5 Reasons to Read ‘The Faithful & the Fallen’


This article was originally published by Tor.com on 28th November 2016 as ‘The Faithful and the Fallen: An epic tale of Valour in the face of Malice, Wrath and Ruin‘.celtic-greeny-tree

Have you ever found yourself ambling around your local bookstore, mumbling as you search the shelves for something – anything – that will fulfil your need for fictional giants mounted on giant bears?

Search no longer, my darlings! I present to you: The Faithful and the Fallen by British fantasy author John Gwynne.

The Faithful and the Fallen quartet by John Gwynne

Beginning with Gemmell Award-winning Malice (Best Debut, 2013), Gwynne’s series is perfect for readers who prefer their fantasy with a touch of grit and darkness (a la the Drenai saga or the Warlord Chronicles) as opposed to the nihilism that the genre is finding particularly fashionable of late. This gorgeously-jacketed quartet – featuring Malice, Valour, Ruin and Wrath – is epic, but not in that sprawling, distant, ‘wait-where-the-hell-am-I-and-who’s-this-character-again?’ sort of way. It’s bloody but not bleak; traditional, but by no means tropey.

Still not convinced? Here’s five more reasons why you might just love it.


1.

The Banished Lands are Eerie, Atmospheric and Beautifulceltic-greeny-tree


I don’t know about you, but I often reflect on the fact that there just aren’t enough ‘wyrms’ (with a ‘y’) in fiction these days. And no, I’m not talking about bog-standard dragons who’ve changed their name by deed poll to make themselves sound more interesting. I mean Proper Wyrms, the kind that show up in Germanic myths without wings or even legs and looking like pants-shittingly gigantic– well, worms.

The Faithful and the Fallen respectfully eschews elements of ‘high’ fantasy in favour of more unusual, folklore-inspired creatures. Dragons, elves, wizards and dwarves are nowhere to be seen; nope, instead, the Banished Lands are populated with giants, draigs, fallen angels and – yes! –  wyrms. (And giants. Did I mention the giants? Riding bears?)

Malice, Faithful and Fallen book oneGodless, but green: Gwynne’s settings are, in many ways, unapologetically familiar. Appearing at first glance to be little more than another ‘Medieval Europe’, the Banished Lands are infused with nostalgia and a gentle Germanic ambience that enfolds the reader in a pastoral utopia.

But it’s not long before dark, haunting Celtic overtones start to bleed into the Tolkien-esque quaintness. Gwynne’s descriptions are subtly evocative, and carry a rich sense of history – in a similar vein to the works of Miles Cameron or Mary Stewart – which will appeal to folks who’ve visited the greener, untamed parts of Britain.

A significant part of book two, Valour, takes place in a Romanesque setting, while books three and four (Ruin and Wrath) introduce misty marshes and mighty forests; ancient fortresses and windswept mountain peaks. Such vivid variety is a welcome change from the gorgeous, but overly-comfortable starting location.

With its shifting scenery (cinematically comparable to Game of Thrones, Ironclad, Spartacus and Lord of the Rings) and mixed mythological influences (from talking birds to wolf companions to legendary weapons to GIANTS RIDING BEARS) Gwynne’s saga is much greater than the sum of its parts: and is no less than a brilliant blend of Arthurian motifs and Brythonic lore scaled to epic, Norse-like proportions.


2.

The Characters are Compelling (Because Most of Them Aren’t Bastards)celtic-greeny-tree


The Faithful and the Fallen is a geographically-sweeping epic full of wicked and wonderful beings. Nonetheless, it remains admirably character-centred.

The quartet begins with just a handful of PoVs – including the ‘main’ protagonist, Corban. But as the story expands, so too does its cast. Gwynne’s structuring of these PoVs is especially smart: he introduces, and shifts between, new voices in a way that ups the complexity and creates excitement rather than confusion.Malice by John Gwynne

Honestly, I found Malice to be a little slow, and perhaps a little bit laborious: there are times when excessive detail in the child PoVs becomes repetitive. Having read the entire series, however, I now appreciate the first book’s investment in character-building.

While nowhere near the ‘shades of grey’ you’ll find in books by Mark Lawrence or Rebecca Levene, many of Gwynne’s characters – particularly later in the series – show how easy it is to find oneself on the ‘wrong’ side of a conflict, and how ‘evil’ can be a matter of perspective. It’s particularly interesting to watch some of the protagonists develop and change because of careful manipulation by others.

Here are some of the major players in book one:

CORBAN – Just your average blacksmith’s son. Nothing special about him at all. Nope.

CYWEN – Corban’s fiery knife-throwing sister.

SHIELD – Corban’s badass horse.

STORM – Corban’s big-ass wolf.

CAMLIN – Skilled archer and former brigand; fan favourite.

KASTELL – Unwilling heir; gentle giant-hunter (by which I mean he’s a gentle guy who just happens to hunt giants… not a guy who actively hunts gentle giants).

MAQUIN – Kastell’s loyal retainer and BFF. Also, HE – IS – SPARTACUS!

NATHAIR – The Fresh Prince of Balara; a bit of a tit.

VERADIS – Nathair’s first sword and blood brother (4 lyf).

Valour by John GwynneMany of you may roll your eyes at seeing such a male-dominated character list. Rest assured, the gender imbalance is addressed in book two, Valour, with the introduction of more female point-of-view protagonists. And book three, Ruin, is notably populated with strong female characters of all ages, races and stations – as well as one or two non-humans.

Malice (and, to some extent, Valour) carefully builds the web of character relationships that is then brought beautifully to the fore in Ruin. No matter how grand the situation or how large the scale, Gwynne never lets us forget that this entire series is a sprawling net comprised of a thousand little strands of humanity – and it’s this that makes it such an engaging and emotional read.


3.

‘Well, that escalated slowly!’ – The Faithful and the Fallen gets gradually bigger, better, darkerceltic-greeny-tree


The characters who survive Malice – several of whom were first introduced to the reader as children – grow and develop in interesting (and unusual) ways throughout the series. Corban’s tale is almost a coming-of-age story; except that the ‘farm-boy-with-a-destiny’ (as seen in The Belgariad, The Inheritance Cycle, The Demon Cycle, etc.) generally becomes omni-talented within an insanely short amount of time, and their eventual success is never really in doubt.

Corban, on the other hand, is entirely fallible. Love and loyalty confuse his decisions, and he makes plenty of mistakes along his entire journey (not just at the beginning). Furthermore, the skills he does possess are a result of growing up within a hard-working warrior culture.

But it would be reductive to label The Faithful and the Fallen as ‘Corban’s story’ when Ruin boasts a cast of no less than fourteen point-of-view characters. Unlike A Song of Ice and Fire, however – where you have eighty-nine protagonists spread over a million miles and whom you can easily forget about for entire books at a time – Gwynne’s are surprisingly story-focused. Many PoVs are part of the same group, so that often a change in PoV doesn’t necessarily signify a change in time, or even in location. This works fantastically for making battle scenes tense and pacy, and just overall keeps the pages turning.Ruin by John Gwynne

(There’s one extended scene near the beginning of Wrath that utilises this technique perfectly. Short chapters that switch back and forth between two characters left me breathless and desperate to keep reading until the sequence reached its (very satisfying!) resolution.)

I’ve mentioned already that neither Malice nor Valour swept me off my feet. Ruin, however, totally blew me away. By the time you reach book three, you’re invested in the characters and the story, but you’re possibly also wondering if and when the shit is going to hit the fan.

And then you start reading Ruin.

The Banished Lands are at war. No longer charmingly rural, the Celtic settings have become wild and threatening: large parts of Ruin take place in uncharted forests, treacherous marshes and daunting ruins that create a tangible atmosphere of threat and tension. Furthermore, our heroes’ predicament becomes direr with each page you turn; and the author finally gives us a peek inside the minds of some of the series’ most hated characters.

The God-War is not good vs. evil: it’s well-meaning villains and tired refugees; messy skirmishes and small-scale ambushes; confusing conflicts with people on both sides getting lost and making mistakes; losses piling up as constant fighting takes its toll both physically and mentally. The last two books are suffused with a grit and intensity that in the first two books is (for the most part) lacking.

The action comes thick and fast, and it feels as though the reader is right there amongst the combatants: sweating and bleeding and dodging blades and arrows and fists from every quarter. Large-scale battles (which I found distant and impersonal in earlier books) are visceral and immediate, featuring character-driven narratives that make the fighting feel less glorious and more real.


4.

Feels and structure and prose – oh my!celtic-greeny-tree


As the books increase in length and complexity, so too do they become more engaging – a testament to the author’s continually improving skills. Each book is stronger than the last, growing in pace, intensity and sheer readability with every chapter.

Wrath by John GwynneI don’t just mean that there’s more action (although there is!). The author’s portrayal of certain characters’ motives and emotions becomes much more powerful, granting the reader intriguing insights into nearly every aspect of the overarching conflict. With so many disparate groups of characters to keep track of, each chapter is a keyhole through which we glean hints of what might happen, and through which we gain numerous perspectives on events.

With perspective comes understanding, and readers will no doubt find themselves surprised by their own changing attitudes towards certain characters. Viewing a battle – along with its associated victories, losses and deaths – from different sides of the conflict brings humanity to every character, no matter how despicable they may seem. And with humanity comes sympathy.

Ruin is one of the very few books that has ever managed to bring me to tears (a reaction previously provoked only by Robin Hobb and Steven Erikson) and I confess to feeling physically sick with nerves at several points during both Ruin and Wrath while I waited to see what became of a beloved character.

What’s truly special about Gwynne’s stories, however, is that they can be tragic without being ‘tragedy’. The Faithful and the Fallen embraces the underlying hope that traditionally characterises the fantasy genre, that sense of an ever-present light amongst the darkness; the hope that good will push back against evil, no matter how grim the situation may seem.


5.

The Author is a Kickass, Axe-Wielding Writing Machineceltic-greeny-tree


Clearly influenced by the likes of David Gemmell and Bernard Cornwell, Gwynne’s prose is as economic as it is brutally beautiful.

If my words have failed to convince you, however, then let’s look at the facts.

Gwynne has released four full-length novels within the last four years. His first quartet is now complete, so you don’t have to worry about cliffhanger endings and decades-long waits! And with a new series (also set in the Banished Lands) slated to begin next year, Gwynne is a solid bet for those who appreciate regular, reliable releases.

Lastly… who wouldn’t want to read books written by this guy? Really? LOOK AT HIM!

Author John Gwynne, accompanied by dogs and axes


Even the Brave will Fallceltic-greeny-tree


Fans of traditional fantasy will fall in love with The Faithful and the Fallen. Readers who like their fantasy more epic than a flame-breathing oliphaunt, however, should be aware that this series is something of a slow-burn. The weight of history and prophecy and the sheer lore of the world creeps up on the reader rather than smacking them in the face; but although the series takes a little while to get going, before you know it you’ll be hooked. And Wrath is a fitting finale to a worthy series: a spectacularly epic and ambitious tale that delivers everything it promises, and more. Trust me when I say it’s worth the wait.Wrath

So next time you’re in a bookshop and you hear somebody muttering “giants… where are all the giants?” you’ll be able to step in and give them exactly what they need.


celtic-greeny-tree

Self-published authors & the SPFBO: revitalising SFF


Note: For an updated version of this article, visit Fantasy-Faction.


Self-published authors get a lot of flak.

Even armed with a bargepole, many readers won’t touch them. These readers will assure you that indie books are unprofessional; that they’re inherently inferior and therefore not ‘proper’ books.

Yarnsworld #1 and #2 by Benedict Patrick

… and yet some self-published authors produce work that’s MORE professional-looking than the stuff you find in bookstores! (Image: the Yarnsworld series by Benedict Patrick)

Admittedly, it’s not too hard to find examples of substandard writing amongst the masses and masses of self-published works. Perhaps readers have simply had their fill of lazy prose and sloppy formatting and are wary of encountering more.

Or maybe it’s not the books that are the problem. We’ve all come across the ubiquitous indie author who takes the ‘stuck record’ approach to self-promotion. You know the one, whose constant passive-aggressive ‘BUY MY BOOK’ posts soon become so irritating that we have no choice but to issue the offending author with a cease-and-desist before gouging out our own eyes and/or unfollowing them on social media.

Whatever the reason, indie books – particularly within SFF – have garnered a reputation for being second-rate, amateur and inconsistent . . . a reputation which is (for the most part) unfair and undeserved.

‘Success stories’

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Michael J. Sullivan? Or Anthony Ryan? Both authors’ hugely popular fantasy debuts – The Crown Conspiracy and Blood Song, respectively – began life as (you guessed it!) self-published novels. Now, they’re practically household names.

Ryan, Sullivan

Anthony Ryan and Michael J. Sullivan both began as self-published authors before finding mainstream success

Inspiring, without a doubt. But in terms of popular opinion, such accomplishments have done surprisingly little to change attitudes towards indie authors. Using Ryan or Sullivan as the benchmark for measuring ‘success’ suggests that the singular goal of self-publishing is to become one of the ‘lucky few’ who eventually get picked up by traditional houses; in other words, it reinforces the idea that self-publishing is merely the means to an end.

But do all indie authors want the same thing?

300 authors, 10 blogs, 1 winner:

the great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off

(SPFBO)

While every author is unique, many share similar goals. Most prominent amongst these is the desire to be noticed.

SPFBO2 Banner by Matt Howerter

design by Matt Howerter

In February 2015, author Mark Lawrence (The Broken Empire, The Red Queen’s War) took to his blog to ponder the problem of self-promotion, observing that:

“…as a new author, particularly a self-published one, it is desperately hard to be heard. It’s a signal-to-noise problem. Who knows how many Name of the Winds or [fill in your favourite] are lost to us because they just couldn’t be seen? None? A hundred?”

He was right; moreover, plenty of voices agreed with him, and before long well-respected bloggers were clamouring to help him find a frequency on which some of the more deserving voices could finally be heard.

273 writers responded to the call for self-published authors. That’s 273 writers who submitted manuscripts to the contest. These were promptly split between ten participating bloggers, who spent the next six months wading through their ‘slush pile’ in the manner of a literary agent. Samples that failed to shine were soon cast aside, and eventually each blog was left with only one.

The SPFBO Final Ten (2015)

#SPFBO 2015: the final ten

Round Two kicked off as soon as the final ten were announced. Each blogger proceeded to read and review all finalists in full, eventually assigning each novel a rating out of 10. As you might already have guessed, the entry with the highest score at the end was declared the winner.

And the grand prize? Well, as Mark Lawrence announced at the start:

“There’s no other prize. The winner will get the publicity of being the winner, plus the bonus of being reviewed on the blogs of 10 highly respected fantasy bloggers.

“Frankly you can’t buy better publicity than that.”

The end of the beginning

Voila! The first step towards changing attitudes was complete. While the inaugural SPFBO didn’t exactly break down the barrier between indies and their potential readers, there’s no denying that it was a step in the right direction. The process gave a leg-up over the barrier for a handful of hidden gems, making them more visible while also filtering out less polished books.

In the end, 273 books were whittled down to one winner, and the title went to The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids. The author, Michael McClung, landed a publishing deal with Ragnarok along the way, and is now preparing for ‘Rok’s impending release of the fourth Amra Thetys book, The Thief Who Wasn’t There.

In an example of a different kind of success, close runner-up Ben Galley has since continued to advance a professional and prolific self-publishing career that began over seven years ago. Galley not only provides ‘Shelf Help’ sessions for aspiring indies, but also spends an inexhaustible amount of time writing fiction, promoting his work and building momentum for the release of his eighth novel,  The Heart of Stone.

The Heart of Stone by Ben GalleyBloodrush by Ben GalleyThe Written by Ben Galley

SPFBO 2: 2016

Confession time: I had very little personal interest in the SPFBO when it began. I admired the concept and the mind behind it, of course, but initially dismissed the contest itself as a publicity ploy. Here, I thought, was a token gesture of indulgence, the same sort that spurs celebrities to adopt baby gorillas.

You know what? I’m ashamed of my former cynicism snobbery (let’s call it what it is, folks); and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In March this year the process began again. This time around, my own involvement as part of Fantasy-Faction’s judging team has changed my perspective even more. The positivity, enthusiasm and professionalism of the entrants in our group swiftly banished any lingering reservations I may have had, as did the overall quality of the entries submitted.

In fact, several bloggers were so impressed by their batch of books that Lawrence hosted a cover contest during the early stages of the competition.

SPFBO Cover Contest 2016

Looks aren’t everything; but they do speak volumes about the amount of pride an indie author has in his or her own work. Though we know it’s shallow, most of us do judge a book by its cover. When our first glance shows us an attractive design and professional layout it makes the world of difference.

The Dragon's Blade by Michael R Miller

Sure, it’s what’s inside that really counts . . . but let’s face it, nobody would voluntarily show up for a job interview without first combing their hair and stepping into something smart. First impressions are crucial.

But even if you do everything right, what happens when somebody else shows up? Somebody who’s also done everything right?

On Ascension

Back in July, Jared at Pornokitsch was torn between two books for his finalist. He spoke so highly of both that Mark Lawrence himself was inspired to read the eventual runner-up, and was so impressed by the book that he now goes out of his way to make sure others recognise the author’s talent.Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

The author in question is Josiah Bancroft. The book is Senlin Ascends. Chances are that many of you have already heard of it; earlier this year, The Wertzone described Senlin Ascends as “SFF’s first genuinely evocative work of self-published literature” and suggested that it “may mark a serious turning-point in the field.” Lawrence’s baby gorilla has grown swiftly indeed, and now ascends the tower a la King Kong in New York. Bring on the bi-planes!

Though none have become quite as well-known as Mr. Bancroft (yet!) there are a host of other SPFBO entrants now fighting for pre-eminence on many a reading list. Authors such as Ruth Nestvold, Benedict Patrick, Daniel Potter, L. Penelope, Michael R. Miller, David Benem, Moses Siregar III, Blair MacGregor, Rob J. Hayes, T.A. Miles, Timandra Whitecastle, Tyler Sehn, Amy Rose Davis . . . talented folks one and all, who might not have reached the final but have earned a place on the SFF community’s radar nonetheless.

If these guys are so good (you might be wondering) then why are they self-published at all?

‘Can’t get published’

Just last month, a thread about this topic sparked a host of detailed and thoughtful responses from readers on r/Fantasy. The main issue of debate was around the barriers faced by indie authors, with most commenters agreeing that quality and discoverability are two major ones. Some suggested that the ‘good’ self-published books stand out by virtue of the author having invested in professional cover design, formatting and editing. But others argued that there are too many poor-quality products for sale on the internet to even bother looking. Why, they asked, should readers waste their time sifting for talent amongst those who ‘couldn’t even get published’?

Put it this way: if an author is struggling to find a publisher, does that mean their work is crap?

A lot of people will say ‘yes!’ (and in many cases, they’re probably right). Realistically, though, traditional publishing houses turn down manuscripts for all sorts of reasons. We’ve all heard how books like Carrie, Harry Potter, Dune, Dubliners, and even The Diary of Anne Frank received multiple rejections before finally finding success. Examples like these – along with Blood Song et al. – are proof that what G.R. Matthews refers to as the ‘snob factor’ is, in many cases, unjustified.

The Stone Road by G.R. Matthews Black Cross by J.P. Ashman Lady of the Helm by T.O. Munro

Clearly, not all books that ‘can’t get published’ are objectively inferior. But here’s what some folks are still struggling to understand: ‘going indie’ is more and more frequently becoming a first choice rather than a last resort.

‘Going indie’

Believe it or not, plenty of writers balk at the thought of handing over their intellectual property to someone else.

Michael McClung (winner of the inaugural SPFBO) spoke recently about the drawbacks of switching from indie to traditional, and observed that the benefit of reaching a wider audience can come at the cost of frustrating and unforeseen delays. Traditional publishing, he says, can be incredibly stressful for an author who is not prepared to cede control over the entire process to somebody else.Ragnarok Covers: The Amra Thetys series by Michael McClung

Perhaps this is why so many authors cite a determination to retain control over one’s own work (and agenda) as a motivation for choosing self-publishing. For some this is a purely artistic choice; for others, it comes down to practicality or expedience. Regardless of merit, every author’s reasons are unique, be it J.P. Ashman’s commitment to producing a full-length epic or T.O. Munro’s freedom to set his own deadlines in keeping with a busy day job.

Then there are the ‘hybrids’. Some authors travel both paths at various times to suit their changing needs. An example of this might be an author whose novels are trad-pubbed, but whose short stories require a different platform or be lost to obscurity. Or perhaps someone whose books have been trad-pubbed in some countries but not in others.

The Mirror's Truth by Michael R. FletcherAnd this approach supports authors who, for whatever reason, have been let down by traditional publishing. Michael R. Fletcher’s first Manifest Delusions novel, Beyond Redemption, was bought and published by Harper Voyager in 2015. The book was a critical success, but a commercial disappointment. When HV declined to publish the sequel, The Mirror’s Truth, Fletcher decided to switch to indie. Likewise, author Joel Minty is going to great lengths to prepare himself for self-publishing after falling victim to the collapse of Realmwalker Publishing Group – just days before his debut, Purge of Ashes, was set to be released.

Like so many others, these authors turned to self-publishing out of necessity; a necessity born of the determination to deliver to their readers what they promised.

The ‘Great Divide’

But readers shouldn’t presume that every self-published author has already tried – or even desired – to be traditionally published. Just like everything else in life, the pros and cons of each approach are entirely subjective depending on the author’s individual goals and definitions of ‘success’.

Moreover, the reflexive dichotomy of traditional ‘versus’ self is both divisive and demeaning. To borrow the words of author Blair MacGregor:

“Dichotomy is easy.  But conversation isn’t all that challenging, either.  The longer we permit “versus” to dominate, the greater the disservice we do to talented writers.”

MacGregor goes on to suggest that people seem less interested in talking about self-publishing than they are in debating its worth.

MacGregor’s contemporaries have also drawn attention to this issue: Timandra Whitecastle – whose grimdark debut Touch of Iron aims to redefine ‘strong’ female characters – recently expressed similar views about the frustrations caused by those who insist upon such a divide. When making the decision about which approach to take, says Whitecastle, she found little value in objectively comparing the two, and focused instead on which methods would best facilitate her creative desire to “break the mold.”

The Blood-Tainted Winter by T.L. GreylockSword and Chant by Blair MacGregorA Touch of Iron by Timandra Whitecastle

Dismiss the dichotomy;

break the mold

This is where the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off comes in. The SPFBO breaks down these barriers by encouraging readers to treat self-published books just like they would any other kind.

Book looks interesting? Check it out.

Like the sample? Buy the book.

Enjoy the book? Tell your mates; leave a review. After all, the SPFBO aims to recognise and reward talented, hardworking authors with honest feedback and well-deserved exposure. As I mentioned earlier, the greatest prize on offer here is increased discoverability . . . a prize which thousands of less-known writers covet dearly.

SPFBO2 (Banner design by James Cormier)

design by James Cormier

A great many of this year’s entries fell at the very first hurdle, cast aside after just a few pages. But after six months of indecision, the participating blogs have selected their finalists, and round two has begun! And here’s the most exciting part: in a contest largely hinging on judges’ personal tastes, it’s anyone’s game.

Standards continue to rise as more and more authors set their sights on the SPFBO. Indie authors are working harder and longer, pushing themselves to the absolute limits of capability, and it is they – along with those who follow, support and promote initiatives like the SPFBO – who help keep this genre fresh and dynamic. Everybody wins!

Finally, any indie authors still choosing to operate under a half-arsed mentality of, ‘eh, I’ll just publish it through Amazon’, will inevitably get pushed to the bottom of the pile as those who are serious about making things work will continue to hike to the top – egged on by readers, peers and other like-minded artists within this incredibly supportive community.

If you’re following the SPFBO final then let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join in on social media and weigh in with your own opinions using the hashtag #SPFBO.

Oh! And check out this year’s final ten:

SPFBO 2016: the Final Ten!

SPFBO 2016: the Final Ten!


A Beginner’s Guide to Malazan Characters: ‘Gardens of the Moon’


This article originally appeared on Tor.com on September 19th 2016 and features original artwork by Chisomo Phiri.


'Silanah vs Raest': artwork by Shadaan

‘Silanah vs Raest’: artwork by Shadaan

I’ll be honest: I fell flat on my face the first time I tried to read Gardens of the Moon. Gods, assassins, soldiers, mages, immortals – you name it, Erikson’s debut is rife with it. The sheer amount of new characters leaves many readers thumbing through the earlier chapters again and again, muttering all the while about maybe having missed something.

But fear not, new readers! Your friendly Malazan holiday rep is here to save you from this fate. Just sit back, relax and enjoy this handy guide to Erikson’s inimitable characters and the tangled web of factions that connects them.


THE MALAZANS

 The Malazan Empire assimilates each culture it conquers. Most of the books tend to concentrate mainly on its military – but before we begin, here’s a brief overview of those at the very top of the food chain.

'Hunger': Empress Laseen by Shadaan

‘Hunger’: Empress Laseen by Shadaan

Empress Laseen

Formerly known as Surly. Once a bog-standard barmaid . . . until the night she assassinated the previous Emperor, Kellanved, along with others belonging to the Emperor’s ‘Old Guard’—including his chief adviser, Dancer.

Clawmaster Topper

Unhealthily obsessed with the colour green. Commands a faction of elite assassins known as the Claw who, loyal to Empress Laseen, played an important role in her bloody coup.

Adjunct Lorn

If the Clawmaster is Laseen’s hidden left hand, the Adjunct is undoubtedly his counterpart. Adjunct Lorn is the public face, voice, and sword arm of the Empress, and is fiercely loyal to Laseen (like, Brienne of Tarth-scale loyalty). Lorn wears the Adjunct’s traditional rust-coloured, magic-deadening sword, so there’s no danger of not being recognised (and feared) wherever she goes. But beneath the chip on her shoulder and the trappings of authority, she’s just a woman doing her job.


So that’s the capital. But Gardens of the Moon takes place in the field, so here’s a quick rundown of the imperial army’s key players:

 ONEARM’S HOST

 The Malazan army is a motley conglomeration of races, cultures, genders and skillsets. From crossbow-wielding marines and heavyweight frontline fighters to ex-assassins and necromancers, its soldiers are both the heart and the backbone of this series.

Dujek Onearm

Commander (‘High Fist’) of the Malazan campaign on Genabackis (aka. the continent where GotM takes place). Has one arm.

Toc the Younger

Soldier, optimist and son of . . . Toc the Elder! (Bet you didn’t see that one coming.) Desperately needs someone to buy him a t-shirt that reads ‘Wrong place, wrong time.’ Has one eye.

Tayschrenn

High Mage (aka, top dog). Aloof, enigmatic and uber-powerful. Bit of a worm, though . . .

Tattersail

Big heart, big magic, big body. Not so much a cougar as a cradle-snatcher…but we all have our flaws.

'First Ones In...': Bridgeburners by Shadaan

‘First Ones In…’: The Bridgeburners by Shadaan

THE BRIDGEBURNERS 

Remember the “Old Guard” I mentioned above? The ones Empress Laseen is no longer a fan of? Well, most of these guys—now fighting in Onearm’s Host—were as good as part of it. We first meet the Bridgeburners in the aftermath of a sorcery enfilade outside the city of Pale, during which most of their company were “accidentally” decimated by their own side.

Ganoes Paran

Wet-behind-the-ears nobleborn with a habit of inadvertently paving the road to hell. Reluctant buddy of Adjunct Lorn. Recently handed a commission as Captain of the Bridgeburners. Veterans one and all, the Bridgeburners don’t take kindly to highborn officers: Paran is the latest in a long line of Captains, and the grunts are busy planning his “welcome” before he’s even arrived. Poor guy.

Whiskeyjack

Whiskeyjack is The Man: a tough-but-fair, salt-of-the-earth-type soldier. The most well-known Bridgeburner Sergeant, Whiskeyjack also happens to be Dujek Onearm’s BFF and leads his own eclectic squad of Bridgeburner soldiers. Including . . .

Quick Ben

MMGA (Makes Mages Great Again). Seriously, even if you despise mages you’ll hit it off with Quick Ben: he’s smart-mouthed, highly strung, and perhaps one of the cleverest characters in the whole damn series. Goes to extreme lengths to lurk beneath the high-command radar and appear less powerful than he really is. Certified badass.

Kalam

Also a certified badass. Huge and muscled, ex-Claw Kalam seems an unlikely assassin, though it’s true he can probably crush your skull with his bare hands. But he’s light on his feet and quick with his knives . . . and always has Quick Ben watching his back.

Hedge

Sapper. Loves playing with munitions more than he loves life itself. Slightly deranged. Invents card games using the Deck of Dragons (aka Tarot cards that most people are afraid to even share a room with).

Fiddler

Hedge’s best friend. Also a sapper/explosives expert/crazy card-game swindler. Surprisingly prescient. Carries a fiddle.

Sorry

You’ll come across a nameless dark-haired fishergirl in one of the earliest chapters. Keep your eye on her, because it isn’t long before she reappears as a creepy-ass recruit named Sorry. There’s something odd about her, alright…and her presence makes even her grizzled tough-as-old-boots squadmates nervous.


As of the opening of GotM, the city of Pale has fallen to the Malazans. This leaves Darujhistan as the last remaining free city on Genabackis . . . and the location of the story’s big climax.

THE DARU

Darujhistan’s social and political factions are many and varied, but can be loosely divided into four influential groups:

THE COUNCIL

Nasty bastards. Ostensibly the rulers of Darujhistan, their political strategies consist mainly of bitching, backstabbing, and brown-nosing. Of all the fancy-arsed nobles’ names flung around here the only ones you need to pay attention to are Turban Orr, Lady Simtal and the D’Arle family (and of course, Challice. Who the f*ck is Challice?!)

THE T’ORRUD CABAL

'Baruk' by Shadaan

‘Baruk’ by Shadaan

Magic bastards. The real power within the city, these shadowy figures are more interested in peace than politics. Led by High Alchemist Baruk, their ranks also include an absent-minded old scholar…and his familiar, a flying monkey known as Moby.

THE GUILD OF ASSASSINS

A small but passionate community of banjo-playing dwarves.

No, not really.

THE PHOENIX INN CROWD

A shifty bunch of thieves, cutthroats, beggars, scroungers and miscreants. Naturally, these are the guys we spend most of our time in Darujhistan with, so here’s a quick overview of some of the standouts:

Kruppe

Beneficent Kruppe refers to himself in the third person. But Kruppe’s new (and cheerfully unaware) friends should not let Kruppe’s cherubic appearance and rambling demeanour deceive them: oh, no! For affable Kruppe is a master of sleight of hand; and Kruppe assures dear readers that he is, indeed, far more cunning than they might think.

Crokus Younghand

Thief, but by choice rather than necessity. Astoundingly naïve. (Like, seriously. The dude is oblivious. Adorable, yes. But also facepalm-provokingly oblivious. Consider yourselves warned!)

Rallick Nom

Assassin. Member of the Guild of Assassins. Hates it when other assassins rely on magic instead of assassin-y skills. Enjoys assassinations and long walks up haunted towers (to lie in wait before assassinating someone).

 Murillio

Fop. Dandy. Handsome layabout who offers his “services” as an escort to rich women. Also in cahoots with Assassin-y McAssassinface Rallick Nom in a super-secret plan involving their drunken mate, Coll.

Oh, and lastly: be sure to keep an eye out for the mysterious “Eel”. Slippery fellow, that one.


So there you have the Daru. But what about their allies? And what if the Malazans aren’t their only enemies?

THE “WILD CARDS”

Finally, let’s meet a few of the free agents. These fantastical figures are some of the most powerful – and unpredictable! – players in Erikson’s long game.

'Blacksword Visits': Anomander Rake by Shadaan

‘Blacksword Visits’: Anomander Rake by Shadaan

Anomander Rake

Rake is literally the Son of Darkness. As in, his mum is Mother Dark. This makes him sort of a cross between Ozzy Osbourne and Jesus: ageless, intelligent, and powerful beyond all measure, Rake is the brooding-but-badass leader of the Tiste Andii race.

FYI: You know how the elves in Lord of the Rings are tall and majestic and distant and cold and also just a little bit depressing? Picture them with midnight skin and moon-white hair. Now imagine that some of them are also capable of shapeshifting into dragons, while others wield primeval magic and weapons with impossible skill. And then – just for kicks – place them all on a colossal flying mountain and name it “Moon’s Spawn”.

 Are you picturing it? Good. That’s the Tiste Andii.

Caladan Brood

A.k.a. the big bastard with the hammer. (No, not Thor. Different dude; different hammer.)

'Hammer Time': Caladan Brood by Shadaan

‘Hammer Time’: Caladan Brood by Shadaan

Caladan Brood doesn’t get all that much page time. Nonetheless, he’s a huge presence throughout the…which, let’s face it, isn’t all that surprising when you take into account the fact that he’s a not-quite-human warlord carrying the only weapon capable of waking the Sleeping Goddess, Burn. Did I mention he’s been carrying that bad boy around for more than a thousand years?

FYI: Before the events of GotM, Brood and his BFF Rake started a kind of heavy-metal supergroup: Brood’s tribal armies and Rake’s Tiste Andii got together and swore to defend the Free Cities (like Pale and Darujhistan) against the Malazan Empire. They also recruited the legendary Crimson Guard mercenaries, along with other slightly more unsavoury allies. Such as . . .

High King Kallor

The third wheel in the Brood/Rake (Brake?) bromance. This grouchy old git is the naysayer of the group…and yet strangely impressive. Ancient, bitter and universally hated, yes. But Kallor is also no slouch with the enormous sword he carries, and despite his age he’s more cunning than a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford. Too bad allies and foes alike mock his self-styled title; and too bad that, despite lugging his decrepit throne along with him everywhere he goes, in actuality he is—in the words of renowned bard H’etfield James– “King Nothing.”

Speaking of lost glory and immortality . . .

'Imass: Life, Warmth, Craft' by Shadaan

‘Imass: Life, Warmth, Craft’ by Shadaan

Tool

The first T’lan Imass (undead cavemen tenuously allied with the Malazans) we meet, Onos T’oolan is without doubt the most skilled swordsman among the thousands-strong ranks of walking dead. Don’t get the wrong impression, though, because shambling zombies the Imass ain’t.

Fun fact: a friend of mine once told me he imagines the T’lan Imass to look like Iron Maiden’s skeletal mascot, Eddie. To this day I can’t decide if that makes them more or less terrifying. Either way, Tool is metal AF.


It’s all about the little guys

I could happily ramble on forever about ALL THE CHARACTERS in Gardens of the Moon, as well as the factions they represent and the profound motifs they introduce—epic motifs like power attracts power; war destroys the things you love; progress vs stagnation; and mega-shark vs giant octopus

For now, though, I hope I’ve managed to give new readers a glimpse of what (for me) makes this book so special. Erikson’s tale is essentially about the nature of humanity, and he adopts a more intimate approach to character-building than any other epic fantasy author I’ve encountered. He delights in showing us that the gods are fallible just as much as he revels in portraying the quiet heroism of lowly soldiers. He creates characters who are physically alien or barbaric, but in whom we can nonetheless recognise something of ourselves; and he puts each and every one of his little guys through the wringer. Not because he’s cruel—though some would say that’s a matter for debate!—but because he knows full well that the surest way to evoke a visceral response from readers is to simply give us characters that we care about and relate to.


Credit for all artwork featured in this article goes to digital artist Chisomo Phiri. Check out his full portfolio on DeviantArt!

This article appeared in its original form on Tor.com. You can read it here.