(Original Review, 2002)
Steven Erikson's characters are great; the reader is thrown into his world from the off, expected to follow along with who's who and what's what, and while this is initially disconcerting, I realised it was part of the experience Erikson was trying to create - confusion and chaos in the heat of battle. Relationships are already established, his characters already know who they like or dislike, there's no need for clumsy explanations in dialogue of what this magical term means or what that fantastical creature can do - the reader is expected to get on and learn the hard way, it's a bit like being in room full of people speaking French having never experienced the language before (I don't do French; never learned it). In amongst this, the names were really useful as markers and helped me remember who was who; I think sometimes the authors imply something with their character names, a certain personality or habit and sometimes there may be a connection entirely by accident. The mages had some excellent ones, 'Tattersail', 'Tayschrenn', 'Hairlock'. To me, they imply mystery and power, exactly like their respective characters. The protagonist's name, Ganoes Paran, reminded me of the word 'gallows', as he is quite a dark and cynical character, often seeing things from a humorously negative perspective - this is probably an entirely personal interpretation, but it shows you the importance of a good name. The further the reader gets into the Erikson series, the more we stumble across one of the series' greatest charms; in many of the books the plot centres around the marines of the Malazan Empire, who, without going into too much detail, were all given nicknames by the recruiting sergeant Braven Tooth. The real names of the soldiers are never mentioned, and as the plot progresses the reasons for the enigmatic nicknames become apparent, each marine living up to his new title. How Braven Tooth knows the nature of each one of his recruits remains a mystery, whether this is some form of magic is not revealed, but it is just one of the series-long threads that ties this magnificent fantasy together.
I have to say I think Erikson has the edge over Martin for me. It took longer for me to get into the Malazan world, but once I did, it was a total conversion and a revelation. The first book - Gardens of the Moon - is inferior to the rest of the series in terms of writing; and Erikson just throws you into the action, with nothing explained at all. It's a little frustrating at first, but stick with it. Whatever you do, don't give up before the end of the second book, which I know is a big commitment - but totally worth it. Erikson is an archaeologist and anthropologist and (like Ursula Le Guin) uses his scholarly knowledge to good effect in his books. The level of magic used is *much* higher than in Martin; there's no use pretending you're reading anything other than fantasy.