The Crippled God is the tenth and closing volume of one of the biggest achievements in fantasy: The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Over the past twelve years, these massive tomes appeared on schedule, steadily building one of the most complex, dramatic and challenging series in the genre. Looking back on the series, I am in awe of the world Erikson and co-creator Ian C. Esslemont have created. The previous book, Dust of Dreams, was something of an exception in the series, it ended on a cliffhanger. Erikson approached to finale of his series as one huge tale, too large to fit into one book. Perhaps not entirely unexpected, Erikson does not wrap up all loose ends in this volume but is is without a doubt a fitting end to the series.
After their catastrophic meeting with the K'Chain Nah'ruk at the end of Dust of Dreams, the Bonehunters are severely diminished. Large numbers of heavies and marines, the backbone of Tavore's army, have perished in the battle. Still, Tavore is determined to carry on with her mission. An even more formidable challenge awaits the Bonehunters as they try to cross the Glass Dessert, the place where a god died, on the way to their final confrontation against the Forkrul Assail. With their ultimate cause and destination still unknown to the army, they are on the brink of mutiny as Tavore drives them on towards a convergence that will determine the fate of the world.
It is of course impossible to properly summarize this book. Erikson may not have tried to wrap every thing up in this volume but there sure is a lot of stuff he does resolve. Just about every character from the previous books still living (and quite a few who have passed through Hood's gate) are mentioned in this novel. It is almost too much to take in all at once. I recently reread Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates, the first two books in the series. That was a good move, I would have missed even more than I already have on this first read of The Crippled God. In fact, I probably should have reread Memories of Ice as well. There are countless references in this book to events scattered throughout the series, going back as far as Whiskeyjack's advice to a young Ganoes Paran in the prologue of Gardens of the Moon.
The structure of this novel is one that Malazan readers will be familiar with by now. Erikson starts slowly. The opening chapters contain a lot of introspective passages (and a severe overuse of italics) by lots of different characters, setting the stage for the convergence to come. Most of the story lines in this novel will eventually lead to Kolanse, where the final confrontation between the major players in the series will take place. The story line of the Shake is the exception. Although events are of course linked to just about everything else, they are only distantly aware of events in other places. This story line also makes the novel get going a bit faster. The climax of the Shake's defence of the first shore is the first major story line of the novel to be resolved and the real action begins slightly before the halfway point of the novel. Quite a bit sooner than novels like Toll of the Hounds, of which the last third can be said to be action-packed.
For me the Shake illustrates what makes Erikson's worldbuilding stand out in the fantasy genre. It's messy, the lines are blurred. Shake are descendent of the the Tiste Andii, apparently not full blood but close enough to retain certain links and a sense of obligation to guard the First Shore against the Tiste Liosan. There are many more examples of things like this in the books. People splitting, forming new alliances, cultures and tribes. The Toblakai, who themselves have Jaghut blood and later formed the Barghast and Trell peoples, come to mind. An other example would be the Forkul Assail Watered. Figuring out the ancestry of these groups, their relation to each other and in some cases what caused the split between them, give this series an atmosphere of tremendous age. I've never come across a series with such a rich history.
Despite the Shake's heroics, most of the plot deals with the convergence taking place in Kolanse, where the Fokrul Assail are preparing their campaign to cleanse the world of the human race. Their motives were a bit vague to me before starting this book but somewhere in the second half of The Crippled God, a number of pieces fell together for me. I liked the reference the humanity's overuse of their environment in particular, even if the Assail solution to this problem is a bit drastic. The history of the Assial is an area where there is room for more development. In the early books in the series they were assumed to be extinct (like a number of other elder races). It is clear they invaded Kolanse years before the event in this book, suggesting a presence on another continent somewhere. Perhaps this is another area Esslemont means to explore.
I was also a bit surprised at how many people decided their best chance lay with the Crippled God. He is something of a villain in the earlier books. His cruel use of the Tiste Edur leader Rhulad Sengar in Midnight Tides come to mind. I suppose Ganoes Paran saw the shape of the game early, but for me as a reader it took quite a few books to figure out his role in the story. I'm going to have to reread some of the later books as well to see what clues I've missed along the way. I'm pretty sure I will see some events in the books in another light, knowing where they will eventually lead to. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a series that definitely requires rereading to fully appreciate it.
All things considered, I think The Crippled God is a fitting conclusion to the series. It would have been impossible to write a novel that answers all questions and it would certainly not have been in style if Erikson had tried. Some things are left to Ian C. Esslemont to explore. His next novel Orb, Sceptre, Throne will no doubt answer some of the things missing in this novel. Personally I don't mind a bit of ambiguity at the end of this series. You can't really draw a line somewhere and tell the reader this is where it all ends on a history as complex as that of the world of Malaz. The finale of this novel is a convergence on a scale we haven't seen before. I must admit I thought the dramatic impact was a bit less than in novels that don't carry the burden of Erikson's enormous cast quite so heavily. It doesn't quite match the ending of Duiker's tale in Deadhouse Gates, or the finale of Memories of Ice, which remains my favourite in the series. Still, for the real Malazan fan this book is a treat. Not that is wasn't clear before this novel but Erikson has just completed a landmark series in the genre.
Title: The Crippled God
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam Press
First published: 2011