Oh you thought I was gone like your deadbeat Disneyland-Dad, huh? Lucky (or not) for you, 2020 was the year I spent whiling my days building pungie pits for v*xinated zombies to swarm my toilet paper fortress walls or finishing this pile of reviews I had drafted up — and I’ve run out of dirt and sticks.
The Daddy of Fiction Reviews is here to stay!
This one has been in the works for a while and I’ve been eager to share. Enjoy, kiddos. Years in fact, since I first picked up Glen Cook and the ancient stink of Beryl and the tomb of forvalaka forever cemented me into his world. It was the sweltering summer of 2018, I’d moved into a decrepit palace that would have belonged in his universe; a rat-dominated tower of doom (shitty downtown apartment) and was positively broke. I had a recommendation from a friend that Black Company was the book for me and that was that; I picked up a copy and fell in love. That same summer I found a copy of Gardens of the Moon and starting reading Malazan on a whim. Despite the fact I enjoyed Black Company more, I ended up pressing through Gardens and into Deadhouse Gates (one of the most mesmerizing action-fantasy tales that I will dedicate an entire blog to, mark my words) and dedicated myself to the temple of Erikson, despite my wanting to douse the head of his female protagonists (and editor) in boiling pitch and leave them to cure in the Bolivian desert.
Tempting as it was to go big dick and give Erikson a taste of ye olde Clawson Cannonry and review Gardens with the tolerance of a Hellfire missile, I found a sliver of wherewithal and abstained back then. And I’m glad I did. These two series are monumental in impact, in both positive and negative ways, and require methodical precision to review honestly.
So here we go, the merits of military fantasy; the good the bad and the ugly.
When one sets out to find out to read a fantasy book there is always the typical mythological baggage involved. It’s part of the experience, no? The Joseph Campbell ‘Hero’s Journey’ as it were; a young and promising heroine who will come face to face with destiny, overcome challenges, etc. etc. you know the story. Not banging on the old fantasy tale either—it can deliver and you can bet your sweet ass that old school fantasy kicks ass. But it’s not going to throw you a curveball. You’re not expecting to predict the entire plot verbatim but you know there’s going to be a magical sword, a hot-ass bride, and some kerosene-soaked battle scenes that would give Michael Bay a mile-high erection if he ever learned how to read.
And then there is the inexplicable diversion of this genre that is exclusively the wet dream of every Marine of every conflict and age; the military fantasy.
If you’ve read my review on Black Company already then you might know where I’m shoving my spear at right now. If you haven’t, you really should (https://wordpress.com/post/sagaofaelorad.wordpress.com/438). Because today we are talking about war. No, not battles. I’m specifically talking about war fantasy. And no, I’m not talking about the giggling hobgoblin of Mount Shit-On-Tolkien, aka George RR Martin. I’m talking about honest-to-god-infantry marching through mud, setting pickets, and even calling in “airstrikes”. Cue the reveille and bring on the dancing girls!
Unfortunately the budget doesn’t cover dancing girls, we spent it all on tequila and new books ahhhhhhhhh….well, back to the program.
Black Company is surreal to even cover. Partially out of respect to its dedication to rigorously parallel the same all-too-human levels of corruption, weakness, and failures of both ancient and modern governance systems in our world that are in its; only it takes place in a dark fairy tale world (there are even references to Snow White/old European fairy tales having a powerful influence on the world). The other because your perspective from a protagonist lens break the 4th wall to tell you <I am a mercenary and I am an unreliable narrator, so take everything I see with a grain of salt>, which the author does a potent job of injecting a very flawed voice into his protagonists. Glen Cook leaves no stone uncovered when it comes to the deep psychological drives that power his characters and their plots. The Ten Who Are Taken, the mob-boss/evil henchmen of the Lady are your first glimpse at how power really works in his world; a twisted combination of backstabbing and politicking that makes the Sith master/apprentice relationship look like an episode of Family Feud. The rest of the journey onward across the world is a dive into the deeper layers of uncovering history that really does feel like going through your grandma’s diary and learning all the dirt on your relatives.
Malazan on the other hand is a dimensionally-dense series whose total compendium could potentially rival the notorious Star Wars Expanded Universe; and it’s not because of the Unreliable Narrator trope (like Cook) but that the history itself is convoluted and told in such a way that you’re getting it from a hundred different sources, not just a few unbiased ones. The gods have different names and anthologies depending on which culture you ask. There’s probably a few hundred characters per book you need to keep track of (not an exaggeration). Like our actual history of human migrations you have fantasy ice-age race of undead who split up into a billion tribes and it’s impossible to keep track of who is who. It is a no-holds-barred kind of literary experience. Your first impression of the world of Malazan is like getting HALO-dropped directly into enemy territory without any idea who or what you are fighting, the regiment you’ve been rudely thrust into is a hundred thousand years old with a rich history to boot, and whoever is sending the thunder is a God or is buddies with a god. There is a good and viable reason why a good chunk of potential Malazanfiles give up reading it after a few pages—it is intimidating and downright anthropological, literally. There are some flaws to this and for brevity’s sake it’s because Malazan almost seems like a fantasy-history book rather than an actual adventure. For good or bad, Erikson’s editor was asleep at the wheel and allowed this to transpire.
One other delicious detail about these series is that both were tabletop campaigns (Black Company is a little-known secret, I just happened to meet someone who knew one of the players) that inspired the plots. While this becomes a detriment in Malazan to some degree (plot conveniences that everyday Joes who were clearly player-characters are godlike, know a god, become a god, or defeat a god *snort*) it does also lend itself to create very conflicted and human characters. I don’t think it hurts either Cook’s or Erikson’s stories but emboldens them — makes believable quirks. How much the tabletop campaigns differ from the published book I haven’t a clue. You could ask the authors. But in an age where tabletop has become a more relevant and common activity, I did find it a pertinent detail.
That and the fact their players/themselves did/probably serve in the military, which gives the flavor of the world a steely authenticity...