I’m a completionist at heart. I like finishing what I started, though over the years I’ve been able to wean myself away from the innate need to finish any book I start reading. I also don’t generally write reviews of books that I didn’t like, simply as a professional courtesy to other authors. But here’s the thing: I liked book 8 of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series (Toll the Hounds). Steven Erikson does a tremendous job of making epic fantasy really feel epic. When the book is clicking, it’s really riveting stuff. I care about the characters, I’m in suspense about what’s going to happen next. It’s heady stuff. There were scenes in the book that were fantastic.
And yet I gave the book a 7/10, and I made the decision to not continue with books 9 and 10 to finish the series.
I’m 80% of the way through the books, and I’m stopping? What the what?
The problem is that I just don’t get what’s going on for long swathes of the series. When we talk about epic fantasy, we talk about steep learning curves. The amount of time and attention you have to devote to the book to be able to really understand what’s happening. In fantasy, anything is possible, so it takes some time before you can understand the way a world works. What the rules are of that world. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, typically because the pay off is really good. I think of Neal Stephenson’s books. Anathem was totally confusing and bewildering, until suddenly I got it, and then I devoured the rest.
In earlier books in the Malazan series, I felt that same experience. At some point, the story would crystallize, and I’d be off and running. But the longer I read the series, the more I began to feel like I wasn’t up to the task anymore. I would find myself pausing reading to go look up the Malazan wiki to see just who it was who I was reading about at the moment. I couldn’t remember plot lines. Couldn’t keep track of character arcs.
It was like I was watching a movie through a bad internet connection, and so I kept missing huge chunks of what was going on, and I just ended up bewildered. And the further I went into the series, the more severe this became. New characters were introduced to the point that it felt kind of like I was staring at a Where’s Waldo page, except I knew if I were smart enough, then I’d be able to remember what everyone on that page was doing other than Waldo, and I’d really care about it.
In the end, I just can’t keep it up. Yes, I’m two books away from the finish line. I had thought if I read the series in one big go, then it would all make sense. I thought wrong. And I’ve resigned myself to that. There was a time in my life where that sort of book was just what I was looking for. That time in my life isn’t now. It’s not because the books are bad. It’s because they don’t work for me, even if I wish they did.
If anyone ever asks me for a recommendation for a really epic fantasy, Malazan will be right at the top of my list. But it’ll come with a disclaimer. An acknowledgement that the series was beyond me personally, though I really enjoyed pieces of it. That might sound like faint praise, and it’s certainly conflicted, but it’s not every day you come across a series you both love and yet also realize isn’t quite for you.
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