The OF Blog: Steven Erikson, The Crippled God

Monday, March 21, 2011

Steven Erikson, The Crippled God

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follow that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are...The same distinction marks off Tragedy from Comedy; for Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.

Aristotle, Poetics 

Over the past dozen years, Steven Erikson has worked on one of the most ambitious epic/heroic fantasies in the English language, The Malazan Book of the Fallen.  With the publication of the tenth volume, The Crippled God, this year, Erikson has brought full circle a wide-ranging web of stories that have spanned millennia, several continents, and which have seen heart-aching scenes interspersed with levity.  It is, for its fans, a vast theater in which a host of morality plays have been acted out for the reader to consider.

It is nearly impossible at this late juncture to avoid discussing events without revealing plot and thematic elements ahead of time to those who have not read at least the first few volumes in this series, therefore those who are particular about such things might be behooved to read at their own risk.  As the Bonehunter army lead by the seemingly indifferent Tavore Paran marches with its motley cast of human and non-human allies east across a desolate landscape, the reader is brought back time and time again to seemingly forgotten events from earlier in the series:  the siege of Pale in the first book, Gardens of the Moon, the spectral memories of Coltaine's Chain of Dogs, the rivening of the Tiste peoples, the ghastliness of justice doled out without mercy, among others.  These scenes, which are relived through those who were present, serve as haunting reminders of the toll of lives and souls exacted during the previous nine novels.  What The Crippled God does is unite these plot elements into a powerful, staggering conclusion.

Erikson's strength as a writer has been his treatment of themes.  Whether it be forgiveness, as in Memories of Ice, or the desire for redemption (The Bonehunters) or redemption's actual power (Toll the Hounds), the action within his novels, disparate as they may be in regards to locale and plot importance, is typically united.  This is certainly the case in The Crippled God.  Here Erikson revisits notions of suffering and the acceptance of pain, the desire to be free coupled with faith that stretches beyond one's own limited scope to embrace those who are alien.  It is a very ambitious exploration of core human motivations and despite a few longeurs here (as is the case throughout the series), on the whole Erikson manages to create a memorable unity of action and theme that adds layers of depth to its characters.

For some, the relentless of the action may be too much to process in a quick time.  I found it best to read only a section or two a day, as there was so much to consider as the allies march to the aid of a suffering god.  As noted above, Erikson adroitly weaves seemingly disparate plot elements together.  As the reader begins to learn the vast scope of the game being played, she might also find herself considering thoughts that lie outside the immediate realm of the story.  This, I believe, is Erikson's intent, as throughout this series he has come back, again and again, to how individual people react to things such as another's justice or their suffering.  Sometimes, the key to empathy is through shared suffering and this certainly is a major element in this book.

There are some structural weaknesses to this approach, however.  Due to the humongous cast of characters, several seemingly important plot threads are left unaddressed at this time.  Some threads, such as that of the Bonehunters' travel through the deadly Glass Desert, are abandoned for hundreds of pages in order to develop a parallel struggle whose outcome foreshadows that of the main expedition east.  Those who read these books only for the enjoyment factor found in huge battles may find themselves frustrated at the long buildup to the explosive finale, but for those readers who pause to consider the implications of the actions Erikson explores here will find themselves rewarded greatly for the time and effort they spent reflecting upon the author's thematic treatments in his novels.

When I closed the book after finishing the last page, I felt as though I had undergone a cathartic experience.  The heroism, played up straight, is provocative not because so many survived, but rather because so many died and in dying they proved themselves to be better people than perhaps we are in our own lives.  The Crippled God I would argue fits well the Aristotelian definition of a tragedy and it is this tragedy that continues to dwell in my thoughts days after finishing it.  The Crippled God lived up to my expectations and it exceeded them.  Likely one of the best epic/heroic fantasies I'll read this year and a fitting conclusion to one of my few favorite fantasy series.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"it is this tragedy that continues to dwell in my thoughts days after finishing it."

Same for me. I was actually surprised how much this one hauntingly lingered in my mind after finishing it (I think the last book that did something similar for me was Bolano's 2666 a couple of years ago). I kept coming back to the idea of the sometimes inadvertent but inherent oneness of all these different beings. Quick *semi-spoilers* examples: the Perish waged their war because of wolf gods, and yet another character outwardly devoted to other forces is willing to sacrifice everything so a dog can live; Hellion tells a sob story as to why she's so afraid of spiders, only to admit it's all a lie and that she's only afraid of them because it's a common phobia. Erikson has talked about his "elliptical" approach to tackling theme, and I think he does a great job throughout the series of hitting key ideas from different angles (of my two quick examples one was "throwaway" humor, the other a culimation of epic action)./*semi-spoiler*

Anyways, agreed that this one hits pretty hard both in terms of theme and emotion. And at the risk of going slightly off topic, have you ever read any of Erikson's earlier non-Malazan work? I wish I could my hands on some of that stuff.

- Zach H.

Eventine said...

I stopped reading this series after Midnight Tides, finding I was forgetting too much detail between publications. This is the first discussion I've seen of the book that makes me think they may be worth picking back up.

Jason said...

Hey Larry--

I'm always looking for a good genre series to immerse myself in, but I read really slowly, and my standards are stupidly high, so I'm incredibly picky. I've loved Tolkien, Le Guin, Donaldson, Wolfe... and I'm not really interested in reading folks significantly below that level of caliber. A while back when I asked you gently dissuaded me from the Wheel of Time. Would you recommend Erikson's series to someone like me? Thx.

Larry said...

Zach,

No, I haven't read his pre-Malazan work, although I am slightly curious.

Jason,

I consider Erikson's series a notch below those authors you name. However, in its own way, I enjoy it as much as I've enjoyed George R.R. Martin's writings to date (even though I prefer Martin's short fiction and have since I was 12 almost a quarter-century ago).

 
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