Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Village in the Middle of Nowhere (Malazan)

I finished Dust of Dreams a day or two back, and I spent some time this afternoon going through the pages I marked as particularly interesting and either writing stuff down in my Quotes file, keeping it marked if it was a potential review quote, or removing the mark if I was no longer quite as enamored with it as I’d been. Partway through the process, I came across this:

Thirty leagues north of Li Heng on the Quon Talian mainland was the village of Gethran, an unremarkable little clump of middling drystone houses , workshops, a dilapidated church devoted to a handful of local spirits, a bar and a gaol blockhouse where the tax-collector lived in one of the cells and was in the habit of arresting himself when he got too drunk, which was just about every night.(p. 281)

It’s a totally new setting, complete with hierarchies and clashes, etc, a total change in perspective like Erikson unleashes…every few pages. The difference is, however, that it’s a random village in the middle of nowhere:

A village no different from countless others scattered throughout the Malazan Empire. Entire lives spent in isolation from the affairs of imperial ambition, from the marching armies of conquet and magic-ravaged battles. Lives crowded with local dramas and every face a familiar one, every life known from blood-slick birth to blood-drenched death. (p. 282)

Most fantasies stick with the heroes of the land, the nobility, the adventurers. Malazan has a plethora of ground based point of views, but, even so, almost all of them are involved, in one way or another, with world changing events. The everyman’s point of view – in which characters strive for something basic, simple, something within the confines of your average man’s life, as opposed to, say, ascending to godhood – is almost completely absent from Malazan. Oh, you’ve got a handful of examples (Crokus in Gardens of the Moon, for isntance), but it’s still rare enough that it’s almost more shocking to get one than it is to see an undead dragon, or what have you.

This isn’t a flaw of Malazan, mind you, just a style. Malazan is not about the common man; it is about those who have been swept up by a mythic tide, and it is about the kind of events that shape history for a millennia. And yet, every once in a while, you get something like the aforementioned passages that put it all in perspective.

Of course, the quote isn’t totally out of the blue. Deadsmell, a squad mage in the Bonehunters, has been a minor character for a while now, but it’s only now that we get his past:

Hounded by four older sisters, the grubby half-wild boy who would one day be named Deadsmell was in the habit of hiding out with Old Scez, who might have been an uncle or maybe just one of his mother’s lovers before his father came back from the war. (p. 282)

Over the following few pages, I felt like I’d lived for years in this town, sitting on the outskirts and untouched by the colossal events that we’ve spent so much time reading about, and I felt like I’d lived through Deadsmell’s life. This isn’t an essential scene, admittedly. The story could’ve easily gone on without it, and Deadsmell doesn't spring to the fore of the narration afterwards. All the same, I think the entire Malazan world is richer for its inclusion, and it was one of my favorite parts of Dust of Dreams.

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