I just read Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon, the first of ten volumes in what he calls The Malazan Book of the Fallen (eight have been published so far). Erikson is obviously a very intelligent man and a much better writer than is common among writers of fantasy, but I won't be reading any more installments in the series. To explain why, I have to invoke Tolkien.
In a number of letters Tolkien responds to the very common view that The Lord of the Rings is about power by simply denying it. Rather, he says, the book is about “the Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.” To seek for power (including technological power: “the Machine”) is one of the ways we respond to our fallen and mortal state. But there are other ways: for instance, art. Even those who are not mortal, but are fallen — in Tolkien’s world, the Elves — are driven by the impulse to make beautiful things, and indeed their desire to make beautiful things can cause them to fall. (As is told in The Silmarillion, this desire leads them into tragic alliances with Morgoth, the Satan of Tolkien’s world.) Their very artfulness can also lead them into a kind of preciousness, an aestheticism that courts moral exhaustion.
Tolkien was also deeply interested in the varieties of friendship, and the ways in which friendship can be a consolation and a comfort in a broken world. This is not unconnected to what I have just said, because friends also help one another to stay healthy — morally as well as physically — and for those of us who are fallen and mortal, such help is a great benefit.
All this is not to say that Tolkien doesn't have a great deal to say about power, only that power is not at the very heart of his concerns, and his treatment of it only makes complete sense in the context of these other fields and values.
By contrast, Steven Erikson, as best I can tell from Gardens of the Moon, does not appear to be interested in anything other than the many varieties of power: physical, psychological, magical, political, spiritual. In his world there is no art, unless you consider as art certain varieties of magic — say, shifting a person’s soul from a human body to a wooden marionette. But this is really just the exertion of a (temporary) power over death. And once I decided that I wasn’t going to read any further in the series, I decided to cross the Rubicon — that is, check the Wikipedia pages of the next few volumes for plot summaries. I turned away from the computer with a great sigh of relief that I didn't devote any more time to Malazan.
I would add, while I’m making enemies, that I think precisely the same is true of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. (I’ve read two of those, which I think you’ll agree makes me an expert.) Like most of Tolkien’s other descendants, Erikson and Martin have taken up his portrayals of world-shaking battles and the strategies and political machinations that lead up to them, but seem not to have been receptive to anything else the old Master was up to. But what makes Tolkien still unique is his determination to weave his battles, and his inquiries into power, into a larger picture of what sort of life is good for human beings to live. To but it as briefly as possible, that’s a life in which art and friendship may flourish.
Now, a contemporary writer may not share Tolkien’s vision of what makes for a good life. Fair enough; but in that case I’d like them to give me some sense of what their ideals are. Of these exhaustive and exhausting anatomies of power — it’s Foucault’s world; they’re just playing in it — I have had more than enough.