Feb 22 2011 5:36pm

More Complicated Than Imagined: A Spoiler-Free Review of The Crippled God by Steven Erikson

The Crippled God by Steven EriksonIf you want a quick, partial sense of what’s in store in The Crippled God (TCG), look no farther than this conversation between these two characters (who shall 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 TCG, 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 TCG, 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, TCG 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 no different than the character you meet on page 501. Or, if the characters themselves haven’t changed, our perceptions of them and responses to them do as we see them from a different angle or Erikson casts a different light on them (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 TCG. 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 TCG, not least for the titular character. Not all enemies are truly enemies or remain as 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 reread will give you a close-to-full appreciation of the careful brick-laying that led to TCG (luckily we’re doing just that here at Tor.com!). By the way, I don’t have a full appreciation and I just reread all the prior books at the end of this summer in addition to going through the series chapter by chapter in our Tor.com reread. (I also reread books 3-5 yet again in the past two weeks in an insane attempt to get through the whole series again before 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 TCG 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 Malaz 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 skillfully directs us to pay attention to those in the Malaz series who aren’t “great.”

When he's not doing that, he forces us to stare at humanity, even 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 breath-takingly unexpected, the love for a stranger.

TCG isn’t perfect of course. As mentioned before, some will wish Erikson hadn’t felt the need to dip into the heads of so many “regular soldiers.” 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 Erikson and 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 we 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!

Look. Dare.

Bill Capossere writes short stories and essays, plays ultimate frisbee, teaches as an adjunct English instructor at several local colleges, and writes SF/F reviews for fantasyliterature.com.

Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
Good write up Bill. Some intriguing hints.
I feel somewhat like one of those old Greek shades staring hungrily at a feast just out of reach. Luckily just until March 1.
Chris Hawks
2. SaltManZ
Nicely done, Bill! With any luck, my own (SFBC) copy will be waiting for me when I get home. :crosses fingers:
Dustin George-Miller
3. dustingm
I'm now trying to decide -- do I damn the torpedoes on March 1 and plough into it, or do I finish the re-read that I started a while back?

I seem to recall Erikson saying in an interview or something that a particular book was the "Rosetta Stone" or the key to the entire series. Does anyone else remember that? Which book was it?
4. jec81
Everything I read about these books makes me want to read and never want to read this series in equal measure.
Sydo Zandstra
5. Fiddler

That was Toll the Hounds.

BTW, I'm 380 pages in, and enjoying :)
7. Abalieno
Call that nonspoiler? Had to glide over many paragraphs!

And those comments made me even more convinced that in my sudden illumination I may have seen how it truly ends...

I'm still at book 5, so I bet my expectations will change. But at least I hope that Quick Ben and Shadowthrone will come out with their full plan, whatever it is. I'm not sure how it would fit if they stayed at the periphery of the big picture.
Chris Hawks
8. SaltManZ
Oh come now, you don't even know who 3/4 of those characters are.
Bill Capossere
9. Billcap
Ab (and others worried re spoilers),
It's spoiler-free for those who've read up to this point in the series, though that is working on the assumption that people reading a review of a book 10 in a series have reached book 9. I suppose it isn't technically spoiler-free for those who haven't, but as Saltman points out, if one hasn't read to this point then most of those names are meaningless. And in any case, as I say, some appear as flashbacks so their presence in the book isn't an indication of life or death. The plot points are either clear left-overs from book 9 or straight off the book promo, so I tried to be careful not to spoil any plot.

As for anticipating the ending, well, it wouldn't surprise me if some correctly figure a very big picture conceptual end, but I highly doubt anyone is really going to have a lot of "I called that" with regard to specific actions/scenes/characters.

Shalter and Saltman--thanks--and I hope your mail gets there soon--can't wait to hear what you think once you get through it

Fiddler--just wait 'till you get to 382 :)

Dustingm--plow right in then read it again as you finish your reread--that's my humble advice

Robin Lemley
10. Robin55077
This is going to be the longest week and a half! Will March 1 ever get here?

Thanks Bill. Not that I needed anything to "wet my appitite" but thanks for sharing this with us!
11. Jebus
The focus on the ordinary soldier during massive conflicts is one of the main reasons why I love this series so much. Erikson shows us the world at large and the violently crashing titans on that stage who wreak utter devastation, but it's the story of the unknown soldier(s) that has blessed me with a reading experience I shall cherish until the end of my days.
12. Jason M Waltz
Terrific write-up Bill! Much appreciated, both as (essentially) spoiler-free and for your emotional investment. Sounds like an awesome close to this part of the Malaz tales.
David Thomson
13. ZetaStriker
I need to stop thinking about The Crippled God until I receive it. . . just reading this write-up made me want to squeal with glee at the mere mention of a list of names. And I'm at work. ==;;
Chris Hawks
14. SaltManZ
I started reading it last night, and it's great. And doing the Tor.com reread has already paid off: remember in GotM when we were all like, "The Spar of Andii? We never see THAT again. Must be a GotMism." :D
David Thomson
15. ZetaStriker
Stop it! Bad SaltMan, bad! Now you're going to make me pull out my copy of Gardens of the Moon again!
16. Tenko
Thank you Amazon UK.

Release dates are obviously just for those who can read a calender as I have my copy now.

However I almost don't want to start, what with it being the beginning of the end and all :(
Iris Creemers
17. SamarDev
@ SaltManZ: wow! I completely missed that! How about talent and planning in writing...

I agree many things are resolved very satisfying, although other (more or less important) questions are just touched and remain triggering. But, even with those points left the book definately feels as a conclusion to the series, and a farewell to many friends (apart from the fact if they are still alive at the end of the book or not).

I'm reminded about the variety of causes for tears: shock, joy, loss, pity, deeply felt love and friendship... I can assure you that sitting in the train while reading the last 150 pages gave me some moments of embarrassement. That is, how often do you see grown up people cry in public transport? :-)
Iris Creemers
18. SamarDev
@ Tenko: I had exactly the same. Sitting with the book in front of me, being ultimately excited for the unexpected early delivery, but missing the courage to start. But: I started and enjoyed the ride till the end. So go for it! *tries to forget the feeling of emptiness when she closed the book in the end*
19. haroos
so ganoes paran doesn't appear ...
the new god that came out of the shield anvil of a dead god doesn't make an appearence.
and still satisfyingly ending ?
i guess i'll see if that is possible when i read it.
Rob Kerr
21. useofweapons
pace "Spar of Andii", see also "Mane of Chaos"
Thomas Jeffries
22. thomstel

Seriously, though, seeing Ruthan Gudd's name makes me squee.

Not seeing Lostara Yil makes me a little sad.

Oh yeah, and any word on the other host of assassiny types other than Kalam/Cotillion that are hanging out... somewhere?
Sydo Zandstra
23. Fiddler
@SamarDev in #18:

Exactly. Glad I read the last 150 pages last night in bed.

Awesome Ending. Thank you, SE!
Erick G
24. Erick G
You did an amazing job of telling of the book without revealing any spoilers. You even were able to capture the rushed and packed feel of the story in your post, packing in information the way you did. I haven't read the book yet, but now I really want to, but of course I would want to read it from the first part of the series. I have heard of Erikson and his works, but haven't had the inclination to pick one of his books up and start reading them until now.
Chris Hawks
25. SaltManZ
The one thing that's really stuck out to me while reading TCG is how much it feels like a direct continuation of DoD. (Which obviously it is.) I don't remember getting that feeling from any of the other MBotF books.
26. Steve Diamond
Well crap, Bill. My review of the novel was almost literally word for word for the first chunk of your review. Gonna have to redo it for my posting of it tomorrow.

I totally had the same experience you did with some of the emotionally powerful scenes. It was just death scenes, but more of the scenes where characters are essentially saying "goodbye". Also that scene towards page 750-ish that really made me think of Erikson talking about his losing someone close yo you. Powerful stuff.

It's interesting how much grief Steve gets by how "hopeless" the books seem. I've never really felt that--especially with this one. I felt a huge level of hope/honor in TCG.

Stunning stuff. Seriously.
27. Jason M Waltz
I've never once felt The Malazan Book of the Fallen to be hopeless! People who cry about that are those who aren't really reading the series or those who don't understand what they're reading. And both of them are a shame.
28. MacMac
I got my copy yesterday and it took me about an hour and a half to read a chapter, it's completely subconscious but I seem to have really slowed down my reading pace for this, every time I come across something that strikes me emotionally I have to put it down for a minute before continuing, It's awesome in a draining kind of way and this is only the first book so I can only imagine what the end will feel like.
29. Ulaa
I originally started reading these at the third book and read several out of sequence. A lot of it didn't make sense to me. So I started again from the beginning and I am up to book 4.
I am now convinced of eriksons genius. The final scene of the chain of dogs actually, completely unexpectedly, had me in tears.
To anyone who hasn't already read these, start now. Eriksons doesn't explain everything up front but you learn the background as you move through the series, with little bits of history dropped in here and there.
I am already anticipating feeling a little lost once I finish the last book.
30. Mbourgon
So... This is a fantasy novel of some sort? It's definitely spoiler free for those of us who've never heard of it -I has no idea what the first N books are about, or even what kind of Fantasy novel it is. (I read the review because I figured Tor had it featured in their newsletter, obviously all Would Be Revealed). Oh well. Back to Pattern Recognition.
31. Naif
aaaaaah! This cannot come soon enough for me and at the same time too early because then I will be waiting fot the next book...and the next. Erikson handles his world on a scale that nearly defies imagination yet he keeps it all spinning, keeps it all up there in that head of his, and understandable! How I have NO IDEA but the fact that he does humbles me. An inspirational writer I just cannot get enough of this series and his style/ imagination. It would be amazing if this series just kept going, I could read about this world forever. Jordan (Sanderson thankyou), Erikson, Martin you tease us all with your worlds but we love you for it (I mean the list is very long but these are my 'downright b******s for keeping me hooked please finish but please never finish' writers, (come to think of it Donaldson sneaks in there, as does Brooks and...and... just too many! If only reading was a career and I owned a magical libray that could never be filled!!!).
32. Croaker
How come you forgot to mention Paran Ganoes? What blasphemy!!

An epic review, the most long-winded and saliva-inducing of all the 4 reviews I have read. I am currently at Book Two of The Crippled God and I so far I have wet myself only a couple of times :p

It's great news that Steven Erikson will be writing more novels set in the Malazan universe. I do hope that at some point he'll give us a tale about the bloody past glory of the Bridgeburners.
33. Croaker
There is something that has been bugging me for years and I just have to get it out. A couple of years past, after first discovering Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of The Fallen, I read in a review somewhere that George R R Martin himself said "he couldn't get into Gardens of The Moon", that he "didn't understand how people could praise it" or words to that effect. That *really* irks me no end.

I mean, come on!! How come such a great writer like GRRM can NOT like Gardens of The Moon? I have been scratching my head wondering about it for a long time now. It's just incomprehensible. Then again, to each his own taste, I suppose. But still, I bought GoTM knowing nothing about Steven Erikson, having never heard of this series before. I only bought it because I was in need of a big fat fantasy fix and so I took a chance. I got hooked only after a dozen pages. So how come GRRM not getting into it? Fener's tits, what a Hood-damned mystery!!!

OK then, enough ranting from me :)
Julian Augustus
34. Alisonwonderland

One of the real dangling plot points for me is Picker and her journey (and what was that about Raest and the cat?) ... did that get into the last book somehow? I ask because I notice Picker is not among the names you listed, though I recognize that is not by any means an exhaustive list.
35. jelko
I am reading it like a hungry wolf, devouring pages.
And I know I shouldn't, but I geuss I'll make it right in the reread.
(Can't even wait to start re-reading... thx to all you guys, rereading this series is epic :-)
This time SE is very direct in his storytelling, and I couldn't escape the feeling that this time the writer was actualy there, inside the book, adressing me personaly. (does that make sense??)
And another thing: once again the world of Malaz is very colourful, ya even beautiful. Makes the circle round with the multitude of colors in Gardens.
Have only a 100 pages left...
Steven Halter
36. stevenhalter
Bill@9: I finished TCG on Saturday. My short response is that I liked it. I'm working on a longer review. But, I also found the number of details from Deadhouse Gates and Gardens of the Moon that were very important quite interesting.
Chris Hawks
37. SaltManZ
I finished it on Saturday as well. I have no idea how I'll write my review for it, but the short version is: "Loved it with reservations. Lots of resolutions, few explanations."

I was also amazed by the number of callbacks to the first couple books of the series. I could almost see Erikson, before starting in on his first draft, doing a quick series reread while jotting notes on stuff he should include and/or tie up.
Steven Halter
38. stevenhalter
Bill (and anyone interested):
I wrote up my thoughts on TCG on www.stevenhalter.com. The first portion is spoiler free, then there's some space and some very minor spoilers, then a cut line and some minor spoilers. So, three parts.
a a-p
39. lostinshadow
I finally downloaded tCG onto my kindle (and it will be nice to read an SE book without worrying if my wrists can handle the strain) but I just can't find the time to sit and read it - SE is not exactly one of those authors you can read with half your mind on something else!

So thanks for the review, that'll hold me a bit until I can get RL sorted a bit better.

Can we have a spoiler thread within the next few weeks? I'm sure we'll all want to discuss as we get around to finishing the book (and series... sniff) but we don't want to spoil it for the newbies on the reread. so spoiler thread... please...
Kimani Rogers
40. KiManiak
Finally! I’m so excited. After four or so months of trying to jam through this entire series for the first time (which, let’s face it; you can’t really do as you find yourself reading and rereading some sections multiple times), I have finally gotten to the point where I could read Bill’s The Crippled God review (and then, the book itself, of course).

Just reading Bill’s review has me grinning and rubbing my hands in anticipation. The only dilemma for me is whether to reflect on Dust of Dreams for a day or so, or barrel straight in to TCG right now.

Bill, I appreciated you setting the stage for TCG, letting folks know that some questions will be answered and some plots will be resolved, but not all. I anticipate that after finishing TCG I may just jump right into a reread of the whole series. I’m sure that there’s so much more to pick up on the second time around.

Anyway, looking forward to it…

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