If you want a quick, partial sense of what’s in store in Steven Erikson’s The Crippled God, look no further than this conversation between two characters (to remain nameless so as to avoid spoilers):
“There are too many rogue players in this game. Icarium. Draconus. The First Sword of the T’lan Imass. Olar Ethil. Silchas Ruin, Tulas Shorn, Kilava — even Gruntle, the Mortal Sword of Treach. And now the Elient, and how many dragons have come or are coming through the gate? A hundred? A thousand? Oh, and the Elder Gods: Errastas, the past Master of the Tiles, and Kilmandaros and her son…”
“They — they’re all here?”
“Nobody said it’d be easy… what do you have to offer me?”
“Why, more good news… Let’s just add the K’Chain Che’Malle and the Jaghut, and oh… who knows how many slavering fanatics of the Wolves of Winter! And what about the Crippled God himself?”
“All right, it’s rather more complicated than I had imagined.”
Yes. Yes, it is. And let’s not forget a few others who play a role in The Crippled God, either in real time, flashback, visions, live, undead, or somewhere on the broadly-populated spectrum between mostly alive and mostly dead: Tavore, Fiddler, Hedge, The Bonehunters, the Bridgeburners, the Forkrul Assail, the Shake, the Tiste Liosan, the White Face Barghast, the Otataral Dragon, Stormy and Gesler, Whiskeyjack, Karsa, Tool, Toc, Quick Ben, Torrent, the Imass, Nimander, Korlat, Kalam, Hood, Heboric, Apsal’ara, Ruthan Gudd, Sinn, Grub, Corabb, Bottle, Cuttle, Hellian, Krughava, Brys Beddict, Ublala Pung, Icarium, Mappo, Setoc, Badalle, Sandalath, K’rul, Mael, D’rek, Precious Thimble, Faint, Bent and Roach, and a host (literally) of others.
As for plot points, well, we’ve got the Liosan trying to breach Lightfall and the Shake trying to hold them off; Tavore and the Bonehunters trying to cross the uncrossable Glass Desert to face the Forkrul Assail while several other armies aim to strike Kolanse from different directions and the Perish try to figure out just which side they’re on, the Snake continuing to seek some sort of haven, various individual agendas, and the long-running series arc of just what to do about that title character. These major plot lines are pretty much fully resolved in The Crippled God, as are questions such as what happened to Quick Ben, Ruthan Gudd, Kalam, and Icarium, but if anyone is expecting to have all his/her questions from the previous dozen or so books in the series neatly lined up and knocked down chapter after chapter, well, I’ve got to wonder just what series you’ve been reading. Lots of relatively major story/character arcs are either lightly touched upon or not touched upon at all, and the same holds true for that list we’ve all been compiling of those “but how…” or “why did…” or “what caused…” kinds of questions. And it wouldn’t be a Malaz book if various new questions didn’t arise to add to that list. That said, The Crippled God is a fully satisfying book; those unresolved plot issues don’t hang over the novel like a cheap TV series cliffhanger and I can’t say I felt any sort of void due to some questions remaining unanswered.
Characters continue to evolve all the way to the very end, changing not arbitrarily but due to evolving circumstances, something that happens all too rarely in other fantasies, where the character you meet on page one is often no different than the character you meet on page 501. Or, if Erikson’s characters themselves haven’t changed, our perceptions of them and responses to them change as we see them from a different angle or in a different light (or Shadow. Or Darkness). Think, for instance, of how we originally view the interaction between the Imass and Jaghut, whose relationship continues to unfold in unexpected fashion almost to the very last pages of The Crippled God. Anybody who has read to this point knows things aren’t always as they first appear in this world, and this continues to be true in The Crippled God, not least for the titular character. Not all enemies are truly enemies — or remain enemies — and the same holds true for allies.
Meanwhile, while some plot points or character actions may be unexpected, others will surprise you by just how long ago they were set up, assuming you can remember that far back and in that kind of detail. Honestly, only a complete self-contained re-read will give you a full appreciation of the careful brick-laying that led to The Crippled God (luckily we’re doing just that at TOR.com!). I’m I sure don’t have a full appreciation myself — and I just reread all the prior books at the end of this summer, have gone chapter by chapter through the first two in our TOR reread, and reread books 3-5 yet again in the past two weeks in an insane attempt to get through the whole series again before writing this review. Aside from appreciating the craftsmanship, being able to recall just when you first met a particular character or heard a particular reference adds a nice little frisson to the reading experience.
The action rises and falls in nicely balanced fashion. The Shake battle against the Liosan is a major high point and comes early enough so as not to dilute the later battles in Kolanse, which have their own grand moments. Moments of high tension/action are relieved by the trademark Malazan humor, which is emphatically on display, whether it be sapper or marine humor, the cynical wordplay between officers and soldiers, or the banter between long-time friends and partners. But while the action at times races the pulse and thrills the blood (think “The Wickans! The Wickans! The Wickans!”), and the dialogue has its spit-take-laugh-out-loud-soda-up-the-nose-read-aloud-to-your-wife moments, for me what has always separated this series from most other fantasy, beyond its sheer size and complexity, has been its thought-provoking nature (what is civilized, how do we live with each other and with what we do, can we learn from history?) and its focus on people, either as individuals or as a whole.
I know some grow weary of flitting between the thoughts of a multitude of “secondary” characters, and those readers will have some issues with The Crippled God as there’s a good amount of that in the latter half. But it’s Erikson’s unwillingness to dismiss characters to the abyss of “secondary” that helps raise The Malazan Book of the Fallen above a lot of other work. It reminds me of Death of a Salesman: “I don’t say he’s a great man… but he’s a human being… Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.” Erikson drags us to pay attention to those who aren’t “great.”
And when he doesn’t grab us by the collar and make us look at individuals, he forces us to stare at humanity, though it’s often not a pretty picture: despoilers of nature, hunters to extinction, killers of children (the line “children are dying” haunts this entire series), destroyers perhaps finally of ourselves when we’re left with no others to set ourselves against. There are moments in this book where you find yourself actually nodding in agreement with arguments for the complete annihilation of all humanity. And yet, a few pages later you’re glorying in the sheer audacity of humanity, its cussed defiance, and marveling at the capacity in individuals and groups, if not the species as a whole, for compassion, a word I’ve long said was a key theme to this series.
And these are the scenes that will move you — thick throat, damp eyes — it happened on several occasions and then did so again at those same scenes on my second read. There are scenes here that will stab you in the chest and break the cold iron point of the dagger off in your heart so that the pain stays with you long after you’ve turned the page, and it’s a pain so beautiful you’re glad it does, despite the ache. There are the obvious such moments: death scenes, (and there are a good number of those), last stands (lots of those too), suicidal charges (more than one). But the ones that pierce more sharply are those small moments involving not death but life: compassion amidst horror, sacrifice amidst evil, consolation in the face of terror — a shared drop of water, the naming of a child, the combing of someone’s hair. And expressions of love in all its forms: romantic, familial, the love among soldiers, the love between friends, the fierce doomed love of and for children, and perhaps most breathtakingly unexpected, the love for a stranger.
The Crippled God isn’t perfect, of course. As mentioned before, some will wish Erikson hadn’t felt the need to dip into so many “regular soldiers’” heads. Others may find themselves more frustrated than I did over the lack of resolution/explanation for certain characters or plot points, while some will bemoan the lack of page-time for their favorite characters, always an issue with such a huge cast. I found the Forkrul Assail a bit underwhelming for how they’ve been built up, though I’ve long sort of resigned myself to shrugging over the various power level interactions in the series. But these and a few other niggling issues pale in comparison to the emotional sweep of the characters and the narrative drive of long-running plot threads coming together into a fully-visioned tapestry.
For most, I think The Crippled God will live up to its place as the closing chapter of a work that, I believe, stands as the preeminent fantasy of the past 20 years and belongs high up on the short list of best ever. We are not done with the Malazan universe; both Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont have detailed forthcoming works set in the same world. But we are done with the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Done, if one can say this after nearly 10,000 pages, all too soon. Fiddler, Quick Ben, Whiskeyjack, Rake: After those near-10,000 pages (and the several rereads), I can’t say we hardly knew ‘ya, but I can say I wish we knew you longer. Luckily, we can know you again and again just by pulling you off the shelf. And I envy those who’ll get to meet you for a first time.
I will set out scrolls and burn upon them the names of these Fallen… Hear them! They are humanity unfurled, laid out for all to see — if any would dare look!
(This review originally appeared on Tor.com as part of Bill and Amanda Rutter’s reread of the entire Malazan series)