Worldbuilding and the Malazan Book of the … Feminist?


Worldbuilding and the Malazan Book of the … Feminist?

At the heart of a significant proportion of fantasy is the diegetic reality, the setting itself, the diegesis or storyworld.  It is one of the things that often sets fantasy apart from other forms of literature, those stories that use the real world as the foundational basis for the setting of the narrative.

Fantasy, like a lot of SF and Horror, creates a new reality in which the narrative resides.  So where Dickens, Austen, the Brontёs set their work in a contemporaneous, if fictionalised, England, the settings of their works did not need to be invented as they simply lifted complete societies, customs, economics, races, prejudices and biases from England, the real world.  Not only that, but their diegetic storyworld did not have to be fundamentally altered or disguised, it could be a fairly accurate depiction of the real world.  They could pretty much copy wholesale from what was outside their window.  And lastly, the setting would be immediately familiar to their readers because it was not invented.

No such short cut exists for secondary fantasy worlds.  Fantasy authors may borrow from the real world, may borrow from other fantasy worlds, and a great many borrow from history, but they must combine these elements into a fictive world that does not and could not exist in our universe… at least as we understand it.

From Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Donaldson’s The Land to modern fantasies by Erikson, Miéville, Sanderson, and Weeks, the range and style of fantasy worlds seems limited only by the breadth of the author’s imagination, the intent with which they have created it, and their ability to make it real to a reader.  But as these settings will be new to a reader, a great deal of information must be conveyed in order to situate the narrative in an understandable environment in contrast to authors of mimetic fiction who can assume their readers already know and understand the fictive realities presented.

But rather than being a simple background to story, fantasy settings can be complex characters in and of themselves, and modern fantasy continues this trend by producing even greater numbers of increasingly complex and inventive worlds that are fundamentally linked to the stories being told.  These realms and settings have an enormous impact on the narratives constructed in them and with them, and can be exceptionally revealing about authorial intent and conceptual bias in narrative.  And the fact that fans of fantasy frequently discuss the world building as a fundamental part of what they enjoy about fantasy stories, in addition to character, story and plot, and all the other aspects of narratives that draw us to them.  Worldbuilding, the fictive realities created, are clearly important aspects of this type of writing.

In the study of games, particularly RPGs and computer games, the concept of worldbuilding is well established and respected due to the immersive focus of those media, and the need to programme and codify a multitude of defined parameters within the ludic narrative environments to create an explorable and discoverable virtual storyworld.

But when it comes to academic criticism of fantasy literature… worldbuilding is not necessarily so well defined, nor is it given the focus and attention it deserves.

In traditional literary criticism a great deal of attention can be paid to setting and how it relates to potential prejudice, bias, or privilege within that author’s writing, and nary an eye brow would be raised, for instance in Brontё’s Jane Eyre the references to her inheritance, the money from the Caribbean estate, as well as the treatment of Bertha Mason, leads to a very interesting reading of the colonial aspects of Brontё’s novel.  Something that is glossed over in the narrative, but the implications of slavery, plantations and colonial privilege are woven into the diegetic reality.

But the critical view of worldbuilding in fantasy is not always viewed in this same light.

While some dismiss the authorial and fan attention to worldbuilding in fantasy as an encyclopaedic impulse, and as somehow less important than character, story, and theme, even though in some of the best and most popular modern fantasy, the setting, as with mimetic fiction, can reveal much about the work’s other aspects.

And this brings me to my first set of points and examples.

While it is clear that fantasy worlds are invented and are also products of the author’s imagination, a great many share common aspects, and this is the closest we get to a short-cut in world building.  The idea of established concepts, tropes, clichés and ‘generic’ aspects of a fantasy world that are often reductive, simplistic, or interchangeable narrative modules that can be transposed almost wholesale from one fantasy world to another.  Modern fantasy authors often use, abuse, invert, subvert, write against or write with these recognisable aspects.

There are plenty of fantasy worlds in which there is a Roman based realm, an Ancient Greek land, an Ancient Egyptian setting, and hands up if you have ever come across the ever popular pseudo-Medieval Western European setting.  I am sure we are all familiar with terms such as extruded fantasy product, derivative fantasyland, thought-free setting, or formulaic, to describe something that is almost instantly recognisable as a fantasy world… but curiously we never seem to have quite the same urge to sneer at the derivative setting of yet another book in London, or New York, or the English countryside village.

So clearly the setting of fantasy worlds is important as we expect them to be inventive and we criticise those that are not inventive enough… but there is something of a double standard as at the same time we are quite happy to let setting slide as important in mimetic fiction.

There is a curious exception to this general approach  … if a fantasy author takes a story from the real world and dresses it up a little in fantasy drag, they are often praised for their ‘innovative’ approach.  Even though their setting, ,their story, their characters are all derived explicitly from an historical source.

Which brings us, entirely by coincidence to George R.R. Martin.

Last summer[1] Martin was interviewed by Entertainment Weekly and he discussed why he included so much female rape and sexual assault in his novels.
‘if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today.’
He mentioned that most fantasy stories depict the ‘Disneyland Middle Ages’ and he finished the interview by saying ‘I want to portray struggle. Drama comes out of conflict. If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book.’….

While I would love to go on at length about Martin’s interview (as in my previous post on this subject), when I read it I was immediately struck by how his points and stated goals of writing an epic fantasy story with grit, that would investigate the darkest aspects of the human condition, that depicted the violence and horror of war, were actually achieved in Steven Erikson’s series, the Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Not only that, but the Malazan world actually is a fantasy world with gender parity… and dragons.

However, I do freely admit that it is not, in fact, a utopia.


But the reason I bring all of this up in relation to worldbuilding, is that Erikson (along with the world’s co-creator, Ian C Esslemont) managed this feat through world building.  And their approach to world building will be familiar to SF scholars and authors.  It is an extrapolative model … or what is more commonly called a ‘what if?’ approach.

Over the course of several interviews both Erikson and Esslemont have spoken extensively about the fact that they ‘gamed’ their world first.  It began as a D&D campaign world before they adapted it to the more flexible GURPS system.  So they began with generic elements and drew on established tropes before moving beyond them.

Part of what they worked out through their gaming, aided by their training as anthropologists and archaeologists, were some of the sociological impacts of their worldbuilding decisions.

One of the fundamental aspects of the world and how they extrapolated ramifications that I find interesting enough to force you all to listen to this is the magic system… or more accurately, what that magic system meant in terms of world building.


When creating the magic system, and more importantly the impact of that magic system, Erikson and Esslemont hit upon an easy way to make their world both definitively an epic fantasy secondary world, but also feminist and gender equal.

Magic could be learned by anyone.  There might be savants and geniuses and adepts, but anyone could theoretically learn magic.  As a result, magic was egalitarian.  From the smallest villages to the largest cities.  Magic was everywhere and it was part of the culture.

This one simple concept, that magic is actually part of the world’s system of evolution, seems straightforward, but it is surprisingly absent from many fantasy settings.

Their magic system was not demarcated along gender lines like Jordan’s Wheel of Time or Goodkind’s Sword of Truth.  The magic of the Malazan world can be harnessed by almost anyone.  It just required work, dedication and time to hone that talent.

And magic can be very powerful, it can be a unifier or at the very least a leveller of the playing field.  If male and female magic users have access to the same power then there is one less reason to treat them differently in the workplace.

But perhaps most importantly, healing magic was no longer simply the provenance of rulers, nobles and adventurers.  The majority of the residents of the Malzan world have access to healing magics such as Denul… albeit not always at the same rate.  But there are plenty of hedgewizards and witches, minor talents, and healers a plenty that could utilise various forms and aspects of healing magics.

So Erikson and Esslemont extrapolated from this.  People lived longer (barring a knife in the back or a sword in the gut, of course).  Both men and women remained fertile longer.  Infant mortality rates were dramatically lower as magic could be used to cure childhood diseases.  And this leads to the sociological change that birth rates would drop as people no longer felt the need to have lots of children in order that only a few would survive.

As a result of having fewer children, women were not associated with the home as housewives and mothers, and were not confined to the role of baby factories.

Their society never evolved to the point where this became the dominant view of the role and function of women in society.

So as a direct result of magic, in particular healing magic, being part of the fabric of the world, women were completely emancipated.

In the first book, Gardens of the Moon, the Malazan Empire is led by the Empress Laseen.  The first magic user the reader is introduced to is a witch, and the first powerful mage to be given significant page time is also a woman.  And none of them are presented as exceptions in the world.  They are the norm.

Both Erikson and Esslemont in their novels have a variety of important female characters, ranging from the Empress, senior political and military officers, assassins, mages, thieves, sea captains, soldiers and marines.  In fact it is easier to simply say that there are no occupations in the Malazan world that come to mind that are solely the purview of only one gender.

But much of this is not explicitly spelled out in the books themselves.  The rationale and the reasoning behind their decisions are intrinsically tied up in their worldbuilding.  Erikson has said that this gender equality was an intentional aspect of the world that he and Esslemont built, it was a fundamental goal of their world building, and, because the world has gender parity none of the characters within the world even point this out or question it.  As a result, it is an aspect of the series that is often overlooked.  Along with the fact that the vast majority of the characters do not come from the Northern hemisphere and are not in fact white.

Because Erikson and Esslemont took a gaming approach to developing their world.  They utilised their gamer’s encyclopedic impulses and used them to create a science fictional ‘what if’ scenario in a fantasy world.  From generic, established and ‘derivative’ building blocks, they created an innovative, challenging, rationalised, fantasy world.

Their fantasy is feminist, because they established gender parity as a natural norm, and as a result their world is a fascinating examination of functioning feminist storytelling and an investigation of colonial and post-colonial practices from multiple points of view.

The hardest thing to believe about their world is not the dragons but the fact that so few people seem aware of the subversive politics of this fantasy world.





[1]  Posted June 3 2015 — 1:50 PM EDT

12 responses to “Worldbuilding and the Malazan Book of the … Feminist?

    • Thanks for reading the article and for taking the time to comment.

      I used ‘feminist’ because although Esslemont and Erikson were creating an egalitarian world in general, they did so by empowering the female characters and the women in the setting in general, thereby redressing a gender imbalance common to real world power dynamics.

      As this is essentially a feminist position I thought there was a compelling argument that the setting and the books were feminist.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The feminist element is starting to spoil it for me! I am still early into the series where one of my favourite characters Itkovian just lost his title to a girl who replaces him as shield anvil because some crazy old woman decided so?? Retarded but lets hope not more of my heroes gets the chop because of retarded affirmative action which now takes place in fantasy novels.. If I was Itkovian I would kill the stupid witches and slay their lame she-wolf god!


  2. The Malazan series is probably my favorite series so far but this is something that seems just off to me about the world the two created. The argument about Denul being a reason for gender parity is new to me and gives me something to think about. On the other hand, it seems to weak a point given that women will still have to bear children, feed them and probably also mainly raise them since it makes sense for one parent to continuously focus on the family’s livelihood without interruption. The Malazan world is also still a world where children still need to work for their family out of necessity and disabled ones are turned out or sold. So this argument really does not work for me, I feel.

    The female characters presented in the books are also rather exceptional people. I have the impression that women in lower social hierarchies are much more similar to the way they are presented in history.

    In the past, I have heard the argument that the lack of patriarchal religions is to be thanked for equality but it has always seemed to give religion too much significance and disregards other more primal factors. After all, religion is often merely a reflection on and of nature.

    The main contributor to gender disparity is plain physical strength, in my opinion. It may sound very superficial but just the fact that the average man is much stronger than the average woman is of great psychological and cultural significance I believe. What Erikson and Esslemont have failed to illustrate is how the women overcome this simple biological fact in their world especially since we see women fight as equals among men. Are women more similarly built to men than they are in the real world? I haven’t really seen an answer to this in their books (I have read all of the main series). Thanks for your thoughts.


    • I agree. I am on the last book and by this point still enjoying the series but the feminist element here and there are spoiling it. Almost all the leaders are female. Queens go to war while the King stays at home. Most male leaders gets killed off and yes it seems that in a lot of fights female warriors can defeat a male warrior. Sounds like the writers have some geeky dominatrix fantasies they like to live out? Yes it’s fantasy but it becomes a bit too unrealistic that it spoils it. This is where Game of Thrones is better.


  3. Pingback: Fantasy mit literarischem Anspruch: Steven Erikson – Das Spiel der Götter – Letusredsomebooks

    • They aren’t the only ones to have written on Malazan in this light & the other article hits on other aspects of equality, like racial equality and the like.


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