As far back as humans have been telling stories we've been telling tales of epic proportions. Even before we were writing things down, Homer in Greece and Valmiki in India were reciting the verses they had created commemorating the lives of cultural heroes. Later civilizations, like the Romans with Virgil's Aenead, co-opted the form to create a suitably heroic past for themselves.
Mythical or true, the epic served the purpose of providing a culture with a hero of exemplary character who could be held up for all to emulate. Some cultures have created their religions along similar lines, with a central figure both worshiped and emulated. Over the years however the application of the word 'epic' has changed and is usually only used to indicate the size and breadth of the narrative.
Long gone are epics meant to serve as cultural guidelines, mainly because that role is no longer necessary, but that still doesn't mean the term should be tossed about as lightly as it is today and applied to writing just because it runs into multiple installments or a huge number of words. How many times do you read of something being described as a "sweeping epic narrative of …"?
Nine times out of ten it usually means the author has written thousands of pages of pointless drivel based on some romantic notion of history. It's the reading equivalent of eating a ten-course meal of fast food – it's the same as a ten-course gourmet meal in size, but has none of the substance that makes you remember it an hour after you've eaten.
Steven Erikson's series Malazan Book Of The Fallen, published by Bantam Press, definitely qualifies as a gourmet banquet of delights. The publication of Reaper's Gale, the seventh book of his ten-book contribution to the story of the Malazan Empire, is another indication of how impressive his talents truly are. (A fellow Canadian author has now joined Mr. Erikson in contributing to telling the story of the Empire; Ian C. Eslemont's first installment, Night Of Knives, is being released by Bantam on July 24.)
Over the course of the first six books, Mr. Erikson has managed what I consider the remarkable achievement of creating a multitude of characters and plots without once allowing his work to descend into confusion. In fact he's one of the few authors I know where the introduction of new plots and characters actually clarifies matters instead of confusing them further.
The reason he is able to accomplish this seemingly difficult task is his patience as a writer. He allows his characters and his plots plenty of time to develop so his readers are able to be comfortable with both the situations and the people. People who were briefly introduced in early books as chance encounters come back in a later book to have their story told in full and their place in the history explained. They might then be set aside for another entire book, but when we meet them again we know who they are and what their role is destined to be.
The title Reaper's Gale is a reference to the old saying about "reaping a whirlwind" as a consequence of your actions. A number of assorted plots and schemes have been launched by a variety of beings, ranging from mortal to god, over the course of the first six books, and now they are reaping that gale.
The Malazan armies have landed on the coast of Letherii to ferment rebellion against the Tiste Edur who has conquered that Empire. But the battle between elements of the Fourteenth army and the Tiste Edur and Letherii forces is only one layer of the battle. While the mortals wage bloodthirsty war, plots and counter plots are being acted out around them on all levels of reality.
What holds everything together is Erikson's wonderful skill in creating characters. Unlike the epics of old where there is one character who was representative of all that was supposedly admirable about a culture, we have a multitude of characters who encompass the best and the worst of humankind. Of course there are heroes and villains, but then there are also the others who are neither, or the ones we will always be unsure of.