Tag Archives: Steven Erikson

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Happy Lord of the Rings Day!

The Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series exhibited a rabid yet desirable iconoclasm, through which its author Steven Erikson elucidated every trope of epic fantasy and then shit on it. I came out of reading the series feeling like nothing could surprise me anymore except some other Erikson fare. The man himself might not be appreciative of this outcome; the 10-book series was, and is, more like a drug to me than anything else.

At the start of any book you implicitly enter into a covenant with the author that you’ll the read the book in return for being allowed to expect that it will entertain you. This is because books are not allowed to disappoint you – an expectation that’s actually true of every form of art that’s produced for public consumption. The experience of disappointment, even though it’s a common emotion, is not an aspiration. There’s no market nor the (mainstream) aesthetic for it.

At some level, what Erikson ruined for me was the ability to expect to be surprised or entertained by whatever was coming. This is a remarkable thing for the consumption of fantasy to achieve because fantasy is an evacuation from our reality unto a different one more suited to making the author’s point while also not being too contrived (although that’s a hyper-reductive definition). And for millions of people around the world, including myself, the doorway to realising how good fantasy could be was J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Lord of the Rings didn’t succeed by being too whimsical – a trait many simpleminded folk conflate with the fantasy genre – but in fact the opposite. It was tightly knit, gorgeously situated, described and narrated, in a world somewhat different from our own. Its success lay in its storytelling as much as in its seminal nature: Lord of the Rings, for many of us, was the first. It has had and will continue to have a certain quality of primacy associated with readers’ memories of it.

It set many readers’ expectations in terms of what they could expect from the fantasy genre: not frolicking cartoons for children but goddamned epics. The Malazan series took this premise and bled it to death in a beautiful, beautiful way. If Lord of the Rings was the gateway drug for realising, and acknowledging, the potential of fantasy to be assessed in the same league as mainstream literature, the Malazan series is the Manitoba shlimbo.

I’m sure you recognise this post has been a roundabout way of saying Malazan ruined me for other books, and you’re probably wondering, “What a hubristic schmuck.” What a hubristic schmuck indeed. One of the more amazing components of the reading experience that regular book-readers take for granted is the ability to clench your teeth and grind through the more boring parts of a book – a sort of restrained deferment to the idea that though the book may not be entertaining now, entertainment remains in the offing. That’s what I miss being able to do, and that’s the whole difference between plodding slowly through a book and giving up at p. 15 and throwing it away.

Yes, we’re allowed to stop reading books that are boring, but we, especially I, get bored very easily – and I’m almost proud of it because it’s a skill I’ve honed to allow me to quickly spot, and correct, dull news reports. I also need to relearn what it means to make a small cluster of points over 250 pages or more. Reacquiring a habit like reading isn’t easy, particularly if you lost it for the reasons specified above. So to make it easier for me to get back on that wagon, I’m going to start with obviously popular books – often written by white men; first on the list is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

So far so good.

Happy Lord of the Rings Day! Quoting verbatim from last year’s post on the same date:

March 25 every year is Lord of the Rings Day – a.k.a. Tolkien Day and Lord of the Rings Reading Day – because, in the books, that’s the day on which the One Ring is taken into the fires of Orodruin (or Mount Doom or Amon Amarth) by Gollum/Smeagol from the finger of Frodo Baggins. It was the year 3019 of the Third Age and augured the end of the War of the Ring.

Watch the films, read the books, talk about it, read about it, write about it. Do whatever it takes you to remember the potential of fantasy fiction to be a legitimate way to survive and cherish our realities.

Featured image credit: aitoff/pixabay.

Happy Lord of the Rings Day

Just been having a bad day today – and from the midst of it all, almost forgot to blog about Lord of the Rings Day. I do this every year on the blog (I think), recalling two things: how great Lord of the Rings was, and how even better something else is. Last year, and I’m making no effort to check, it had to have been one of Steven Erikson’s books, possibly from the Malazan series. I’ve got nothing else to add this year. The Malazan series is still the best in my books, and if you’re into epic fantasy fiction and haven’t read it yet: boo. I would also highly recommend the Warcraft lore.

Customary recap: March 25 every year is Lord of the Rings Day – a.k.a. Tolkien Day and Lord of the Rings Reading Day – because, in the books, that’s the day on which the One Ring is taken into the fires of Orodruin (or Mount Doom or Amon Amarth) by Gollum/Smeagol from the finger of Frodo Baggins. It was the year 3019 of the Third Age and augured the end of the War of the Ring. On this day, let’s read a chapter or two from the trilogy and remember what an enlightening experience reading the books was.

Featured image credit: kewl/pixabay

Some notes and updates

Four years of the Higgs boson

Missed this didn’t I. On July 4, 2012, physicists at CERN announced that the Large Hadron Collider had found a Higgs-boson-like particle. Though the confirmation would only come in January 2013 (that it was the Higgs boson and not any other particle), July 4 is the celebrated date. I don’t exactly mark the occasion every year except to recap on whatever’s been happening in particle physics. And this year: everyone’s still looking for supersymmetry; there was widespread excitement about a possible new fundamental particle weighing about 750 GeV when data-taking began at the LHC in late May but strong rumours from within CERN have it that such a particle probably doesn’t exist (i.e. it’s vanishing in the new data-sets). Pity. The favoured way to anticipate what might come to be well before the final announcements are made in August is to keep an eye out for conference announcements in mid-July. If they’re made, it’s a strong giveaway that something’s been found.

Live-tweeting and timezones

I’ve a shitty internet connection at home in Delhi which means I couldn’t get to see the live-stream NASA put out of its control room or whatever as Juno executed its orbital insertion manoeuvre this morning. Fortunately, Twitter came to the rescue; NASA’s social media team had done such a great job of hyping up the insertion (deservingly so) that it seemed as if all the 480 accounts I followed were tweeting about it. I don’t believe I missed anything at all, except perhaps the sounds of applause. Twitter’s awesome that way, and I’ll say that even if it means I’m stating the obvious. One thing did strike me: all times (of the various events in the timeline) were published in UTC and EDT. This makes sense because converting from UTC to a local timezone is easy (IST = UTC + 5.30) while EDT corresponds to the US east cost. However, the thing about IST being UTC + 5.30 isn’t immediately apparent to everyone (at least not to me), and every so often I wish an account tweeting from India, such as a news agency’s, uses IST. I do it every time.

New music

I don’t know why I hadn’t found Yat-kha earlier considering I listen to Huun Huur Tu so much, and Yat-kha is almost always among the recommendations (all bands specialising in throat-singing). And while Huun Huur Tu likes to keep their music traditional and true to its original compositional style, Yat-kha takes it a step further, banding its sound up with rock, and this tastes much better to me. With a voice like Albert Kuvezin’s, keeping things traditional can be a little disappointing – you can hear why in the song above. It’s called Kaa-khem; the same song by Huun Huur Tu is called Mezhegei. Bass evokes megalomania in me, and it’s all the more sensual when its rendition is accomplished with human voice, rising and falling. Another example of what I’m talking about is called Yenisei punk. Finally, this is where I’d suggest you stop if you’re looking for throat-singing made to sound more belligerent: I stumbled upon War horse by Tengger Cavalry, classified as nomadic folk metal. It’s terrible.

Fall of Light, a part 2

In fantasy trilogies, the first part benefits from establishing the premise and the third, from the denouement. If the second part has to benefit from anything at all, then it is the story itself, not the intensity of the stakes within its narrative. At least, that’s my takeaway from Fall of Light, the second book of Steven Erikson’s Kharkanas trilogy. Its predecessor, Forge of Darkness, established the kingdom of Kurald Galain and the various forces that shape its peoples and policies. Because the trilogy has been described as being a prequel (note: not the prequel) to Erikson’s epic Malazan Book of the Fallen series, and because of what we know about Kurald Galain in the series, the last book of the trilogy has its work cut out for it. But in the meantime, Fall of Light was an unexpectedly monotonous affair – and that was awesome. As a friend of mine has been wont to describe the Malazan series: Erikson is a master of raising the stakes. He does that in all of his books (including the Korbal Broach short-stories) and he does it really well. However, Fall of Light rode with the stakes as they were laid down at the end of the first book, through a plot that maintained the tension at all times. It’s neither eager to shed its burden nor is it eager to take on new ones. If you’ve read the Malazan series, I’d say he’s written another Deadhouse Gates, but better.

Oh, and this completes one of my bigger goals for 2016.

A happy Lord of the Rings Day to you

Mae govannen! On this day, in the year 3019 of the Third Age, the hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee cast the One Ring, Ash Nazg, into the fires of Orodruin and destroyed it. Thus was ended the reign of Thû, one of the last lieutenants of the dark lord Morgoth Bauglir, and his dreadful ambition to rule all of Middle Earth. The War of the Ring would end 223 days later with the defeat and killing of Sauron in the Battle of Bywater.

Of all the worlds I’d like to escape to (when reality as it is becomes too much or makes for too little), there are three: Middle Earth, Lether and Azeroth. The tales in which they are situated all exhibit an affinity for ecological inclusivity, where human agency is evaluated in its total environment, including the natural elements and forces. The choices also make me realise I have a thing for paganistic fantasy.

(Spoilers? Not really.)

Middle Earth is the cultural third space that inhabits J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of the World (Arda) as it should be, the continent on which The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are set. Tolkien’s literature, beginning from The Silmarillion and ending with Return of the King, has  journeys and exoduses as prominent features. As the books move through time, so do its peoples move through space. The result is for their evolution to be shaped by as well as mirror the lands they occupy, for geology to be as much a driver of plot as their actions themselves.

Exemplary subplots: the persistence of Rivendell and the events from Frodo’s capture by Faramir to Gollum’s actions in Cirith Ungol.

This connection between living things and the land is also a common feature of Steven Erikson’s epic fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen. It is set on multiple fictional continents. One of them is Lether, which was trapped and preserved for thousands of years within a magical cage of ice created by Gothos. And when finally the ice cracked as the world warmed, Lether was recolonised by its native tribes. However, none of them realised that the form of magic that they practised was now considered ancient because the rest of the world had moved on; that while Letherii magic still clung to the oracular mode of Tiles, everyone else used the Deck of Dragons. This discrepancy is a major plot-driver in book #7 of the series, Reaper’s Gale. It serves to exemplify how, when foreigners conquer a native land, they can only hope to replace bodies – and that the land, the culture and the government will simply have new staffers, nothing more.

At the beginning of the book, I remember thinking that Gothos’s enforced stasis of Lether was quite the contrivance, drawn up by Erikson to prevent the repetition of a plot device that runs throughout the series. However, Reaper’s Gale quickly turns out to be one of the best books in the series (of ten) because of the detail that Erikson fills it up with. These aren’t details of irrelevant things but of an allegorical post-colonialism, where the coloniser was simply a great stillness of time.

Exemplary subplot: the battle at Bast Fulmar (The Valley of Drums).

A very good example of a proper contrivance occurs in the World of Warcraft mythos: the event known as the Cataclysm. WoW is set in the fictional realm of Azeroth, comprising Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms separate by the Great Sea. Like in the last two examples, geology plays an important role in the shaping of events. In fact, like in The Silmarillion, there is a great sundering of the world brought about by greed and betrayal. However, there is then a second sundering called the Cataclysm, where the black dragon Neltharion (a.k.a. Deathwing) breaks out of his prison deep within the land of Azeroth to lay waste to the world even as its features are rapidly reshaped by violent seismic forces. What makes this a contrivance is that, following Cataclysm, life goes on as it might’ve without it, except for things just looking different – clearly, it’s creators were simply looking for a change of scenery. Nonetheless, I do like Azeroth for the events that played out until then.

Exemplary subplots: War of the Ancients and the events from the Culling of Stratholme to the discovery of Frostmourne.

Every year on March 25, I’m prompted to look back on why I continue to admire Tolkien’s creations even though I’ve publicly acknowledged that they’re far surpassed by Erikson’s creations. An important reason is primacy: the LotR trilogy made for the first modern great epic fantasy, its guiding light so very bright that even those who came after struggled to match its success. Another reason is that, through the books, Tolkein managed to edify all of epic fantasy by bringing together the perfect minima of characters, devices and plots – and of course language – that could make for a lasting classic.

Lord of the Rings Day

Today is Lord of the Rings Day. On this day, in the year 3019 of the Third Age, Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee reach the Sammath Naur and cast the One Ring into Orodruin, in whose fires the ring was first forged. Thus, the ring is destroyed and leads to the downfall of Sauron, the Dark Lord. However, this doesn’t mark the end of the War of the Ring (although it does in the movies) – that happens when Saruman is defeated in the Battle of Bywater by the hobbits on November 3 of the same year.

Why do I still remember the date? I don’t know. Tolkien’s books were good, three of the best, in fact, and much better than the trope to come after. There were a few notable exceptions, but nothing has came to being just as original until, I’d say, GRRM and Erikson. I was briefly excited by Robert Jordan but his more classical narrative combined with a droning style bored me. It was never the length because one of my enduring favourites is Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which has seen 10 books and one part of a trilogy already out (all kickass – you should check them out).

Nevertheless, reading Lord of the Rings in 2003 was an important part of my life. In the years since, I have taken away different morals from the book – which, thankfully, aren’t as mundane as Jordan’s nor as multi-hued as Erikson’s (or as gruesome as Martin’s or as juvenile as Feist’s). Beyond the immediate take-away that is good-versus-evil, there are tales of friendships, sacrifices, trust, humility and leadership. And what a great epic all of it made! As it happens, Lord of the Rings Day is actually Tolkien Reading Day. So if you haven’t already read the trilogy, or its adorable prequel The Hobbit (or Silmarillion, for that matter), grab a copy and start. It’s never too late.

In the Valley of Drums…

For lack of a more sensational beginning: Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy fiction series is the best piece of writing I have ever encountered. Erikson’s experience as a archaeologist and an anthropologist is brought to bear in every line of the 10-book epic, producing a tale that is vigorously gripping yet mercilessly sophisticated. But once you are those requisite 30 to 40 pages in, you will come to understand why such sophistication is important, rather can be, because you will suddenly be aware of how much other works of fantasy fiction have chosen to leave out. Many readers of the series have criticized him for making his narrative so complex, so “unreasonably” intricate, but I find it tremendously gratifying that when I read his work, I feel as if I am drawn closer to the helplessness that Erikson himself feels… a kinship founded on knowing how much can go left unsaid for every plot concluded.

Right now, I’m re-reading the Malazan series for, I think, the third time. During each iteration, there has been room for profound discovery. In the seventh book, Reaper’s Gale, consider the example of a valley described by Erikson where two armies are due to meet. One army, that of the Letherii, employs sorcerers of considerable power, while the other, the tribal Awl, are reliant solely on the edges of iron. The valley, called Bast Fulmar – “Valley of Drums” – was chosen by the Awl warleader for the clash because it has been sapped of its ability to support magic. And how did it lose its magic? Here is how the Awl warleader, the enigmatic Redmask, describes it.

When the world was young, these plains surrounding us were higher, closer to the sky. The earth was a thin hide, covering thick flesh that was nothing but frozen wood and leaves.The rotted corpse of ancient forests. Beneath summer sun, unseen rivers flowed through that forest, between every twig, every crushed-down branch. And with each summer, the sun’s heat was greater, the season longer, and the rivers flowed, draining the vast buried forest. And so the plans descended, settled as the dried out forest crumbled to dust, and with the rains more water would sink down, sweeping away that dust, southward, northward, eastward, westward, following valleys rising to join streams. All directions, ever flowing away.

The land left the sky. The land settled onto stone, the very bone of the world. In this manner, the land changed to echo the cursed sorceries of the Shamans of the Antlers, the ones who kneel among boulders.

Such a piquant evocation of the living world we occupy I have not read elsewhere. Redmask, then, goes on to describe what went wrong with the world, with a valley in particular, to leave it so ghastly and raw (in context).

Bast Fulmar, the Valley of Drums. The Letherii believe we hold it in great awe. They believe this valley was the site of an ancient war between the Awl and the K’Chain Che’Malle – although the Letherii know not the true name of our ancient enemy. Perhaps indeed there were skirmishes, such that memory survives, only to twist and bind anew in false shapes. Many of you hold to those new shapes, believing them true. An ancient battle. One we won. One we lost – there are elders who are bold with the latter secret, as if defeat was a knife hidden in their heart-hand.

Bast Fulmar. Valley of Drums. Here, then, is its secret truth. The Shamans of the Antlers drummed the hide of this valley before us. Until all life was stolen, all waters fled. They drank deep, until nothing was left. For at this time, the shamans were not alone, not for that fell ritual. No, others of their kind had joined them – on distant continents, hundreds, thousands of leagues away, each and all on that one night. To sever their life from the earth, to sever this earth from its own life.

Bast Fulmar. We rise now to make war. In the Valley of Drums, my warriors, Letherii sorcery will fail. Edur sorcery will fail. In Bast Fulmar, there is no water of magic from which to steal. All used up, all taken to quench the fire that is life. Our enemy is not aware. They will find the truth this day. Too late. Today, my warriors, shall be iron against iron. That and nothing more.

Bast Fulmar sings this day. It sings: there is no magic. There is no magic!

There is of course an obvious reality mirroring this scene, an allusion to how we are draining this world, severing it from its own life.

Ah, Bast Fulmar…