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A fitting, but not entirely flawless, conclusion
on 5 March 2011
The Crippled God is the final novel in The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson's monumental epic fantasy series that began twelve years ago with Gardens of the Moon. In that time Erikson has reached the heights of writing two of the very finest fantasy novels of the last decade (Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice), but there has been some growing scepticism over later novels in the series, which have tended to open up more confusing storylines then closing down or clarifying old ones.
The Crippled God has been billed as the second half of Dust of Dreams, with Dreams described as all set-up and Crippled as all-resolution. That's an exaggeration: Erikson spends the first three hundred pages or so setting things up and clearing his throat rather than cutting to the chase, but at the same time that's less than some of the other books. We still get lengthy philosophical discussions between lowly grunts which are rather unconvincing, but frankly the people for whom that's a major problem will have dropped the series long ago. Fortunately Erikson is somewhat less obtuse in this novel than in any previous ones. On occasion he even resorts to - gasp! - actually telling us what the hell is going on. This new, more reader-friendly Erikson who respects traditional narrative techniques a bit more than previously takes a little getting used to.
The Crippled God is also the book that stands alone the least well out of the series, as it picks up after a huge cliffhanger ending. Erikson seems to enjoy the fact that he doesn't need to do as much set-up as normal and throws in everything including the kitchen sink into the mix. Previews and author interviews suggested that quite a few storylines and character arcs from previous novels would not be addressed here, which is mostly focused on the Crippled God and Bonehunter arcs, so it's a surprise that as many characters and events from previous novels (including some of Esslemont's) show up as they do, and most of the few who don't are at least mentioned.
There's also a growing circularity to events. This appears to be Erikson's way of showing the readers that the Malazan series wasn't as incoherent and chaotic as it has often appeared, but there was a masterplan all along. He mostly pulls this off very well, with some storylines and characters which initially appeared very random now being revealed to be integral to the series.
Erikson's biggest success in The Crippled God is with avoiding the nihilism that has occasionally crept into previous books by emphasising the overriding theme of the Malazan series, which has always been compassion. Heroism and self-sacrifice, amongst common soldiers and gods alike, abounds in this book. Erikson pushes forward the message that true heroism is reached when it is performed unwitnessed with no singers or writers to celebrate it later. There is tragedy here, as each victory only comes at a tremendous cost, but less so than in earlier volumes. With everything on the table - the warrens, the gods, the world, humanity and ever other sentient being on the planet - the Bonehunters and their allies simply cannot afford to fail, even if it means crossing a desert of burning glass, facing down betrayal or forging alliances with old enemies, and Erikson has the reader rooting for them every step of the way.
His prose skills are as strong as ever, and in fact are strengthened by not having as much time to pontificate. There's a clarity to Erikson's writing here which is refreshing. Erikson's battle mojo is also back in full swing, with the engagements described with an appropriate amount of chaos and desperation.
Character-wise, Erikson is back to being a mixed bag. Some of the soldiers are ciphers but others come through very strongly (Silchas Ruin's motives and actions are a lot more comprehensible now). The Shake in particular are much-improved. Ublala Pung serves as great comic relief, and, whilst they don't appear as such, the presence of both Tehol and Kruppe are felt, lending much-needed moments of sunshine amidst the darkness. Erikson's choice of which characters to build up in depth and which to skim over during the preceding nine books makes a lot more sense as well, as it's some of the best-realised and most intriguing that bite the dust here. Characters die, and, mostly, it hurts when they go. If one in particular doesn't trigger at least a lower-lip tremble amongst most readers, I'd be shocked.
There are weaknesses. After all the set-up, the actual grand finale is appropriately epic (eclipsing even the gonzoid-insane conclusion to Dust of Dreams), but at the same time a number of other side-stories are still not fully resolved. Depending on the reader, this will be either okay or infuriating. More problematic is that we go from the grand convergence though multiple epilogues to the final page in a very short space of time: there is little time spent on the aftermath and a few more mundane questions about what happened to certain characters are left unanswered. There is also the problem that, at two key points in the narrative, Erikson reaches outside the scope of The Crippled God to basically tap other characters from several books to do something vitally important to the resolution. It's not deus ex machina - it's all been set up quite well, in one case from nine books back - but it does feel a bit odd that everything comes down to relying on a character who is only in the novel for two pages.
There's also a fair amount of scene-setting for Esslemont's next few books (particularly the next one due later this year, set in Darujhistan) which is a little incongruous, though it does feel good to know that the world and the saga will continue. Erikson resolves enough that a primary fear - that this is merely Book 10 in a 22-book series rather than a grand finale - is averted, but not enough so that there won't be some grumbling.
Particularly well-handled are the final events in the book. Some may accuse Erikson of sentimentality here - though he's never been as dark and nihilistic as say Bakker - as he gives a few characters some happy endings and closes the vast circle that began so long ago, but it is a fitting and affecting ending.
The Crippled God (****½) marks the end of this crazy, awesome, infuriating, awe-inspiring, frustrating series, but fortunately not the end of this crazy, awesome, infuriating, awe-inspiring but frustrating author's career. The Malazan Book of the Fallen bows out in fine style. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.