The zenith of power fantasy – Steven Erikson’s Malazan Sequence

i just found Steven Erikson’s “The Bonehunters”, sixth volume of his Malazan Emprire series in the library.

I stopped buying SFF novels in my late teens having figured out that the re-read value was close to zero for most of them and that they took up valuable space. Having discovered also that I have the patience to wait for the next book in a series to be released in public libraries, I pretty quickly moved into not caring enough to even wait for the right sequence of books to read, often reading out of sequence or not bothering to complete a series. Eventually, as each new author starting sounding much like another, I stopped reading within the genre. Now and then, maybe a couple of times a year, I pick something new up and generally put it down pretty quickly. It seems to me that pretty much everything new out there is Generic SFF – all the grand ideas have been mined long ago, all the wonder vanished.

Or maybe I’ve grown up.

However, there are exceptions and they are John C Wright, China Meiville, R Scott Bakker and Steven Erikson. Of the three, the only one of them that makes me actually want to go out and buy the next book is Erikson.

Erikson writes a particularly masculine kind of power fantasy. Power fantasies are fantasies that focus on the obtaining (often through chance) of immense physical power in the form of magic (or esoteric knowledge), a weapon or often a magical weapon (usually a sword of some sort, sometimes coupled with armour). This is a common plotline much loved by adolescent males for obvious freudian reasons. Superhero stories are another example of power fantasies.

From this basic framework, Erikson weaves remarkably convoluted plotlines, all of which are variants of power struggles encompassing entire cultures and political movements viewed through multiple levels of various political and military hierarchies. Often these are the same. Intrigue is limited to the military and espionage levels, there are no legalistic or legislative intrigues for example.

Erikson is interesting partly because the stories he writes explore to a deeper level the consequences of that power, partly because he writes with protagonists on both sides of the struggle, partly because he is very aware of what power fantasies are and actively attempts to subvert portions of it (even as he obviously celebrates it) but mostly because the world he sets his stories in has a deep prehistorical pattern of power fantasies for which the consequences are still being played out.

Erikson also writes to the strengths of the genre, all of his characters are effectively male (even if some of them inhabit female bodies) and there are no romantic plotlines. This efficiently solves the problem faced by most male power fantasy writers – their inability to write believable female characters. Also, there’s an almost complete absence of social or emotional intrigue. (but then, we’re not here for an Austen like examination of society)

I know this sounds like a criticism but it is actually a strength and requires celebration. Stripped of all niceties, Erikson’s Malazan empire sequence shines like a defiantly raised sword, its perfectly tempered steel catching the final rays of the dying sun that is the entire power fantasy genre.