Posts tagged ‘malazan’

The Crippled God: In which Steven Erikson is the best some more.

This is not a review. Mainly because then I’ll have to go re-read the entire series again in the light of this book, and I don’t think my stomach can take it just yet.

Also: there be spoilers here. Many. Maybe. I’ve not written ’em out yet, but I did draw a spoiler dragon that I’m dying to put up somewhere.

spoiler dragon

First thing: What a thoroughly excellent book The Crippled God is. Steven Erikson is such a nice man: he doesn’t clear his throat, stick his nose in the air (as well he might, as the writer of many millions of really good words) and be all “Ahem. Here is my existential treatise you guys. It’s full of doom and gloom with brief flickers of hope and some redeeming moments of compassion. Make sure you accord it proper respect.”

Instead he writes it into this tightly-plotted, suspenseful story that’s bursting with strange characters, random machinations, giant battles, creepy bits, funny bits (The first time Tehol Beddict shows up, in a Brys flashback, I giggled so loudly that the auto guy slowed down on the Ring Road so as to turn back and look worriedly at me.) and insanely miserable bits. He even manages to sneak in bits so maudlin Dickens would be iffy about them. And it is fully awesome.

Over the last nine books, Erikson has introduced us to about eight hundred characters, each oozing all kinds of kindness and nastiness and plans and general coolth. Shoving them all into this book’s giant convergence means that whoever your favourite ones are, you probably feel a bit short-changed. I, for one, would’ve gladly skipped most of the other sub-plots if it meant more Quick Ben/Kalam, Hellian/Urb and Shadowthrone/Cotillion. The vast amount of plot also means fewer jokes, and less random sitting around and complaining — I’ve read lots of reviews of Malazan over the years, that are less than thrilled with all the verbal back-and-forthing in the series, but I’ve always loved Erikson’s conversations. He is at his best when he has two characters playing off each other. There’s a reason all my favourites come in pairs. Then there’s Erikson’s sibling thing – eighty percent of everyone’s troubles have to do with their siblings, somehow. I was a bit disappointed we didn’t see Quick Ben’s sister in this book, actually. He’s so loony and untouchable, and she’s one of the few characters who really upsets him, that you know them hanging out together would’ve been priceless.

I was also slightly let down by the great coming together of all the plot points – mainly because I didn’t want them to. I love the way the series is full of these loose canons randomly ricocheting off each other and somehow getting stuff done. The knowledge that some of them were actually, to some extent, controlled, made them much less fun, I thought. The other reason this upset me is ‘cos I liked Shadowthrone and Cotillion being snide, devious, awful people – retrospectively, their greater cause, while noble and all, made every time they appeared in the previous books cackling ominously a little bit childish.

*  *  *  *  *

Kaminsod (the crippled god’s real name) is my new favourite word. It’s a sneeze and an oath. “Kaminsod that cook,” the Duchess might say elegantly to Alice, choking on her soup and shunning her baby. “Why’d she put so much pepper?”

Or: “Kaminsod and bebother those dwarves!” Bilbo Baggins could huff when Thorin and co. invade his house and eat all his food.

Or: “You and your kaminsodden collection!” one could whuffle at one’s favourite dust-connoisseur friend in a moment of anger.


April 2, 2011 at 3:20 pm 3 comments

Reaper’s Gale

Steven Erikson has – once more – managed to do what few people in the world can do with competence, let alone genuine inspiration: he has written a fantastic fabulous book in which every plot strand lives up to its promise. This may sound like a modest achievement, except for the bit where its actually pretty rare – there is always something which rings false. And except for the bit where Erikson has about 200 times more plot strands than average.

Most books begin well – interesting-sounding characters and situations are introduced and you settle down to see what happens to them. Usually, once you are reasonably familiar with the world the writer does various bits of misdirection, of setting up a situation and then dashing expectations. This may work to surprise and delight the reader or it may annoy you and make you wish you had stopped reading when the plot started turning trite. If the first say 20 Agatha Christies you read work in the first way, by the time you have read a few more you can pretty much pick out the murderer in every succeeding book as soon as he or she is introduced.

With every page Steven Erikson sets up new expectations and with every page he subverts one of your expectations in a delicious and unexpected way. Seven books down, Erikson’s plotting is so meticulous that I am neither bored nor in any position to guess the end. Reaper’s Gale kept me on tenterhooks right through – between the immediate plots and the long range plots and the characters old and new and the jokes and the neat, unassuming writing. (It is such a relief not to have to wade through florid descritions that have no bearing on the plot. For those of you who like your fantasy farcical there is lots of Tehol and Bugg. And Erikson is getting better and better with the comedy. There is something so irresistible when you can tell that a writer you like is giggling himself or herself silly as they write.) When the final twist is one so wonderful that it never even occurred to you; when you should’ve seen it coming because now you think of it all the evidence pointed that way but you didn’t ‘cos its just that twisted and Erikson is that much more loony than you are; when it is funny and touching and ironic, that, comrades-in-reading, is happily ever after.

In other news the monsoon seems to have hit; and I haven’t been able to breathe through my nose for days. Also I walked through what felt like miles of thigh-deep sewage water to get home a couple of nights ago and can inform those of you who haven’t done this before that in a flood the actual rain water is cooler than the sewage water, which is kinda warmish. So if you find yourself in a flood, follow the cool water – unless of course you happen to be walking in sewage water out of choice.

That’s all folks.

May 29, 2007 at 10:41 am 1 comment

It has been a while – partly because I’m lazy, and partly because i honestly haven’t had access to internet for the last month or so.

But there are somethings which must be shared immediately. Steven Erikson’s The Malazon Book of the Fallen has been among the highlights of the last few months for me, and finally relinquishing Book VI of it, The Bonehunters, (Thanks Ro. My eternal gratitude and Peter Wimseys are yours for the asking.) made me realise how overdue this is. You send me the Communist manifesto, I now present to you:


The world of The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a bleak and difficult one. It is war-ridden in the most frightening way so that war is the only way of life. And as we read further, we realise that this has always been so. The word fantasy is clearly a misnomer – this is not the kind of world you want to fantasise about.

In the present, the Malazan Empire – the all-powerful force, against whom so many of our protagonists are pitted – is largely a background force; but one who is repeatedly revealed to be behind some large bit of the action. It controls vast amounts of land and people, yet its existence is as precarious as that of any of the millions of individual soldiers dying in its armies. (Not surprisingly, the army is pivotal – most of the action and the deep thinking happen in the camps.)

Intrigue levels are so high that the first three or four chapters of every book are completely baffling – you read blind, in the expectation of learning to see if you do it long enough. This isn’t a bad thing, though – Erikson drops enough hints to keep you fully occupied, so it’s like doing a cryptic crossword where if you get enough clues, you can begin to see the letters and fill in the last, tough ones.

Only, it turns out, this entire crossword is just one tenth of the big one.

We all know – theoretically – how important backstory is to a fantasy world, for without it there is no motivation, and the characters and plot become irrelevant to themselves. Very much like a detective novel, in fact. History is one of Erikson’s strong suits – he uses it to enrich and legitimise his books, just as the books themselves flesh it out.

In some ways the Malazan series is like a giant detective story, where each book is one chapter, dropping tantalising clues, and building up to the denouement in the last book.

Since we are only at book 6 now, I see little point in elaborating on the plot-lines – which are many and hugely complicated, and only getting more so with each successive book. A lot of the reading is merely figuring out which of the millions of sub-plots and strands is a red-herring, and which is important to the bigger picture. As it turns out, they all are.

The various strands come together, satisfyingly, in the end, pushing the series plot further. The books aren’t chronological – some happen simultaneously, and there is a lot of back-and-forth-ing, but the picture that emerges when they are put together is breathtaking.

But unlike a detective story, morality in the Malazan books is muddied and sticky and compelling. Imagine quicksand so fascinating you wilfully struggle harder in the hope of digging yourself in deeper and deeper, faster and faster, consumed by an urgent need to get to the bottom.

There is no one murderer (or even two) who is to be discovered at the end of the book – though there are plenty all along the way. Instead, the world is one of Kafkaesque helplessness – with every character plotting stubbornly towards an unknown goal – often at cross-purposes, sometimes together – though even then they maintain their own motives. And though against the large morass that is their world (pardon the repeated bog-metaphors) they are small and powerless, they all insist on plotting furiously, anyway. No one is Evil, and even if they were, no one is all Good either. Even the least likeable characters are provided with enough motivation to make them, if not sympathetic, at least empathetic.

As far as I am concerned, the characterisation is perfect – even though there are so many of them, Erikson makes every single one recognisable. It is not the kind of book where you can, say, name five distinguishing characteristics for each person. But then, I can’t name five distinguishing characteristics for any of my friends either. Instead of a set of characteristics, you come to recognise real people – you may not entirely understand them, you probably don’t agree about a lot of stuff, but you enjoy their company; they change, you change, it doesn’t matter; they are still distinct people to you. If you ran into even the most insignificant character on the road, you’d recognise it and go up to talk to it – though if you are spotting Erikson characters on the road, you might want to consider seeing a shrink.

And when they die (And they are always dying – it is a book of the fallen, after all) it is as if a real person is dead. You don’t cry and wallow and say that was beautiful, what an affecting book – you cringe and swallow and make funeral preparations, and wonder what they left you in their will.

There are Houses – of Dark, Light, Shadow, Death, Life, and so on – but these aren’t necessarily antagonistic, in fact as the series progresses so do the various alliances.

The methods employed by Light are as horrific as those employed by Dark – war.

In fact, the immortal Tiste Andii, the Children of the Dark (and their leader, Anomander Rake) are in many ways more pitiable than the humans – they have been so battered by their history, they have lost the will to live. Though war is common in these books, it never loses its horrific-ness. There is no attempt to legitimise war – even though most of Erikson’s most likeable characters are soldiers (in this world, Everyman is a soldier – a frightening metaphor for the saying that to live is to fight). Instead, the only stable moralities are those of necessity and compassion. I have deliberately avoided calling the book gritty – a phrase that, to me, implies a general hardening and detachment in the characters ability to deal with suffering. For Erikson, war is uniformly gruelling, there is no suggestion of sado-masochism, of pleasure in pain – killing is a soul-destroying thing, yet it is the only thing people can do in their desperate attempt to stay alive. The heroic bit of war is not in victory, but in the soldiers’ acceptance of its necessity, even as they see its inherent wrongness. This makes the books war scenes much more potent and disturbing than those of many other fantasy novels. (Don’t shrug innocently, Terry Goodkind – I am pointing at you.)

A dying soldier in most books has the (dubious) satisfaction of dying for a Cause. A dying soldier in The Malazan Books of the Fallen knows only that for him, the killing has finally ended, and that Hood will get him. It is a world Yossarian would approve of in its frightening meaninglessness. There is always a superficial reason for a death – usually because of one or more of the plots laid by all the powerful characters. But it is still eventually meaningless, nothing is achieved except a complexifying of the intrigue – the stakes are raised again, new alliances are formed, new players enter, but nothing changes for the soldiers.

There is an inexorability to the dying that is more powerful than anything Hood, the king of House Death – possibly, paradoxically, the least intimidating (and sympathetic) of the ascendants – can do. (Terry Pratchett’s Death, on the other hand would be much more understanding, I suspect. Forgive me, Steven, but there is nothing your Hood can do to supersede Pratchett’s Death as the real one in my head.)

The gods in this world (also called Ascendants) are not very omnipotent. And we soon realise that they are only a little more powerful than the humans, and the barriers between mortals, immortals and ascendants are not so much walls as much as thin lines that are regularly stepped across by the ambitious. (In fact, the last emperor of the Malazan Empire and his assassin seem to have ascended to become the big-wigs of House Shadow, just to escape being assassinated by the new Empress.)

The Empress is a (so far) shadowy figure; we learn of her only via other characters, tantalising fragments that help build up her mystique, rather than make her more tangible – no doubt at her own instigation. We know she was the head of the Claw (the deadly Malazan assassin squad) before she took over the throne. We know she is skilled enough at intrigue to pre-empt and dissuade attempts on her life and her power, to make all the most powerful people we have met so far wary of her. We know that even the immortals regard her as a viable threat to their freedom. (In one extremely poignant scene, the ascendant Anomander Rake explains to his ally (and ascendant) Caladan Brood that the reason for their antagonism to the empire is that they like a certain amount of chaos, to them it is freedom, while to the Empress and her kind, the immortals’ freedom threatens the ordered well-being of their human citizens. Plus, he adds wryly, they are automatically antagonised by the very fact that it is someone else, not them, who will rule the new stability.) It is a legitimate fear – the unravelling history shows us countless examples of new beings destroying the old ones in their search for a peaceful existence.

But we soon realise that some of this is coming to a head. Knowing the world as we do, it is unlikely that there will be a happy end where the High King is restored and everyone will live a peaceful rural existence, or even that there will be world peace. Since there was never a paradise, there is none to go back to.

There is after all, no true evil to be defeated – all the combatants are equally confused, hurt, and vulnerable.

The best the soldiers can hope for is that the Empire stabilises (and as a postcolonial member of an erstwhile colony, you will appreciate that this is a horrifying thing for me to say), concentrating on governance rather than expansion, so that it finds some peace – and so other races can find their own peaces too. Perhaps the gods and ascendants will find a realm truly separate from that of the other beings, so they will no longer use them in their manoeuvrings for power.

I like to think the mesemerising anarchy will go on for ever.

All we can say for certain is that since Good cannot triumph over Evil, there is one less Happy End in the world. But that’s not to say it won’t be a good end.

June 12, 2006 at 4:01 pm 3 comments

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This work by Shalini Srinivasan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.
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