or not, because the plot still makes plenty of sense up to the point that Erikson does share the information more forthrightly.)

Malazan readers do still need to come to grips with a lot. There’s a vast high fantasy setting, a big cast, unique races, a large pantheon of important players, and an incredibly important magic system, all without much overt guidance from the author. The thing is, Erikson anchors the reading experience so expertly that you don’t need to know everything. Not by a long shot. His effective use of prose, characterization, and plot go a long way to proofing his books against gaps in reader memory or notice.

You get some whole stories without reading to the end

Another chief way Erikson offsets the learning curve is by giving a solid ending with just about every book in the series. Malazan stands head and shoulders above many other truly great works of epic fantasy by delivering substantive stories without requiring quite so much of the reader’s blood to access each one.

Gardens of the Moon, for instance, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It doesn’t have all the endings it could have. But it provides a satisfying stopping point for readers who decide they’ve had enough. Deadhouse Gates (book two) does this even more profoundly, finishing a few amazing stories while continuing and beginning others. It strikes a balance sort of halfway between Terry Brooks’s original Sword of Shannara trilogy—in which each book ended its own tale more or less completely—and Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive—in which each book has a strong conclusion without closing many doors.

So. If the idea of a 10-book series scares you, rest assured that Malazan is a much safer, less difficult investment than The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Sword of Truth and many other peer series, because you can bail out at the end of almost any book and you’ll still get some solid, whole stories.

Malazan’s greatest strengths are tied to its moderate difficulty level

One of the things that amazes me most, having read just a quarter of the series so far, is how much story Erikson has already packed in. The pace is unyieldingly quick, with major events advancing in every chapter. Part of the genius of the books is how much Erikson elects to skip—where other authors might fall into the trap of overexplaining or making sure it’s all crystal clear (e.g. where other authors often do overexplain or overemphasize).

It’s surprisingly like William Gibson’s Neuromancer in this way. So much happens so quickly, often with little contextual information shared in the moment. But the heart of the story is clear without much context anyway, so the author’s choice to skip the boring parts doesn’t hurt. It just keeps things interesting.

Difficulty level or no, Malazan sets an unfathomably high bar for epic fantasy

The biggest reasons to read Malazan are, of course, not about the level of difficulty or the time commitment required to read it. You should read the series because the books are amazing.

It’s not great because of the 700 character-cast. It’s great because of the depth of human insight they bring to the story or the riveting relationships those characters form.

The series doesn’t need the careful stitching together of 30 different plotlines to be exciting. It’s exciting because of the quality of storytelling in each smaller story Erikson develops.

Malazan isn’t about Erikson’s obvious love for history, either, regardless of the hundreds of thousands of years of lore bleeding onto the page. Malazan is about being transported to an unforgettable setting.

It’s bigger than The Wheel of Time and richer than Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn—with a larger world, a stronger history, deeper cultures, and a more lively cast of characters. Its moments of breathtaking heroism rival anything in the genre, from The Lord of the Rings to Elfstones of Shannara to the Lightbringer series. The deep human insight pervading these books is particularly unique, measuring up with the best of Robin Hobb, J. V. Jones, Sean Russel and many other top tier fantasy authors. In short, there’s something outstanding here for just about any epic fantasy reader.

Conclusion: Epic fantasy readers should seriously consider Malazan

I first learned about Erikson thanks to a Terry Brooks fan forum. It was in this same forum that I—as a hungry young fantasy reader—first heard of R. A. Salvatore, Anne McCaffrey, Guy Gavriel Kay, Naomi Novik, and many other authors old and new alike.

Everywhere Erikson came up, his work was regarded on par with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, often with no competing comparisons. It was this consistent attribution of quality that finally convinced me to try Malazan again after 15+ years since my first attempt.

From where I am, a mere 25% through the series, I genuinely believe those claims.

Reference information

A breakdown of the wordcount across many large fantasy and science fiction series.

The number of named characters in the Malazan series: Malazan has about 700 named characters. For comparison, A Song of Ice and Fire has about 1000 so far, and The Wheel of Time boasts a whopping 2700.

Word count of the Malazan series: All told, the ten books in this series total about 3,325,000 words. That’s about three times as long as the entire Harry Potter series and a million words shy of The Wheel of Time.

Publication history of the Malazan series: The entire 10-book series was published between 1999 and 2011, averaging close to 15 months between each book.

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About the Author

Headshot of epic fantasy author Stephen Taylor.

Stephen Taylor is the author of The Witherclaw Trilogy as well as short fiction appearing in The Future FireMYTHIC Magazine, The Centropic Oracle, and other publications. His short story “Only an Ocean” won a Silver Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. When he’s not writing, he’s often playing my violin or wandering in the woods.

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