“What’s three and a half million words between friends?” Steven Erikson asks in the Acknowledgements at the beginning of this, the tenth and final volume of his massive epic fantasy series. If there’s any word to describe Erikson’s novels, it wouldn’t be brief.
The Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen is probably the longest, most complex, and most ambitious series I’ve read. Though it faltered a little in the beginning – the first book, Gardens of the Moon, suffering from Erikson’s unpracticed early prose – the later volumes are leaps and bounds ahead. With the sheer number of characters Erikson has introduced, and the number of story threads that have continued through the series, I had expressed doubt over whether he could successfully pull this into a satisfying conclusion, but he has done far better than I had imagined. In The Crippled God, all these threads are drawn together in a way that makes the planning, and the patience, of the author come clear.
This is the ambition I speak of – in reading this novel, and looking back over the series as a whole, I can see how, though good novels in their own right, the first three, and much of the fourth and fifth book, were in fact just setting the stage for the arcs of volume six onward. And when finished, they aren’t forgotten – the events of each prior book interact directly with the ones that follow. The Crippled God completes this convergence, drawing together elements right from the series beginning as it tells the story of the Bonehunters’ last march toward a purpose they never chose – to free the Crippled God, the Chained God, a foreign god who has seemingly done little but bring pain and suffering to their world.
This complexity itself brings problems. It takes a good memory to keep track of the dozens of characters, their relationships, their histories, and their positions in the world as the story progresses. A year and a half after reading Dust of Dreams, I struggled with some of the early chapters when I found I couldn’t remember some of who was where. Erikson compounds this issue with his tendency to hold back details in those early parts, to try to tantalise the reader with only hints of what is going on in scenes. The first scenes featuring Ganoes Paran, a character last seen four books earlier, are maddeningly cryptic, as the only hints given to his location and purpose are indecipherable without exposition which does not occur until later in the novel.
It’s harder still to keep track when a lot of the characters are just not distinct enough. A large portion of the cast is made up of the soldiers in their squads, and much of the time the difference between one and the next is in names and descriptions, and not in their voice. Bottle, a character who was put to good use in some of the previous books, is in a much smaller role in this one, and I’d be hard pressed to tell some of his scenes apart from those of Deadsmell, another mage with similar presence in the story. Each soldier does have his or her own traits, but all too often they talk and think the same, which is unfortunate when the author’s style involves frequent head-hopping.
Unlike the other volumes of the series, which were broken into four sections, The Crippled God is split into smaller parts, and begins without the usual prologue. Much of the first two parts deal with one of Erikson’s most frequently visited subjects – the aftermath of war. The Bonehunters suffered a large defeat at the end of Dust of Dreams, and this book finds them weakened, almost broken, and struggling to understand their purpose. A large portion of the three and a half million words of this series have been spent on the preparations for, aftermath of, and the journeys between battles, and Erikson’s characters, whatever their background, often wax philosophical on the reasons for war, and on the human need for destruction. These frequent internal monologues will most likely wear on the patience of some readers, and might feel like preaching when they reach certain conclusions on the nature of mankind – though I do not feel like the characters are simply being used as mouthpieces.
The theme of extinction – probably one that interests Erikson strongly, as an archaeologist and anthropologist – continues, and where it has touched upon the extinction of beasts by man, and of tribes of men by other men, this is now followed to an ultimate conclusion, with the ancient race of the Forkrul Assail, along with gods of the beasts and certain human fanatics, seeking to save nature from man by eliminating the species entirely. And while the humans oppose them, Erikson doesn’t allow his characters to dismiss those accusations.
The man looked like he’d been caught in the blast-wave of a cusser or sharper. His face was speckled with tiny cuts and gashes. Dust covered his uniform and he’d lost one chain-backed gauntlet. Erekala opened his mouth, shut it, and then tried again. “Surrender?”
Kalam scowled. “Those sappers have only just started. You understanding me?”
“What have you done?”
Kalam grimaced, glanced away, hands now on his hips, and then looked back at the commander. “You’re seeing how it’s going to be – the old way of fighting is on its way out. The future, Erekala, just stood up and bit off half your face.”
Erekala was clearly confused. “The future…”
“This is how it’ll be. From now on. Fuck all the animals – they’ll all be gone. But we’ll still be here. We’ll still be killing each other, but this time in unimaginable numbers.”
The commander shook his head. “When all the beasts are gone–”
“Long live the cruellest beast of all,” Kalam said, suddenly baring his teeth. “And it won’t end. It’ll never end.”
Erekala’s eyes widened, and then his gaze shifted past Quick Ben and Kalam, to the waiting ranks of Malazan soldiers. “When all the beasts are gone,” he whispered, and then raised his voice, once more addressing Kalam. “Your words… satisfy me. Inform your High Fist. The Perish Grey Helms surrender.”
While Kalam’s words are chosen to convince fanatical followers of the Wild – with the thought that, while the beasts they worship cannot hope to survive, all that means is the humans will turn on themselves – there’s also the acknowledgement, in his voicing of it, that such a future is possible if they do not work to change things. The stance of the Malazans and their allies in this book, is that while humans are destructive, it doesn’t mean they cannot coexist with nature. It doesn’t beat you about the head with this image, however – the arguments are there, but they are not the focus of the novel, and for the ordinary soldiers there are more tangible concerns.
Since these are books about soldiers, another thing you’ll find a lot of in the Malazan series is violence. Erikson’s novels feature a lot of death, and no characters can really be considered safe. Death in his story may not always be permanent, but it often is.
Erikson also has a tendency toward grisly detail when describing deaths and battle scenes. In some ways it can lend to the image being built of the ugliness of war, but there are times, particularly in the last few novels, where the gruesome descriptions of bones breaking and organs falling out just feel unnecessary, as with these two deaths late in The Crippled God:
The impact split her skull, sent burning meat, blood and flesh spraying out to sizzle on the superheated rock. Her spine broke in four places. Her ribs buckled and folded under her back, splintered ends driving up through her lungs and heart.
The raging fires then closed on her, consuming every last shred, before dying in flickering puddles on the bedrock.
The arrow caught her in the left eye.
The stone tip tore through the eyeball, punched through the back of the socket, where the bone was as thin as skin, and the spinning chipped stone point drilled a gory tunnel through her brain, before shattering against the inside of the back of the skull.
Since the latter quote is followed by the point of view of her killer who “by the way her body fell – collapsing like a sack of bones – he knew that she was dead”, the description wasn’t really necessary to confirm that she had died.
Something perhaps ought to be said about the treatment of sexuality in this series. There are a handful of gay characters, either explicitly stated or strongly implied, not the least of which is the Bonehunters’ commander, Adjunct Tavore Paran. This is never used to define a character, however, and generally a person’s sexuality is irrelevant to how they are treated as a person. The few same-sex relationships take place in private – Tavore’s relationship with her bodyguard T’amber is only speculated upon until the latter’s death part way through the series. When Yedan Derryg, known as the Watch, is revealed to be gay it is in a simple, off-hand scene:
Yedan’s jaws bunched, as if he was still chewing cheese, and then he said, “Is that what you wake up to every morning, Withal?”
He sighed, squinted at Lightfall. “Never been married, have you? I can tell.”
“Not much interested.”
“In any of that?”
“Ah. Well, among the Meckros, men marry each other all the time. I figure they see how men and women do it, and want that for themselves.”
And that’s that – nothing more is made of it. Essentially, in Erikson’s Malazan world, homosexuality happens and it’s no big deal, which I think is something of a positive.
In a similar way, female characters tend to be treated equally with men – the Malazan army recruits equally between genders, and the series has plenty of strong female characters. Where there are a few perhaps unfortunate stereotypes – the young girl mage Sinn, a victim of rape whose mind is irreparably broken by it, leaving her to be depicted as little more than a vessel for the destructive magic she wields – these are offset by the depictions that reverse sexist tropes. When the man Gruntle, Mortal Sword of the Tiger of War, has visions of the Bonecaster Kilava beaten and dying, he sets out to rescue her, somehow convinced that they are meant to be lovers – only to find when he arrives that he had misinterpreted his visions: the two are forced to fight, and it is Gruntle’s own death at her hands that he foresaw.
In all, The Crippled God was for me a more than satisfying conclusion to the years-long story. His ability to bring to convergence all the events of the series to date, and in a way that didn’t feel overloaded or forced, exceeded my expectations. I’m sure that any existing fans of the series will have just eaten this up.
If you’re not someone who’s picked up this series yet, then the size of it is probably a little daunting, but I would say that it is very much worth an attempt, and if you find you enjoy Erikson’s style in the early novels, it only gets better as it goes along.
While I don’t at the moment plan to continue reading the works of Ian Cameron Esselmont, a friend of Erikson writing in the same setting – the two novels I have read so far were underwhelming in comparison to Erikson’s – I probably will find myself picking up more Malazan in the future, when Erikson continues the story of some of the characters whose journey hasn’t reached an end yet.