Putting the "epic" in epic fantasy
The release of Steven Erickson’s The Crippled God, the 10th and final book in Malazan Book of the Fallen series, marks the culmination of the single most ambitious, audacious and jaw-droppingly imagined work of epic fantasy since Bilbo Baggins found 13 dwarves outside his door. And it can be argued that even Tolkien’s seminal work lacks the scope—the sheer expanse—of Erickson’s epic.
The central conflict of the series is easy enough to summarize: In ages past, an alien god was torn from its own realm and slammed into this world. In the present, different factions, including the Crippled God itself, battle over what to do about it. To veteran fantasy readers, such a summary might elicit a disinterested, “So?” From Sauron to Shai’tan, from Lord Foul to Voldemort, the fantasy genre practically demands there be a slumbering, chained or just generally surly villain yearning to be free. In fact, though some are well disguised to the point of being fully re-imagined, most of fantasy’s greatest hits populate these pages. The Tiste—be they Andii, Liosan or Edur—are elves. The T’lann Imass are a particularly well-wrought version of the undead. And here there be plenty of dragons.
But attempting to measure Erickson’s achievement by counting tropes and archetypes shared with other “thick-tome generators” in the genre would be like equating Milton’s Paradise Lost with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”—after all, both are poems. No, it is the ambition of the Malazan Book of Fallen coupled with its execution that dwarfs contemporaries past and present. Fueled in large part by the author’s original day job as an anthropologist, the world of The Crippled God and its nine predecessors is so intricately imagined and layered that it’s an embarrassment of fecundity. The cast and action span multiple continents, worlds, dimensions and, oh yeah, the entire timeline of life’s existence.
It may seem strange to spend so much time writing about the series as a whole instead of the book supposedly being reviewed, but let’s consider the obvious: Anyone who has read the first nine books of Erickson’s epic tale is in it for the long haul, and not even a Robert Jordan-like midstream meandering will stop them. Nonetheless, for those stalwarts, The Crippled God is a worthy capstone to the series, replete with all that which brought you here in the first place. After being separated by chapters, sections and sometimes even entire volumes, virtually all of the series’ most fascinating characters make at least a cursory appearance, and most receive ample, closure-worthy coverage. (Finally, a Malazan book without 50+ new important characters.) The battles, while not quite the “tour de holy cow!” experience of Coltaine’s March or the Siege of Capustan, still pack a punch.
Of course, The Crippled God is not without its flaws, but even those are rather established traits of the series. The first half of the book, especially, suffers from what I can only describe as “excess rumination”—a condition that has plagued Erickson’s series like acne plagues teenagers. But again, any reader who has made it this far will endure, and by the last third of The Crippled God, will likely be so engrossed in watching the myriad pieces fall into place, in watching long-maturing stratagems reveal themselves, that Erickson could throw in some pages from Twilight and no one would care.
As for those epic fantasy fans new to Erickson? It’s not like they would start with The Crippled God, anyway. (Malazan virgin, get thee to Gardens of the Moon!)
But for veteran and virgin alike, The Crippled God represents a moment in fiction that demands recognition—the successful conclusion of something audaciously begun. It’s one thing to start a work brimming with promise; it’s quite another to end it in a manner that delivers on that promise. (And in 12 years, no less—take that, George R.R. Martin!) The Malazan Book of the Fallen is Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary. It’s Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy. It’s Mount Rushmore, freshly carved, and the Panama Canal, freshly dug. And as such, fantasy aficionados everywhere should take a moment and appreciate what has been accomplished, even if they don’t find Erickson’s epic to their taste.
After all, the Malazan Book of the Fallen has been an unprecedented seismic event in the history of epic fantasy. Its impact—and its aftershocks—will be felt in the genre for decades to come.