Women and Rape in The Malazan Book of the Fallen

Trigger warning for descriptions of rape. No spoilers.

Front cover of Gardens of the Moon by Steven EriksonThe Malazan Book of the Fallen is a fantasy book series by Steven Erikson. It’s one I read when it was new in 1999 (last book released in 2009) and I loved it dearly. After half a life of reading fantasy I was fed up and had sworn never to pick up another title again, especially not high fantasy, but a friend of mine was persistent in wanting me to read Erikson. I gave in, and I’m so thankful to that friend. A Wizard of Earthsea might be my favourite fantasy trilogy, but the Erikson epic is no doubt in hot pursuit on second place. A breath taking story of the lives of so many characters, spanning ten books; I’ll bear it with me always.

When I read it, I had not yet awaken to be the critical feminist I am today. I remember it as having a strong female presence, and a lot of the women in the book stay with me to this day. In fact, when the friend of mine who recommended the book talks dreamingly about it, it’s the women he mentions first on a long list of memorable characters. Being ten years since I read it, and with the present Game of Thrones craze, I felt it was time to pick up The Malazan Book of the Fallen again, starting with book one, Gardens of the Moon.

See, in my circle of friends there has been an ongoing feud between A Song of Ice and Fire (with A Game of Thrones released in 1996) and The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Not one of us likes them both, it’s one or the other. They’re very different. I read some of the Erikson books first, and when I in the middle of them picked up A Game of Thrones, I got mad at how rubbish it was. I threw it away half read and was suspicious of friends who liked it. For the record, I finished it later, but it took me three tries. To me, there has always been a competition between these two series. So when A Song of Ice and Fire gets adapted to television, I can’t help but compare. Especially with this ongoing debate onRape of Thrones, I’ve been wanting to go back to Erikson to have a look at how he treated the women in his books. Young me thinking of it as a strong female characters fiesta is not dependable feminist source, since I was pretty sexist back then.

It was with some trepidation I re-opened Gardens of the Moon. There was a risk that the memory of my beloved series would become tainted forever. The series is a song of remembrance to the fallen soldiers in wars, meaning it’s about soldiers all the way. Meaning, it’s about mostly blood thirsty soldiering men, and there will be rape. I remembered one rape scene vividly from my first read through. Would this be a series ofThe Malazan Book of Rape?

What hit me almost immediately was the vast number of kick-ass women right at the go. In the first few chapters I got a strong sense of women being present in the world, and that they mattered. The empress rules with an iron fist, and though she seems like a tyrant, she’s also considered highly intelligent and calculating. The fisherman’s daughter gets a central part of the story when she gets recruited into the military, and makes every person around her shiver from her stomach turning blood thirsty ruthlessness. The adjunct, ranking above most cool men in her army, is though as nails. At one point she feels vulnerable, and muses over how an unfamiliar feeling this is. The two women innkeepers kill the quarry that men have hunted and failed to catch over hundreds of pages. Now, I only mention the hard-boiled traits that’s more often linked to men soldiers, but these people, like all people in the books, are so much more. I just mention these characteristics to point out that the women are just as much hardened soldiers as the men. Every one complete with motivations, fears, hopes, doubts and, in short, an agenda.

One of the most powerful magicians in the empire is an overweight old woman who early in her introduction has sex in a loving relationship, and when her partner dies, another fills his place. This young, handsome man and lead character in the story is so head over heels for the lady, that when she takes off (on her own) his only focus is tracking her down to ease the pain in his heart. That is incredible. She’s fat and old, AND deserving of sex, love and devotion? From one of the dashing heroes, no less? Without comment that it could be something unusual! It’s so rare we get to see this in media. A lot of body types are represented over the series, and “beautiful” is not synonymous with “thin” or any other predetermined shape. Furthermore, sex in Erikson’s books is never shaming women, who have their own agency and feelings – be they good (mostly they are) or otherwise.

Being a story about war, battlefields and sacked cities, I expected rape to come up in Gardens of the Moon. To my surprise, it didn’t. At all. The word itself appeared but once, in a passage where a young and naive thief had broken into a lady’s room and felt sickened by him disrupting the sanctity of her privacy: “For Crokus, his crime against her was tantamount to rape. To have so boldly shattered her world…” The single time the word is used, it is in the meaning of an unspeakable horrible crime while not referring to the crime itself happening. Astounding! So relaxing for me as a woman to read such a violent story without being battered in every second chapter with descriptions of sexual violence against women. As I will come to in a bit, it’s not that Steven Erikson shies away from the subject: He just doesn’t find a place for it in his first book. It’s not necessary for the story. See where I’m going with this when I talked about my rage for A Game of Thrones? I searched in my e-reader for the word rape in that book (just that word, no synonyms or anything), and got 11 hits. Ten of those was the word meaning what it is, and one of them was in the shaming of a woman’s sexuality.

Front cover of Deadhouse Gates by Steven EriksonThe first time Erikson touches the subject is in his second book Deadhouse Gates. It takes place in a city on the brink of revolution, with an oppressing occupant army murdering civilians in the streets. A pimp sees an opportunity to snatch two orphaned underage girls to sell them. Grabbing them and running off into a back alley, one of our protagonists pursues. He interrupts an attempted rape before the pimp gets a chance to touch the girls and swoops them off to safety.

The passage effectively paints the picture of what it’s like in a lawless city. One other purpose of it however is to show us the complexity of our hero, who on the one hand rescues the girls, but on the other hand does it for profit when he sells the girls back to their family. A third purpose is to get our protagonist to where he has to be to meet someone important for his story line. Though it is a common trope to use violence or threat of violence against women to advance a man’s story, I took no issue with this first mention of rape in The Malazan Book of the Fallen. I’m not sure why, but I think it might have something to do with it being treated with respect. I didn’t feel it was there as a simple way to jerk a reaction of horror from me. I’ll tell you why I felt like this.

I think that at one point rape has to come into the picture when we’re talking about sacking cities. By bringing it up in a roundabout way, and then making it about children, it gets about as horrifying as it can get. But Erikson doesn’t force us to live that horror. He saves the children and leaves it up to us to imagine all the other children who doesn’t get saved, if we can stomach it. By not making it an entirely shiny ending, leaving me with the idea that even our knight in shining armour might have done this not out of mercy but in hopes for a reward, the entire story leaves a sour taste in my mouth. The deed was never described to me, the word wasn’t mentioned, but I got it. Not in a whimsical “War is so horrible!” way, but by leaving me with a deep, ugly feeling of despair. To me those were real kids, they were not just props for some passing by hero’s story. Their story told me about all the other children trapped in wars.

The second time rape appears in the second book, it is just as appalling. This time, we follow a girl’s story, beginning with the act. I will quote this, because there is a lot to say and it’s easier to show the text. This is the opening paragraph to chapter three:

[The girl] lay unmoving beneath Beneth until, with a final shudder, he was done. He pushed himself off and grabbed a handful of her hair. His face was flushed under the grime and his eyes gleamed in the lamp glow. ‘You’ll learn to like it, girl,’ he said.

The edge of something savage always rose closer to the surface immediately after he’d lain with her. She knew it would pass. ‘I will,’ she said. ‘Does he get a day of rest?”

There are volumes of a life story in these few sentences. The first sentence gave me the cold impact of knowing I was witnessing a rape of a girl who has given up, and have retreated within herself, numb to the world. The second told me the rapist is violent. The third, even more horrifying, makes me realize that this isn’t the first time. “You’ll learn to like it,” he says, letting us know not only that this is a regular thing, but that he doesn’t care that it is against her will.

Then we get to see her rage. Yes, she might be numb inside, but she also has a burning, inner strength that knows she is being violated, and we get the promise that this young woman has hope. Maybe we get to see retribution. She might look apathetic from the outside, but we know now that she is strong and she has not given up entirely. Finally, we get to know that she “choose” this to get favours. The whole thing leaves me sick. It slams into my consciousness, makes me confront the reality of rape, forced prostitution, trafficking. I’m forced to remember that every single one who is subject to this in real life is a person.

Later on, we learn this girl is a slave who has long used her body for currency. As a means to survive in a prison camp, she’s used the only thing she has for bartering. We learn it has saved her life on a slave ship, where her laying with the sailors got her transferred from a water drenched area of the ship where other slaves died rotting or drowning. It is abundantly clear that this girl is a smart and strong survivor in a hopeless situation. To me though, one of the most important things is the first sentence, the one that describes how devastating the act itself is to her. It makes it crystal clear that this thing that is done to her is rape. There is no way denying that the kind of prostitution she has ended up in is rape, there’s no excusing, no way to put the word “sex” into this story. In the description of her rapist, we are told he is “astonishingly handsome”. This is entirely without comment. There’s no way to tell why Erikson chose to emphasis this, but the lesson I get from it is that rapists comes in all shapes and forms, even with pretty faces.

We get to see more of the girl’s survival skills later on, in how deftly she communicates with her rapist to get hurt as little as possible while still get as much favours as possible. All of it ends leaving us with her thoughts: “There’s no point in thinking about tomorrow. Just the next hour, each hour. Stay alive, and live well if you can.” There is no shame on her for what has befallen her, there is no shame in trying to make the best of a dreadful situation. Live well, if you can.

To me, this is a respectful way to dive head first into the subject, and it’s light years away from R. R. Martins casual background rapes in his first book. In Deadhouse Gates, the word pops up four times more. Once in casual conversation, and twice in passing mention of past war crimes. It’s not there in a particular good or bad way. Not intrusive, could have been left out, but for myself they don’t disturb me. Fourth time is when the girl above gets a chance to revisit her trauma, showing us how thoroughly it has impacted her, both weakening and strengthening her at the same time.

A Game of Thrones coverThe takeaway is that while rape is a part of war that shouldn’t be ignored when recounting the horrors of what’s going on, there are different ways of approaching it. On the one hand, you could use it as a plot device to motivate the male protagonists of your story, or break down the women protagonists so they can rise like phoenixes from the ashes, or show how evil your bad guys are, or how good your good guys are for not raping, or as background decoration (most of these examples from the occurrences of the word I found in A Game of Thrones). On the other hand, you can use it to make the reader feel the very real consequences of rape: the feelings, the thoughts, the mark it leaves. Numbness, rage, tears, despair and anxiety following the victims, laid bare for us more than once, not letting us readers forget. But also the complexity of it, how a victim can cling to her rapist, how she can want to protect him from physical harm, as well as from emotional harm when he wonders if him being a rapist is his fault, and she soothingly tells him that no, it’s her fault. (Just two paragraphs later we get reminded in passing by that he routinely lends her out to others to earn favours, just so we readers don’t get the wrong idea about what the girl herself doesn’t understand.)

To me, it is sad that A Song of Ice and Fire has gotten so much attention, and The Malazan Book of the Fallen so little. It’s also confusing and inexplicable. Why chose a misogynistic book disrespectful to women and readers who are survivors, over one that can get a plethora of strong female characters who rarely gets victimized or thrown under the wagon wheels of a man’s storyline? Women who are leaving their mark upon their word in a book that is teaching readers about the real influence of war crimes on the psyche? My advice if you’ve read the first but not the other, is burn your R.R. Martin’s books, and go buy The Malazan Book of the Fallen. You’ll thank me later. Pro tip: The audio book is very well performed, and if by any chance you’re not super impressed by Gardens of the Moon, stick to it because it’s pretty different from the rest of the series.

Having said that, I feel obliged to report that many of my A Song of Ice and Fire fan friends would rather advice you to burn The Malazan Book of the Fallen. I think it’s because they didn’t make it through book one to get to the really good stuff, but who knows. I’m judgingtheir series by simply reading book one and then watching a TV-show that has upset fans for not being representative of the books. My real advice, jokes aside, is to read both writers. They both have their ups and downs, and they tell good stories. The truth is that the books have almost nothing in common more than being released at about the same point in time, bringing with them a new era of gritty realism-fantasy when most other fantasy books were lighter reads. That, and this ongoing “My book is better than yours!”-feud among me and my friends.

Still… You know… My book is better than yours.


What do you think? Tell me in the comments! This is a conversation I never get tired of. You can especially offer me insights on the portrayals of women and rape in A Song of Ice and Fire if it’s much different from the TV-show.