Steven Erikson vs. R. Scott Bakker
I’m a little more than half way through the second book of Steven Erikson’s sprawling Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series. And I must say, Erikson takes epic fantasy to a whole new level – and from what I’ve heard, the books get better as the series unfolds. Certainly the second – The Deadhouse Gates – is far, far better than the first – Gardens of the Moon.
I keep thinking back to R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series, which was the first series I started since George R. R. Martin’s books that I thought was anywhere near as engaging or well written as Martin’s masterpiece – and I have to admit, I’m enjoying the Malazan books a lot more than Bakker’s work. While I think the actual prose found in The Prince of Nothing is better than Erikson’s, I also think that Bakker suffers from an obsession with characters who you simply have to hate. You don’t love to hate them – you just hate them. You don’t care about any of their fates. You watch them suffer dispassionately, because you know that each and every one of them is awful and probably deserves it. Even the characters you think have some shred of decency – when pressed – compromise that decency to become slightly more awful.
It’s sort of a masochistic experience. It gets hard to take. I think Bakker wants us to believe that this is just the ugly truth – that humans are just selfish, manipulative and despicable at their core. Whether or not he’s right, it makes for some agonizing reading after a while, no matter how fascinating his world and the history of that world may be, or how lush and dark his prose.
Erikson on the other hand spins an engaging, fast paced tale with many characters on different sides of the various conflicts, some more likeable than others, some fairly awful, some feckless, and so on and so forth. And Erikson’s world and the history of that world is simply vast. I don’t think any other fantasy series I’ve read has such a vast, continent-spanning world with such a long, complex and mysterious history. It’s really stunning epic fantasy – and if epic is your cup of tea, then you should check it out. The magic is also interesting, and very unique. And there’s tons of it. I’m usually not a fan of fantasy that is too magical, preferring the subtle and mysterious. But somehow Erikson pulls off both an abundance of magic and a great deal of mystery surrounding that magic.
The first book is a bit slow to get off its feet, and it feels like it didn’t really take shape until about half way through – and quite frankly, the end is almost too much. Too many really big things go down all at once and are resolved. But the second book remedies many of the flaws of the first, and I confess to being unable to set the damn thing down. If ever an author made up for his mistakes, Erikson has done it with The Deadhouse Gates and I have no doubt that I will proceed on to the third book (and then the many, many following novels. Unlike Martin, Erikson apparently can churn out a book faster than every six or seven years.)
And that’s my take on the Erikson vs. Bakker question. Read both authors, but only read Bakker if you want something really, really painfully dark. Erikson’s work is violent and dark, too, but it’s palatable. There’s some comic relief, and you (mostly) like the characters, which is always nice. That’s also one of Martin’s strengths. Even his anti-heroes have a good side, or at least a side we can relate to.