Malazan Empire: In a world where all novels were standalones... - Malazan Empire

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In a world where all novels were standalones...

#1 User is offline   Zetubal 

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Posted 06 February 2019 - 04:26 PM

So, the other day I had a talk with one of my colleagues, a guy who writes his PhD on fantasy literature. As you can imagine, big fan of the genre. Alas, not a fan of the Malazan series for...reasons. And that's kind of what we talked about (him not liking Malaz), when he brought up an interesting point. See, apparently much of what I argued had to do with the worldbuilding, the thoughtful way SE plans the plot progression over several novels, and the fantastic payoffs we eventually get as a result. My buddy countered this by arguing for treating each novel as its own self-contained plot. His question then was along the lines of "Do you actually feel that any single novel in series is strong enough on its to count as a potential favorite novel?"

In the context of our argument at the time, I kind of dismissed it since it's really hypothetical. After all, nobody ever reads novel 7 in a 10 part series as a standalone (except maybe by accident). And thus nobody can authentically judge that.
But then it got me thinking...So here's what I want to ask you guys: Do you believe that any single Malazan novel is so strong on its own that you would treat it as a general favorite of yours. And what I mean by "on its own", is that its that great without any nod to how it benefits from previous novels or how it lays the groundwork for things to come in later books. And, should you have that kind of appreciation, can you elaborate on what you cherish about said novel?

Discuss :)
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#2 User is offline   Nevyn 

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Posted 06 February 2019 - 04:58 PM

Deadhouse Gates

Memories of Ice

Dancer's Lament if we count ICE books.


They aren't standalones anyway. Standalone is different from self contained plot. The former requires that it be read and enjoyed without having read the others (which would be a silly standard either forcing redundancy into series or only ever liking book 1's and true standalones). The latter can lean on knowledge from prior books but only evaluates the story on its own.


As the rest of the series gets shaped, the plots run into and over each book more, so plot threads run all over if self contained. But MOI and DG, even though they lead or hint other places, have strong enough central narratives with resolutions to stand alone.
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#3 User is offline   Gorefest 

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Posted 06 February 2019 - 05:57 PM

Yes, easily. There are several individual MBotF novels that blow many other fantasy novels clean out of the water. Has he actually read any of the novels? Or can you get a PhD in this sort of stuff simply by posturing?
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#4 User is offline   Abyss 

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Posted 06 February 2019 - 06:00 PM

View PostNevyn, on 06 February 2019 - 04:58 PM, said:

... MOI and DG, even though they lead or hint other places, have strong enough central narratives with resolutions to stand alone.


^ this.
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#5 User is offline   Aptorian 

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Posted 06 February 2019 - 06:54 PM

Thirding DG and MOI. They're still two of the best fantasy books I've read.
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#6 User is offline   worry 

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Posted 06 February 2019 - 08:02 PM

Aside from the above, DG and MOI being cracking stories on their own...

Does he think 'standalone' novels exist in a vacuum? Like, they aren't embedded in a literary tradition & don't exist inherently in conversation with other novels? Imagine feeling that familiarity with Virginia Woolf/Mrs. Dalloway makes reading The Hours a less valid experience. Or like with Dickens, who published his novels a chapter at a time, arguing that the impact of Great Expectations Chapter 50 relied too much on Chapters 1-49.
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#7 User is offline   Zetubal 

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Posted 06 February 2019 - 09:06 PM

View PostGorefest, on 06 February 2019 - 05:57 PM, said:

Yes, easily. There are several individual MBotF novels that blow many other fantasy novels clean out of the water. Has he actually read any of the novels? Or can you get a PhD in this sort of stuff simply by posturing?


Far as I know, he gave up after Gardens of the Moon. And while I don't share his views on MBotF, I don't think this discredits him with regards to his PhD project. It's a vast genre and his professional expertise (as far as I know) lies elsewhere. Then again, I've never studied literature, so what do I know.


View Postworry, on 06 February 2019 - 08:02 PM, said:

Aside from the above, DG and MOI being cracking stories on their own...

Does he think 'standalone' novels exist in a vacuum? Like, they aren't embedded in a literary tradition & don't exist inherently in conversation with other novels? Imagine feeling that familiarity with Virginia Woolf/Mrs. Dalloway makes reading The Hours a less valid experience. Or like with Dickens, who published his novels a chapter at a time, arguing that the impact of Great Expectations Chapter 50 relied too much on Chapters 1-49.


Hm, I think that's a misreading of his statement. Maybe I didn't do a good job of explaining. Let me rephrase: Much of what I argued was great about the series was built around the idea that SE managed to create this vast interwoven story with plotlines that continue over several books, how alive the world feels that he steadily creates and how over the course of the series it's mostly devoid of any unrealistic expository dialogue. How much you can simply infer from mundane conversations. How his anthropological insight mixes with his storytelling in order to give you these intricate views into the inner workings of cultures and societies. How the series time and time again delivers interesting takes on recurring topics. How at the same time it deals with dozens of ideas while also continuously coming back to the same handful of questions about the human condition. You know the drill.

Now he took that as in: "Well, okay, so maybe this is a case where the whole is much much more than just the sum of its parts. Are there any single stories of novels that you could point out as great pieces of literature or would you say that the great thing about Malazan is the larger whole that is created over the course of several novels?"
To which I btw also mentioned DG...and then MT and to a lesser extent TtH - each of which I think have strong enough writing and suffciently compelling stories that I would consider them favorites of mine regardless of the role they play within the Malazan world. That latter is just icing on the cake.

So, it's not about some lofty idea according to which novels exist in a vacuum, but rather about the question whether there are book series in which several mediocre novels add up to a greater whole if viewed in their entirety rather than as individual pieces of literature.

This post has been edited by Zetubal: 06 February 2019 - 09:09 PM

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#8 User is offline   Not Noto 

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Posted 06 February 2019 - 09:21 PM

Several mediocre novels... 🤬☠️💩
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#9 User is offline   worry 

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Posted 06 February 2019 - 10:08 PM

No I get what he's saying. I think it's a bizarre, wrongheaded way to view literature at all, fantasy or otherwise.

Edit: which is to say, it's a rubric he probably doesn't apply to other things he reads, and has everything to do with him not liking GotM and devising a rule out of thin air in order to dismiss the series as a whole.

This post has been edited by worry: 06 February 2019 - 10:14 PM

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#10 User is offline   nacht 

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Posted 07 February 2019 - 05:36 AM

the standard newbie response to GotM is

Read a little bit
WTF is this?

Read something else but keep thinking of GotM

OMG! this is bloody brilliant. What's the next one. find malazanempire :-)
Hooked to the series.


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Those who gave up on GotM and those who came back to it.
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#11 User is offline   nacht 

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Posted 07 February 2019 - 05:37 AM

My vote is for Midnight Tides as a standalone. Brilliant!
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#12 User is offline   nicetrout 

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Posted 07 February 2019 - 04:08 PM

Interesting Thread. Obviously I agree Memories of Ice is one of my favorite books ever. Shout out to Nacht because I do think Midnight Tides is the strongest single book in the series.

And in someways I totally see and probably agree with part of Zetubal's friends point. (Although Like somewhat silly he has only read Gardens of the Moon and made the point, however I think there's some interesting parts of that question anyway)


Obviously I think very highly of Malazan, why else would I be on this forum. However, I certainly do think the series is much greater than the sum of its part (the best stories usually are imo). They are definitely some parts of the series that are flawed from my point of view, not bad but flawed. Those parts are dwarfed by superb and excellent parts elsewhere. I've always understood the question about how should you evaluate series/stories like that. Where maybe some parts have flaws but overall are pretty great.

So I suppose I have sympathy for the initial argument but obviously disagree with his evaluation. I mean, I do think some books are such strong entries in it of themselves.

Not even like they are stand alone but that they tell a satisfying complete narrative in one book, rather then being truly just one part of a larger whole. I think some Malazan books are more like the latter, and not necessarily stand alone. (Obv Dust of Dreams, but others in a way as well.) But I think most of the books have a narrative that resolves within the book as well as contributing to the larger whole. Especially with DG, MOI, and MT I feel like those narratives are superlative and powerful, and what makes me exuberant about the series.
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#13 User is offline   D'rek 

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Posted 07 February 2019 - 09:39 PM

Disagree on DG. The whole Whirlwind events and Felisin's journey are left very unresolved, and Laseen not meeting Kalam in-person is something of an anti-climax.

Both the Chain of Dogs from DG and Midnight Tides overall are something of a "the bad guys win" ending which would only really be standalone as tragedies.

Reaper's Gale I think might do it best. If the backstory of the previous books was all somehow contained in the prologue, it's basically the Malazans and Fear's crusaders toppling the evil empire, killing the emperor, and you even get the dark god behind the scenes getting smacked down at the end. The Redmask fights are a bit wonky in tying into the rest of the plot, and the Icarium mysteryness doesn't get fully resolved, but the mainer storylines are pretty well contained.

 worrywort, on 14 September 2012 - 08:07 PM, said:

I kinda love it when D'rek unleashes her nerd wrath, as I knew she would here. Sorry innocent bystanders, but someone's gotta be the kindling.
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#14 User is offline   WhiskeyJohn 

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Posted 09 February 2019 - 12:47 AM

Pretty much every book in the series is worthy on it's own. I personally love MoI & TtH for their epic climaxes and what a writing those are. SE at his best. DG, MT and GoTM are epic on their own.

How does his argument stand up against ASOIAF? Is there any single literary masterpiece book?



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#15 User is offline   Morgan Lefay 

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Posted 09 February 2019 - 11:39 AM

Even Gardens of the Moon is a masterpiece on its own.If not, no one would have read the following books.
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#16 User is offline   Gorefest 

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Posted 09 February 2019 - 02:21 PM

No book is an island.
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#17 User is offline   Puck 

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Posted 09 February 2019 - 03:18 PM

View PostZetubal, on 06 February 2019 - 09:06 PM, said:

Now he took that as in: "Well, okay, so maybe this is a case where the whole is much much more than just the sum of its parts. Are there any single stories of novels that you could point out as great pieces of literature or would you say that the great thing about Malazan is the larger whole that is created over the course of several novels?"


I would, actually, argue that the MBotF is greater than the sum of its parts and while some books may be read in isolation, it only develops to its full potential when viewed as a whole.

What I don't get is the core of your friend's argument. Is he trying to say that only books, even if part of a series, that work as a standalone are worth reading? What's his stance on LotR? SoIaF? WoT? BEcause the last time I checked, each book in most of those is even less able to stand alone than certain books in the MBotF. And how is writing several books that span a narrative a bad thing? (Because that's what that argument sounds like.) I almost asked whether he thinks that catering to the lowest common denominator is what he thinks is the goal, but then I remembered that fucking Sanderson is also writing a ten book series. spekaing of which, what is your friend's stance on Sandy? I mean, say about his stuff what you want, but no one can argue that his work isn't even more interconnected than the MBotF, what with having an entire multiverse and to know everything about it, you have to read everything, not just one series. I have so many questions. And ultimately, until I have more amswers, the sneaking suspicion that he simply didn't like GotM and needs to justify to himself not liking and not reading the rest of the MBotF. At which point I say, yeah, how can you write an academic paper about the genre while nitpicking what you're going to read of that genre and taior it to your own likes? That paper is bound to come out biased.

Also, more on point, I say MT is my pick for best standalone. Also, GotM. Not sure about either DG or MoI, to be honest.
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#18 User is offline   nicetrout 

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Posted 11 February 2019 - 06:15 PM

This whole thing is tough because we're all talking about an argument we can't be sure of.

I think about it like this though. If he's saying that maybe each book should have a certain strength of it's own, I could agree. I think the phrase "stand alone" is not the one I would use. If someone wanted to argue that a great episode of television needs to be a complete story in itself, in addition to adding to the tapestry of the whole show. I could understand that argument, I don't know if I agree, but I could get the idea of wanting each part of serialized story to be it's own complete thought. So if you wanted to extend that to books, I may see that argument.

The argument being that each book in a series, should have satisfying narrative that begins and ends within the book. In addition to adding the whole series, that it each book is a story of it's own.

I don't know if I would agree with that. However, I can understand the notion. I can recognize the tension any writer of a serialized story has to balance.

Sorry for rambling a bit. That interpretation of the point makes some sense to me. It's still tough though, because who's to say that argument is the one the person's making.
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#19 User is offline   Zetubal 

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Posted 11 February 2019 - 09:02 PM

View PostMorgan Lefay, on 09 February 2019 - 11:39 AM, said:

Even Gardens of the Moon is a masterpiece on its own.If not, no one would have read the following books.


Could also be sufficiently intriguing. Or not so bad that it actively discourages people from picking up the next one.

View PostPuck, on 09 February 2019 - 03:18 PM, said:

I would, actually, argue that the MBotF is greater than the sum of its parts and while some books may be read in isolation, it only develops to its full potential when viewed as a whole.

What I don't get is the core of your friend's argument. Is he trying to say that only books, even if part of a series, that work as a standalone are worth reading? What's his stance on LotR? SoIaF? WoT? BEcause the last time I checked, each book in most of those is even less able to stand alone than certain books in the MBotF. And how is writing several books that span a narrative a bad thing? (Because that's what that argument sounds like.) I almost asked whether he thinks that catering to the lowest common denominator is what he thinks is the goal, but then I remembered that fucking Sanderson is also writing a ten book series. spekaing of which, what is your friend's stance on Sandy? I mean, say about his stuff what you want, but no one can argue that his work isn't even more interconnected than the MBotF, what with having an entire multiverse and to know everything about it, you have to read everything, not just one series. I have so many questions. And ultimately, until I have more amswers, the sneaking suspicion that he simply didn't like GotM and needs to justify to himself not liking and not reading the rest of the MBotF. At which point I say, yeah, how can you write an academic paper about the genre while nitpicking what you're going to read of that genre and taior it to your own likes? That paper is bound to come out biased.

Also, more on point, I say MT is my pick for best standalone. Also, GotM. Not sure about either DG or MoI, to be honest.


First of all, let me reiterate what nicetrout wrote: I have to assume and guess here, since it's not my original argument. I should also point out that I don't know my colleague well enough to make an educated guess about his (exact) thoughts on some series we've never even talked about. That said, I'll try my best to answer anyway :D
I think the idea here is that novels which are part of series contribute to the reader's enjoyment in two ways that needn't necessarily co-align: The way they tell a (more of less) self-contained story that makes for a worthy read and the contribution that they make in the larger context of a series. Now, it goes without saying that in reality, there's no clear cut line between those two. Pretty much all novels that are part of series do both, though arguably to varying degrees.
Think maybe of MT. MT has a pretty much completely new cast of characters from the previous four novels to the point where I'd be willing to argue that much of what's being told here can be understood without any prior knowledge of the other books. And it's a friggin awesome story. The fact that it only has subtle references to the rest of the series up till that point but still manages to be such a wonderful book is - I think - a strong indicator for the argument that the enjoyment to be had here lies not just in how the novels enriches the world of Malaz, but in the richness of its self-contained narrative. On the other side of the spectrum we have something like...um...The trip to Canea in Codex Alera 5? Maybe? I certainly didn't enjoy that much. Viewed as a proper plot its fairly bland. But viewed in context it definitely adds some weight to the drama in Alera 6, and it also contains some much appreciated additions to the relation dynamics between characters (esp. Varg). I might be overreaching since I haven't read it in like 15 years, but back then I didn't much enjoy the Silmarillion for its original stories, but absolutely loved how it fleshed out the Lord of the Rings lore.

So, in response to your questions: I don't think my colleague tried to say only books which work as standalones are worth reading. What I got from our talk was more...conciliatory? Maybe he wanted to argue that my appreciation from GotM might lie in the fact that I know (and like) the entire series and can therefore appreciate what GotM offers to Malaz on the whole, whereas he - lacking said knowledge - only saw its proper contents, and didn't like them all that much. Viewed in that light, it's a way of arguing that "we're both right, after a fashion". Admittedly though, this is a guess of mine. I can't say what his stance on ASoIaF is as we've never talked about it. Same goes for WoT. The Sanderson stuff, to my knowledge, he hasn't read either (though I only ever mentioned Stormlight Archive to him because I haven't read the other stuff myself). LotR features prominently in his PhD, so I'd wager he likes it, though for what reasons I cannot say. He also likes Mieville...who I haven't read.

You guys have got me to point where I'm nearly willing to corner the guy and ask him some of your questions because I'm curious myself...
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#20 User is offline   Morgan Lefay 

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Posted 11 February 2019 - 09:35 PM

Why don't you invite your colleague to post here himself? I'm curious too...
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