The Crippled God by Steven Erikson
Published by Bantam, February 2011. (Review copy received.)
This then is the end of the road. Thirteen books in total if you've followed it all, with so many twists and turns it either leaves you feeling giddy or sick. This review of The Crippled God (hereafter abbreviated to TCG), the final tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, is based on a single read through and as such is under the disclaimer that I might very well have missed things. Possibly a lot of things, but here goes.
Where last we left the situation in Dust of Dreams, the former Malazan army of the once Adjunct to the Empire, Tavore Paran, sister to the Master of the Deck of Dragons, Ganoes Paran, had suffered a little lizard trouble of the short tail variety and may or may not still exist. Stormy and Gesler, now Mortal Sword and Shield Anvil of the lizards of the long tail variety, were late to the show but with some Malazan ingenuity, aided by Icarium's power of the Azath as well as the two mysterious foundlings Grub and Sinn, managed to gain a measure of revenge for both themselves and the Che'malle on their kin the Nah'ruk.
A snake or perhaps worm of children had found its way to the city Icarium built but can now never find, running from the terrible voices of the new rulers of Kolanse, the Forkrul Assail. Onos Toolan, rage in his heart at, he believes, the death of his family, marches to wipe out the human race, gathering T'lan Imass in his wake of Telan. A small cabal of Elder Gods plan to evict the upstart new gods by an act so terrible Krul's veins themselves will be sundered and the gate holding dragons from this realm shakes violently. In the midst of all this chaos stands a group of soldiers who watch from the other side of Hood's gate and two gods of a broken realm, who have travelled through the Deadhouse to places beyond the imagination and seen things that may save, or end, this world.
Forkrul Assail, T'lan Imass, K'Chain Che'malle, Jaghut, Dragons, Elder Gods and humans. All lead to The Crippled God.
As with the format of most of the Malazan novels, TCG is a slow building story as the pieces move towards convergence one last time. In the first half of the book the storyline with arguably the quickest progression is the Shake as they stand once more upon the Shore and dispense their duty. This is the most compelling of the threads that seemed to be randomly introduced over the course of the last few books, being in turns both brutal and emotional, if a little unlikely, leading to a compelling resolution that creates intriguing options for the realm of Darkness. Definitely one of the high points of the book from an unexpected quarter.
In the second half we are swept towards Kolanse from a variety of directions as the various threads hit their marks, before plunging into the maelstrom (no pun intended) at the heart of the story. Perhaps most surprising about this plunge though is the inevitability of the conclusion. To a long time reader there are no real surprises and disappointingly the enemy at the end is not half as terrifying as we'd been led to believe. Nor are they the ones we originally signed up to fight.
Indeed, the old enemy, the one against which Quick Ben set himself early in the series has suffered a confusing swing in public opinion. The maligned and threatening god of the title has gradually dissipated over the last few books to be replaced by a strangely enigmatic character who never really gets addressed come the end. Begging the question after Toll the Hounds where were the Crippled God's attempts to influence his situation, which were so prevalent in the earlier books, and when did his cause suddenly become a worthy crusade? Almost without notice the enemy became the victim and in doing so created a thorny issue that TCG does not successfully resolve: Who or what is the Crippled God and where should the readership stand in relation to him, especially given the title of this book.
This is one of several questions we've waited for an answer to, and in fairness to Steven Erikson he does provide a lot of answers. Without giving away any spoilers we learn a lot about dragons, their role and make-up as well as how the soletaken like Anomander Rake and Silchas Ruin came to be. There is an explanation of parts of the history of the Forkrul Assail, why Cotillion returns time and again to three chained dragons of Shadow, how both the Gods of War fare in this new world, of old favourite characters such as Quick Ben, Toc and others best not mentioned.
There is, in fact, an array of characters and races involved in TCG which is almost bewildering, a staggering congregation of all the series' fascinations lining up to at last be revealed and to some extent understood. The final quarter of the book is a procession of revelations, heart-rending moments and terrific action gilded in just the right amount of humour to strike a wonderful balance. This is what an ending should be, no more major secrets withheld, no hidden gambits or last minute exaggerated deviations from the course. This is where the rock meets the hard place. And yet ...
It's all a bit too convenient. Yes, for the most part, the threads come together incredibly well in a convergence of mind-blowing magnitude but the problem now is we expected that. By having convergence be such a regular event within the world it became a game of one-upmanship that in the end feels a little hollow. Only a tiny bit, but enough to make you wonder maybe this was a cycle some of the players should have been looking to break, or that the author should have used a touch more sparingly to create maximum impact at this point.
The main gripe I have with the ending though is that the destiny of certain of the main characters and threads is anti-climactic or simply not dealt with. For example, the touching upon but essential withholding of events in Darujhistan for Ian Esslemont to deal with in his next book (Orb, Scepter, Throne) is disappointing in the extreme. An important segment of the story with characters integral to the events of TCG, fan favourites such as Karsa, Kruppe and indeed Krul, you feel should have made it into this final volume. Combine that with all the nods, winks and apparent hidden secrets leading down a dead alley for one specific, highly important character and there's a sense this isn't the complete picture.
More than that, there is a lack of coherence to the ending which leaves you with the niggling suspicion there was more to it. That in the press of so many story threads, with such a huge dramatis personae to deal with, the overall story was lost. The hints and details we've been fed, even at the start of TCG itself, actually ended up either as bluffs or just fizzling out. It isn't a huge disappointment but one that to mind prevents this series from being elevated to the very peak of the fantasy genre.
This then is what you can expect from the ending to the Tales of the Malazan, Book of the Fallen. A very open, honest resolution which does not quite deliver in terms of the mysteries we've been trying to uncover as the series progressed, that is nonetheless action-packed, compelling and full of wonderful scenes for the fans. An imperfect ending to a divisive series that will not quell the arguments, but will put a smile on a lot of people's faces. It has been a heckuva ride.
© Owen Jones 2011