Posted by: markfender | April 1, 2015

The Crippled God

And it’s over (Or is it? It is, after April’s Fools – the internet’s holiday).

crippled godAs a continuation of the last book, The Crippled God picks up where that one left off, except that Erickson is gonna tease you for a few chapters before revealing what actually happened to the Bonehunters. I actually found this pretty effective as his POVs circle the physical space of the Bonehunters, each gradually revealing more information until finally there’s a Bonehunter POV and we find out what happened.

I actually laughed out loud when I read the Dramatis Personae in this book, as it says “Including those in Dust of Dreams.” As that book had 187 characters and this book adds more, I think my brain just recoiled against learning even more character names.

Erickson’s new technique in this book is to do flashback POVs. These normally worked, except that there’s too many of them. I stopped counting after five.

We also have to finish up the Shake storyline from the last few books and, while dramatic, it was in places needlessly confusing. The new Queen has flashbacks to previous moments in the city that she then confuses with present day. That gets complicated even more when some of those people show up in the present day and have conversations with her, conversations that she thinks are flashbacks. I’ve said before and I’ll probably say again (maybe even later in this same post) that Erickson rewards close reading, but I really felt like I was paying penance for close reading in these sections. I followed it all, but it wasn’t always clear.

One thing that Erickson has always done, and has done exceeding well in these last two books, is provide small, short POVs from the Malazan troops. As we flit from group to group, we get small insights into the numerous characters in the Bonehunters. But, in this book, I realized something a bit odd – Erickson doesn’t do this for the other armies. The Letherii army, for instance, has only three POVs in total and one of those characters is actually traveling with the Bonehunters. I’m kind of curious why the Malazans get this depth while other groups don’t. Is it just because they’ve been with us for so many of these books?

Another interesting point about all these armies (seriously, there’s a lot of different armies in this final book), is how egalitarian Erickson is. One of them is led by a lesbian, another is led by a gay guy, and the there’s at least three females in charge of three different armies. I think it says something that it took me until the final book to even realize this, which says something about how even-handed Erickson is. It’s never a big deal that women are in charge, nor is it a big deal about which gender anyone prefers.

As the final book, it’s probably a good time to talk about how Erickson changes expectations. Introducing characters who seem like they’re one way, and then revealing over time how the reader’s expectations were wrong. We see this all the way back in Gardens of the Moon with the horrific threat of the Jaghut Raest, only to learn in later books that the Jaghut weren’t all that bad. Likewise, the T’lan Imass’s eternal war against the Jaghut can be seen in later books as incredibly misguided and harmful to the Imass as a people. Even the introduction of Karsa starts out pretty grim before confounding expectations. But, there’s a few places where this doesn’t work as well and, unfortunately, one of them is the whole point of these novels – The Crippled God himself.

In earlier books, he poisons the warrens, raises the Pannion Domin (an army of cannibals, so super pleasant people), and curses Rhulad Sengar with a terrible sword. And yet, in this last book, we have the Malazans hell-bent on freeing him and returning him to his world. His terrible acts are reinterpreted as a person in pain lashing out. If you reconstruct the timeline (which is kind of difficult), you can see how the Crippled God started out in a bad place and gradually softened (Itkovian embracing Rath’Fener in Memories of Ice actually, if I understand this whole Fener/cut off hands thing (and I’m not claiming I do because it is super weird and confusing), ends up contacting the Crippled God, which may have been the first time that he experienced compassion. The fact that it was Itkovian who did this just makes me like that character even more). However, because Midnight Tides takes place before that book, as readers, we just see the Crippled God continue to do bad things, and may not quite understand how his attitude has been changed (I’d even hazard that the sword Rhulad ended up with was meant to unite the Edur so that they could go free the Crippled God himself on the other side of the continent – it just got confused by Humball Taur’s ambitions and went awry). As a re-reader, I can see the threads that Erickson is playing out to change the readers’ minds about the Crippled God, but I’m not sure it completely works. I mean, just look at all those parentheses in the last paragraph as I attempt to reconstruct how the events transpired. I think that says it doesn’t quite work, even if I can see the directions Erickson was heading with that particular plotline.

Likewise, he never managed to make me change my mind on Tavore. She’s definitely the most frustrating character in the whole series – deliberately so. There are a few scenes in this novel where she actually has the opportunity to lay out her plans (or, at least explain her motivations), but she doesn’t. In fact, she gets petulant when people ask her to. Those same characters then go have conversations among themselves about how they don’t understand her and are continually frustrated by her (just like the readers)…and then go ahead and follow her anyway. I am completely baffled by this. Not only does Tavore not earn any trust from any characters in this book, she actively fights against gaining that trust. But, everyone sacrifices themselves for her and her grand ambitions anyway. I don’t mind exasperating characters. I don’t even mind closed-off characters. But I do mind when every other character seems to embrace that character close to their bosom and feel such tragedy for that “poor, misunderstood Tavore.” I don’t think she ever earns that attitude and I somewhat resent that characters have their motivations twisted to agree with her when I, as the reader, wasn’t given those same opportunities (or, if I was, the writing didn’t convey that well enough). It’s particularly frustrating because Erickson has managed to do that with other characters so I know he possesses the ability to do it (For instance, Ganoes Paran, Tavore’s brother, has an army in this book as well. One of his subcommanders misunderstands everything he says. But Ganoes demonstrates efficiency in his actions, which makes me believe that even the misunderstanding commander might follow him). Just not with the most important character in the entire series.

Because of these two problems, I don’t think this last book really works. It’s the ending to an epic series that doesn’t feel as epic as it could have. Seeds that Erickson planted in book one pay off in book ten. The ending has some suitably awesome moments (the fight at the Spire engaged me tactically, emotionally, and viscerally) and wraps up many dangling plotlines. But it’s not one of my favorites. In fact, I’d rank it somewhere near the bottom of this incredibly tall pile. In addition, none of my favorite characters from the series were in this book, which didn’t help any.

I think this is because of how Erickson structured the series. We’re used to fantasy book escalating events in each book until you get a rock-em, sock-em ending. But Erickson is intent on finishing the story for each book within its own book (although he lays out hints about what’s coming next). Because of this, the main bad guy in this book wasn’t introduced until this book. So, in a lot of ways, it’s just another Malazan book with its self-contained storyline and not the typical epic ending from a long-running series. As another Malazan book, it’s good, but as the ending to a series, it doesn’t necessarily deal with the typical escalation that happens in fantasy novels.

On the series as a whole, I’d say that it’s not an easy series to get into. It’s never going to be in the top-tier of fantasy series, simply because it’s too difficult to read. That difficulty has its own rewards, but I don’t think most readers are looking for that sort of experience. It’s postmodern in its approach and plays with the common tropes of fantasy books in ways that I found rewarding, but I specialized in postmodern literature in college so I’m perhaps more inclined to like that sort of thing. Continuing to damn with faint praise, I’d also say that I won’t ever read any more of Erickson’s work until he’s completely finished with whatever he’s writing. He’s currently doing a preview trilogy and has plans to write a Karsa trilogy after that. I am eagerly looking forward to the Karsa series, but I got so much more out of his books by reading them in quick succession than I did waiting a year between the latter half of the series. The hints at upcoming events are too subtle to pick up on, let alone remember, with years between books. And, while I hate the fact that Esslemont is now writing books set in this setting, I imagine it’s way worse to have Brandon Sanderson be the one to finish The Wheel of Time (I’d rank the Malazan stuff above some other much beloved fantasy series is what I’m saying). There are great characters, great set pieces, incredibly intricate plotting, and some smart choices made within the medium by Erickson, but it’s not easy stuff (nor should it be, but that’s probably a separate argument). I wish I could recommend the series to more people. But, Erickson doesn’t necessarily have mass-market appeal (and blame for that could be placed on readers as well as Erickson).

So, let’s end this long, rambling reread with the last line of the last chapter, spoken by Icarium, because it contains all the feels:

“Friend, I have remembered something.”

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