“What do you mean Karsa isn’t even in this book?” Corporal Snack demanded. “It’s called The God is Not Willing!”
“Iskar’s limp—he’s the fucking god! How can he not be in the book?”
Anyx Fro snorted. “You’re an idiot. Obviously, he wasn’t willing.”
Snack’s blotchy face rounded on her. “That doesn’t make any sense; he doesn’t get to choose. The writer decides!”
“Ahh,” Folibore said. “You see the author as an omniscient marionette. But do they really decide?”
“Course they do!” Snack yelled. “Feather’s itch, who else would come up with this shit! Oams! Help me out here; you were a writer.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“And a good thing too,” Folibore said, “or we’d be down another Marine, since Barthes killed all the writers.”
“Poor Oams,” Stillwater sighed. She wondered who this Barthes person was. Someone else stealing her best ideas.
“I’m not dead!” Oams protested.
“How do we know?” Shrake asked. “Sure, Benger said he healed you last night, but he’s an illusionist so how do we know your bloody corpse ain’t still back there in the road?”
Oams turned to Benger marching silently beside him. “Benger, tell ‘em you healed me! Tell ‘em I’m not dead!”
Benger turned his head to face him. “You think I’m marching in this mud with you idiots? I’m riding the wagon, and if you draw the Sergeant’s attention over here with your big gabhole, I’ll—”
Rant stood. “Stop. I don’t understand. I thought you were writing a review.”
“There is no talk here of plot. Or character. Or theme.”
“Well, see, it’s a clever use of—”
“Clever people are never as clever as they think they are.”
“OK, maybe ‘funny’ is a better word than—”
“Funny people are never as funny as they think they are. You will write the review now.”
“You know, you sound just like your father, Karsa, when you—”
Rant pulled out the knife the Malazan had given him years ago.
“I’ll just start the review now.”
“See. Now you’re being clever.”
The God is Not Willing picks up roughly ten years after the events of The Crippled God, returning us to one of the earliest settings in the series—Silver Lake, the small town in northern Genabackis where Karsa Orlong first wreaked havoc amongst the southland “children.” Karsa’s people remain in the mountains above, but not for long, as natural events have done what Teblor nature could not—unified the clans under one banner and driven them into alliance with other non-human tribes in preparation for an invasion of the lowlands. Amidst rumors of vast numbers of stirring “savages,” the depleted squads of the Malazan 14th Legion being sent to Silver Lake are forced to supplement their low numbers by contracting with the same mercenary squad responsible for their recent losses, making for an uneasy agreement to say the least. And in Silver Lake itself, Karsa’s son Rant—the product of Karsa’s rape of a townswoman years earlier—is forced from home and journeys to see if he will find a place with the Teblor, accompanied by the human hunter Damisk and two Jheck he meets in the mountains.
These three storylines—the tense, iffy relationship between the Malazans and the mercenaries as they march to and then garrison Silver Lake, Rant’s journey to and meeting with the Teblor (including his half-sisters), and the forced migration of the hill/mountain peoples into human lands—make up a surprisingly focused and streamlined plot for a Malazan story. How streamlined? The books comes in at under 500 pages, roughly half the size of the average Malazan book. I breezed through it in a single sitting, and after rereading the entire Malazan Book of the Fallen series just beforehand, Willing almost felt like a novella, thanks to its (relatively) short length, constrained setting (basically a handful of near-to-each-other locations), and small-scale focus.
Before anyone gets nervous that Erikson has jettisoned many of the elements that made MBotF so beloved in favor of something more “easily and commercially acceptable,” however, let me assuage your concerns. Does the novel feature a veritable host of characters? Check (two dozen to pay serious attention to, and the Dramatis Personae lists far more). Multiple POVs? Check. Poetry? Check. Important epigraphs from “reference” works? Check. Characters doing deep dives into philosophy, ethics, religion, and the human (broadly speaking) condition? Check. Exploration of serious and timely themes? Check. Witty and/or ribald banter? Check and check. Vivid battle scenes? Check. Movingly poignant scenes? (*swallows lump in throat recalling them*) Check. In other words, this book isn’t Erikson “lite.” More like an Erikson “single-serving.” You’re not getting Halo Top instead of Häagen-Dazs; you’re just getting a pint instead of a carton.
Despite being a direct sequel, Erikson, at least here in book one, eschews the easy choice of stocking the novel with fan favorites from earlier books. With the exception of Spindle, all the main characters are brand new, with previous characters relegated to cameo appearances (Who? Nope, not telling…) or off-stage references, as when one character anxiously asks if there are “two necromancers” inside a large carriage. We get a lot of new people/names thrown at us early, which makes for some blurring, but eventually (some more quickly than others) they sort themselves out into distinctly strong characters.
My personal favorite—and I’m guessing that will be true for a number of readers, is Stillwater, a deadly if surprisingly clumsy assassin-mage (she proudly thinks she’s the first to merge the two professions) whose running internal and spoken commentary is one of the greatest, and funniest, pleasures of the novel. I’m already sold on a Stillwater Trilogy to follow this one. Other favorites amongst the marines are the mage Benger, Captain Gruff, So Bleak (who is indeed), and the intellectual “heavy” Folibore, though as is often the case with Malazan soldiers, while individual characters shine, much of the joy is in the interaction of the unit as a whole.
Outside the marines, the hunter Damisk is a complex, richly drawn character, and the Jheck Gower nearly as much so. The other Jheck character will probably spark differing reactions; I found him a welcome source of comic relief in the Rant storyline, which tends toward the grim, but others may find him more annoying than funny. Rant, meanwhile, is more a character I appreciate than enjoy, which is appropriately enough sort of how I feel about Karsa. Part of it is he feels more like a vehicle for ideas/points at times than a person, part of it —somewhat related—is stylistic (the ideas and points he embodies are far from simple, but he presents or resolves them somewhat simply, as in a fist to the face or a flat refusal to accept something), and the rest of it is too fuzzily subjective to nail down. Your mileage may vary.
Finally, on the subject of character, despite the “brevity” of The God Is Not Willing, Erikson still manages to give us several examples of what I consider a rare authorial strength: a “minor” character drawn so vividly that we become fully immersed in their story despite how little page time they have, so much so that we can be driven to near-tears by what happens to them.
With regard to worldbuilding, after ten books in the main sequence (and yes, you should definitely read the main sequence before this one), plus two in the prequel, a number of novellas, and Cam’s novels set in the same universe, it isn’t like we don’t know this world. Erikson does have to fill in a few gaps, though, and he does that as smoothly as one would expect for an author so well versed in his subject matter. So we learn, for instance, that the Empire under Rel (I hate Mallick Rel) has stabilized and found some peace, there’s a Coltaine cult sweeping across several continents, and the Malazan military has once again adapted to better meet its needs and objectives.
Beyond the more obvious exposition, though, I loved the little ways Erikson shows us a changed world. A game of Fiddler’s Gambit, for instance (ideally played with a Deck of Dragons) offers up the new “chips”: “Black Feathers,” “Unloved Woman,” “Icar,” “Korabas,” “Church of the Eel,” and “Twice Alive.” Even the curses the soldiers use—Iskar’s Limp, Feather’s Itch—give us a bridge from the world of MBotF to this somewhat different one. I also appreciated how Erikson doesn’t ignore technology or allow it to stagnate as too many fantasy authors do. Magic’s existence has not prevented the development of new tech, as we see in several (somewhat depressing) scenes.
As for major themes/subjects, we’ve seen some of these before, as one might expect. Compassion, empathy, freedom, redemption and accountability, humanity’s self-destructive nature when it comes to despoiling the environment and wiping out non-human life. The concept of innocence is more directly prominent here than in other books, I’d say. And climate change is evoked from the very beginning, in the prologue; really, it’s what drives the entire plot. Some of the themes are presented indirectly, via echoes or metaphors or action we’re left to draw conclusions from, and others are conveyed much more overtly via dialogue, internal monologue, or even the occasional lengthy speech. If in earlier books you didn’t like Erikson’s characters interrupting action scenes with long philosophical discussions—say, the distinction between good and evil—then you’ll find some pacing issues here. If, like me, you loved those moments, you’ll find the plot fast-flowing and smooth even as it is peppered with some serious concepts to chew on. That said, at times the themes are a bit too on the nose, too bald in their conveyance, for my personal preference. I like things a little more allusive, even elusive.
On the flip side, I loved how Erikson weaves in a recurring theme of misdirection or illusion—things or people not being what they appear—via a variety of methods, including but not limited to various plot twists, schemes of deception, illusion magic, concealment spells, shadows (of course—it is a Malazan book, after all), heavies pretending to be stupid, and several quite funny running gags that I won’t spoil here.
The humor, as noted above, is a welcome balance to the grimmer aspects of the novel. Like life, the story commingles tragedy and comedy, and Erikson proves himself deft at both. Rant’s storyline in particular has some deeply disturbing and bleak moments (I’d expect some might think Erikson goes a little far with one scene), and the entire book builds toward a climax that dampened my eyes and closed off my throat more than a few times. If The God Is Not Willing lacks the physical weight of the earlier Malazan books, it certainly doesn’t lack the emotional heft. I’m not going to argue that less is more here, because as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to things Malazan more is always more. But less is adamantly not less either. The God Is Not Willing is Erikson still at the top of his game, a lean, sharply honed, and powerful addition to what is already in my mind the preeminent fantasy universe of the last few decades.
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.