Reading Steven Erikson’s The God Is Not Willing: Chapter One

Welcome back as we enter The God Is Not Willing proper, now that we’ve covered a very brief recap of pertinent events and names from the series and also taken a look at the prologue. In Chapter One (which you can read in full here) we’ll meet a raft of new characters, one old friend, and—because it’s a Malazan book—a bunch of old bones.

A few points on the epigraph (always read the epigraphs!)…

If the prologue introduced conflict and climate change as major themes, the epigraph raises others that will resonate through the novel: freedom/slavery and sacrifice. I have to say as well, any book that deals with climate change and then offers up a “Mystic of Denial” is already making me laugh and cry at the same time. Finally, note that this is from “The Great Library at Morn.” In the main sequence, Morn was where the rent (a sort of broken/wounded warren) was, and the area was barren. So we’re looking back from a time period where the land has not only recovered and been resettled, but so much so that it hosts a “Great Library.”

That “Fool’s” saying, as is often the case for a Fool character, isn’t so foolish.

***

That’s a smooth move from the prologue’s focus on climate change to the lower south where the season is on the cusp, and ice has become water, a mirror (as the next paragraph says) to what has gone before. It’s also setting up a cusp—”the season had yet to turn”—so that we enter a world betwixt and between, one turning away from what was to what is coming

***

“Strange how things said that made no sense could stay in the memory, and the truths just fell away…” Huh, apparently the world of Malaz has social media…

***

A career soldier waxing philosophical, musing on truth and death, Oams is classic Erikson. And in that vein, he not only is musing on his own death, but imagines “he’d see in his last moments, his enemy’s own towering stalker”—because “empathy” is one of, if not THE, key words in the entire Malazan series. Note Oams even has it for his horse.

***

In the recap/refresher a couple of weeks ago, I brought up a reminder that dead in this world does not mean the same as dead in our world, and here’s an early example. As for whether that spirit is gone or not, note that Oams tracks it going “over, around, and within his body” but never says anything about seeing it go past. And “within” is perhaps not the best spot to end on. More to come…

One of the aspects of fantasy I so enjoy is how almost anything is possible. And so as Oams wonders aloud if he somehow missed his death in the recent battle, maybe forgot it somehow, in a non-fantasy book we take this as just some existential sort of crisis “all in his head.” But in fantasy, there’s this extra little frisson of not actually knowing. For all we know at this point, Oams very well may be dead. Because you know, fantasy.

***

We’re what, a mere handful of pages into the chapter and this is our second reference to uncovered bones. Malazan books never let us forget that we all walk atop the past—it’s all layers.

I like this momentary digression into the graveyard for several reasons. One is how it reinforces the idea that the land (any land) has seen wave upon wave upon wave of different “locals,” those “ancient, forgotten peoples” a theme—layers of time, layers of existence—that has always been prominent in this series. Another is in the treatment of the graves: how “the unearthed bones had been discarded and left scattered here and there,” which implies a cavalier disregard for those “forgotten peoples.” That’s certainly a viewpoint, and a similar action of disrespect, we’ve seen in our own historical treatment of remains, acts that are only recently being atoned for via repatriation of bones or other means. To give some credit though, it does appear the Malazans at least made an attempt to find out if the bones could be claimed by anyone, though the locals denied any kinship to those interred. Finally, of course, lingering description on a graveyard can’t help but set a certain tone, bring certain themes/moods to light.

***

More evidence of climate change, the fort being only 30 paces from the river, when it had been originally built three times that distance away.

***

I like how Erikson is giving his fans some fun time here. I’m assuming knowing that by identifying this unknown Malazan as simply “the sergeant,” we’re all going to be eagerly lapping up each and every crumb when it becomes clear it’s someone we might know: “Ok, someone who’s been here before, wait, they fought against the Crimson Guard, OK, now what, fought in Blackdog, no, didn’t fight in Blackdog but was aware of the fighting there, ooh ooh, he was a Bridgeburner! And he was in Black Coral! Did he never go to Darujhistan, or was he there but then left? Was at Itkovian’s barrow. I know, I know!” Gotta love an author who gives his audience these treats. And who is nice enough to not drag it out too long, so if you don’t know, then here it is, “It was what you figured it would be, Spindle.”

***

Speaking of setting a mood or tone… There’s a lot of musing on “endings” here in Spindle’s interior monologue. The multiple graveyards, the digging of holes to “spill familiar faces into,” the cutting down of an entire woods, the end of a frontier under peace’s “suffocating blanket,” the dissolving of the Bridgeburners, the “mortal wounding of Moon’s Spawn,” the foreseen “last moment” of the Malazan Empire, “when the last marine went down,” a single man’s “long life near[ing] its end,” the end of longing, the promise of redemption, which may or may not be the same as longing for death. All these patchwork pieces of thoughts forming a cohesive mood. Continuing even as we shift point of view to Oams, who spots Spindle amid the “old graves and tombs,” sees him at “the edge of the cemetery”—more mood setting or actual foreshadowing?

We also see why Oams had death on his mind earlier—his mission was to kill someone (someone already apparently dying). And we slip in a bit more exposition: Spindle’s group has been badly mauled in a battle and very recently.

***

“Iskar take me”—pay attention to the curses in here. They show a different world from the one we left behind at the end of The Crippled God. And if you didn’t remember that Iskar is Whiskeyjack, the next curse, “Iskar’s limp” is a subtle hint. And then a few pages later, in case that wasn’t enough, we get the full name “Iskar Jarak” and a bit more detail.

***

Note that offhand “meltwater” and the ominous silencing of the rooster, a bird that, after all, heralds a change.

***

Folibore, if you can’t tell, is not your usual heavy. Erikson has a lot of fun playing with that characterization throughout the book.

***

From reader-response theory and “the permutations, the nuances, the inferences” to “fire farts.” Let it not be said that Erikson doesn’t display a range of dialogue.

***

Oh I love me some Erikson soldier banter.

***

People, I give you Captain Gruff. That’s got to be one of the best introductions (and we’ve seen a lot of them) of a character in this long, long series

***

We’ve seen in prior books how the deep past has been warped over time, that things once thought “known” weren’t all that accurate. I like here how Erikson shows us how it needn’t take millennia or centuries. Only ten years later and already things are going a bit fuzzy. The mythologizing is already starting: “Bridgeburners. Bonehunters. Coltaine’s Crows… All dead but never forgotten.”

***

There’s a lot to unpack here with Stillwater (and I’ll tell you now, she is absolutely my favorite character in this entire book).

  • She has, let’s call it, a different view on things, something those around her have picked up on as well. This different view appears, for instance, when she notes how people with manners are strange. Or when she ponders, “Considerate, kind, helpful people—what was wrong with them? Something.”
  • She’s a tomb-looter, some background setting us up for later.
  • She’s an assassin, and a mage (and somehow thinks she’s the first to come up with that idea—who knows, maybe she can trademark it).
  • Being an assassin, she obviously has a habit of killing people, but that apparently includes people (friends?) she knows: “Poor Brenoch.” “Poor Filbin.” And let me just say, Stillwater’s “Poor Fill-in-the-Blank” is one of my favorite running gags in the books as well. And how can you not love “stat-stab-stab!”?

***

We get a little more recap for those who haven’t read the series in a while and may have forgotten Karsa’s link to Silver Lake. Or for those who may start their Malazan journey here instead of with Gardens of the Moon or Cam’s prequel series. And then a bit more on the uprising/liberation that Elade had referenced in the prologue, though now we get the other side. Notice again how things are already fuzzy—Karsa’s raid no longer pinned down to the right time or place by everyone. I do have to say though that I’m loving that it’s come down through time as “The Idiot Attack.”

***

Speaking of Karsa, a bit more exposition slips in as we’re reminded that he’s living in Darujhistan and not doing much save driving his would-be followers away. And then even more exposition that added to the info from the meeting gives us a good sense of what happened recently and what the next plot point will entail. The Malazans battled a company of “well equipped, exceptionally well-trained and most impressively disciplined” bandits, took some heavy losses, and then Spindle found the bandit leader Balk and put a knife to his throat, forcing their surrender. Now Gruff plans to have the bandits join the Malazans to replace the dead soldiers those bandits killed, making Balk a lieutenant as well. As one might imagine, Spindle and Gruff assume the Malazans might take some issue with that, though Spindle assures Gruff they’ll live with it. Certainly a situation rife with tension and possible violence.

***

When Gruff tells Spindle he would have “sawn off” Balk’s head instead of just threatening to do so as Spindle did, it surprises not just Spindle but, I’m guessing, the reader as well, given the lavender shirt, the gloves, the “sweetness” and “dear,” the painted lips. Perhaps Gruff’s name is more appropriate than first thought.

I’ll also note that it is another example of things not being what they appear on the surface, of which we’ve had several even in just these first two sections. The shining ice hiding the deadly threat behind it, Stillwater hiding her magery, the heavies being not just literate but eloquent, and so on. That’s a theme that will run throughout the novel and something to pay attention to as you read through.

***

That’s it for for Chapter One. As with the Prologue, share your own reactions and predictions in the comments. Next week, we’ll finish our exploration of the opening of the book with a look at Chapter Two, followed by my review of the novel, out for US release on November 9th. See you for more Malazan next Monday!

(Please note: Because The God Is Not Willing was published in the U.K. in July, some potential spoilers may appear in the comments below, so please proceed at your own risk.)

Bill Capossere writes short stories, essays and plays; regularly reviews for Fantasy Literature; and pens the occasional post (or seven-year reread) for Tor.com. He lives in Rochester, NY, where in addition to writing and reading, he bikes to work as an adjunct English instructor, plays ultimate Frisbee and disc golf, and looks forward to the six-week hiking/camping trip he takes every summer. He can also be found on Twitter.

citation

Back to the top of the page

4 Comments

This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.