After 1.5 years of reading and 3.3 million words, The Crippled God (2011) ends the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Erikson writes this finale in his own subversive, Eriksonian way, in which he uses the tropes of epic fantasy, but has his own ideas about what is important to tell. His series is a postmodern take on fantasy and an exploration of ideas about compassion that goes beyond the goal of providing mere entertainment and the old fantasy tropes are used as tools, made transparent, turned inside out, to challenge our own ideas. The result is an epic closing novel that is unlike any the genre has produced to date. It engages with the reader in how we normally conceive of the great struggles in epic fantasy series and offers a realignment with other values that necessitates a deconstruction of traditional fantasy tropes. It is also a bloody good yarn of action and wonder.
Final novels of big epic fantasy series usually end in the same way: with some army marching on an evil tyrant and delivering justice for all the misdeeds and so save the world from evil plans. The Crippled God, on the face of it, follows a very similar structure if you take a bird’s eye view and look at all the armies marching around, but Erikson is not interested in following similar themes. He turns things upside down and wants to puncture some illusions that carried those old epic tales. That notion of justice is his first target. In Erikson’s version of the big, epic showdown, it is not the marching army that is full of ideas about justice, but the other guys, the ones with the problematic plans who use the concept of justice to excuse something horrible. Justice is after all a nebulous concept and can mean whatever people want it to mean. What is just, what is the right thing to do? Where to look for the answer? The story of Onos T’oolan and the T’lan Imass is another variant on this struggle. They have been guided by another person’s notion of justice, which lead them to murder. Now Tool seeks penance or dissolution, and would that be just?
So Erikson sets up all these groups who each have their own idea of justice, and have them all come into conflict with each other.
Another illusion that Erikson punctures is the romantic notion of fate and how that makes or does not make something “right”. Fate is, of course, a favourite motif in epic fantasy. The genre is rife with grand destinies and prophesies, and are usually utilised by the author for grandiose storytelling to make victories just and inevitable, as if they occur in accordance with the universe itself. In the Malazan series we have the storyline of the Shake, who return to their ancestral homeland because of fate. They are fated to fight some ultimate battle. But is that right? It sounds so glorious, but where is the rightness in it? Is it even fair to the Shake descendants who are burdened with this fate? Why are they called upon to die?
After a fragmented start in which clearly too many characters need an update on their situation, the novel finds its footing and starts building momentum. There is a clear emotional journey for the Malazans, in which we as readers first circle in a tentative, cautious way inwards to the Bonehunters’ situation in the aftermath of Dust of Dreams’s dramatic climax. The army picks itself up, grieves, realigns with the Grey Helms and others, and sets course for they goal, shaken and still unsure of the Adjunct’s plan while great danger lies before them.
It is in the story of the Grey Helms that the conflict over justice and what that means is most clearly spelled out. As Mortal Sword Krughava asks: “…vengeance, retribution and righteous punishment. Is that all we possess? Is there nothing else that might challenge such weapons?” The answer to these questions is given in the journey of the Malazans, the Bonehunters. In a lengthy chapter, Erikson visits all the various soldiers in that army, jumping from one point of view to another, and what he shows is that they are all broken in some ways, and are therefore not so different from the Crippled God himself. And, they all have their doubts whether they will survive their journey, and that is where another piece of the puzzle falls into place, because for compassion to stand in place of vengeance, retribution and righteous punishment, some faith is required. Faith that it will be enough. The uncertain march of the Bonehunters embodies all of this.
In the storyline of the Shake, we find the difference in perspective between Gods and mortals. Erikson offers a nice echo in storytelling: Withal tells Mother Dark that gods like her take a hundred thousand years in their fist and crush it like it’s nothing. As if it has no meaning. At the end of the chapter, Queen Yan Tovis grabs a handful of crushed bones in her hand, thinking that the entire history of her people lies in that. But she can’t quite crush it. For humans, there is meaning in those years, and it is found in the struggle. Why the Shake have to fight isn’t clear to them, but they honour those who fall besides them in that struggle. They honour people. This hearkens all the way back to Gardens of the Moon, where humanity is found in the mutual respect among the Bridgeburners, who are set upon by the outside world. And ultimately, it is the Adjunct Tavore’s unique perspective that wreaks change, a mortal’s in opposition to that of the Gods.
The Snake (not the Shake, the Snake) represents something that people do not want to see. Going all the way back to Deadhouse Gates, Historian Duiker gives us the quote that “children are dying” and that that is all you need to know about history. Adults often do not want to see what consequences their actions have for the suffering of children. Duiker saw, and now we are forced to see by the physical representation of that sentiment, the Snake. And Adjunct Tavore, who is the only one who dares to look at the suffering of the Crippled God, is therefore the right person to confront the Snake and understand what they represent, and to be guided by them, by that truth, onwards in her journey. Very poetic then that the path of dead bodies of the Snake literally guides the Bonehunters onwards.
From all of these examples, it is clear that the thematic foundation of this series is incredibly strong, almost to the point that many characters and races represent parts of arguments that Erikson is making. That doesn’t mean that Erikson is being polemic; he’s only exploring themes. Sometimes this is challenging. For example, he introduces a creature, a force of unstoppable rage and power, and creatures like these we see a lot in the fantasy genre and are usually dropped into the stories as unknowable bringers of chaos, like earthquakes. But Erikson then underlines the pain and anguish that lie behind the rage, and we as readers are confronted with feelings of pity and have to acknowledge a certain vulnerability in this powerful creature, and that might not be what we want to hear in the middle of all these epic events but that’s where the fantasy genre usually turns a blind eye. Erikson again and again makes this move towards empathy and compassion and so lays bare a certain hypocrisy that was part of the genre, and was always there to satisfy the hunger for blood and power in our own souls as readers and writers.
What I really enjoy about Erikson is that he does not only indulge in the thematic focus, philosophy and number of POVs, but also in the brute, epic dragons and fireballs stuff when the occasion calls for it. The Crippled God has a 400 page climax to the series that is sufficiently earth-shattering, full thousand-dragons, fire and blood raining from the sky craziness in which about two dozen setups and plotlines converge.
Final words after reading the series as a whole.
I can confidently say that I am no longer the same reader as I was before I started this series. I think that Malazan made me a better reader. I have developed a sharper eye for themes in literature. I take more notice in how scenes are set up and played out. I can look clearer at what characters’ actions say about them instead of having the writer tell me this. I am reading with greater awareness for what the writer wants to convey and the journey of reading and understanding these ten big books has trained me to do this. It’s almost essential to understanding why Erikson makes the choices that he does; why he follows particular POVs and plotlines.
The series occupies a special place in the fantasy genre. It is massive, but in that hardly unique. But there are a couple of things that make it different from other mega-series like Jordan’s Wheel of Time or Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The first difference is the strong focus on themes which Erikson took as the main anchor for his every choice in plotline and POV. Secondly, he wrote every plotline in the way you would write a short story, and using literary techniques that play around with reader anticipation and obfuscation, where every short story becomes a journey of discovery. And squeezing all these short stories into 1000 page novels makes this series incredibly rich with a multitude of stories to be found inside them, much more so than in other fantasy series. It is also much more subversive in a post-modern, post-structuralist way in which the books don’t behave themselves as you would expect from epic fantasy stories. Clear Campbellian hero-journeys are hard to make out from the stories which feel more like fragments of narrative history scrambled together into thematic wholes.
One of the greatest joys of this series is, as a fellow reader put it, to scramble together countless minutiae scattered over 10,000 pages to assemble complex storyline theories and synthesize deep thematic messages. But you need to grasp that gauntlet with both hands and really go for it, and drop your expectations for what epic fantasy should be. Not only will it help to grow as a reader but also to enjoy the series to its fullest extent. For me, this was one of the greatest reading journeys of my life, alongside JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, which also, like Malazan, shaped the way I thought about the genre and about writing in general.