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The God is Not Willing by Steven Erikson (The First Tale of Witness)

10/10 It is beautiful, it is captivating and utterly enthralling

When Steven Erikson’s ‘The God is Not Willing’ was announced, and we edged closer to a return to the Erikson-written Malazan world, I was ecstatic. Very few authors in the two decades I have been reading fantasy have managed to captivate to the degree that Erikson has managed.

Similarly, there have been very few authors capable of fostering the level of excitement for a new book that Steven Erikson was capable of since he confirmed he would return to the world of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Even fewer authors are able to meet the soaring levels of expectation that meet such a long-awaited return. Authors who are putting out books every year or so often fail to deliver on the expectation, let alone expectation that builds over a decade.

And it’s been a decade since Erikson published ‘The Crippled God’, the tenth and final book in his Malazan Book of the Fallen epic, which with its completion set a new high watermark for literature in general, never mind just fantasy literature.

When ‘The God is Not Willing’ arrived on my doorstep, then – later than I would have liked, but it’s been a year – I was palpably excited and dove in and was immediately rewarded. For not only was Erikson able to meet my expectation – a return to the iconic ranks of the Malazan army, filled with new faces and a new way of doing things – he was able to better them, exceeding all my dreams.

Not since Terry Pratchett was putting out the last dozen of his Discworld novels has an author so completely delivered on the promise and expectation heaped upon them.

Hyperbole and my own expectation-setting aside, maybe it was the sub-500 page-count, or maybe it was just a biased combination of nostalgia and reward, but it is my immediate opinion that ‘The God is Not Willing’ is the best of Erikson’s oeuvre yet. I admit, I’ve only read it once and I’m fresh off having finished. But again, the comparative brevity resulting in a tighter-knit story, as well as a more mature author returning to some of the most loveable and absurdly humorous characters in literature, I’d be hard-pressed to name one of the original ten Malazan Book of the Fallen books as better.

Moreover, I now can’t help but recognise Steven Erikson and his Malazan oeuvre as sitting atop my best 30 fantasy works – elevating himself from third spot just a year ago and edging out ‘The Raven Tower’ by Ann Leckie and ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern.

A lot can be said in the way of pros and cons for Erikson’s magnum opus – weighing the captivating characters, awe-inspiring world building, and thrilling story, as against some peoples’ dislike for the gravitas of the work, the philosophical nature of the characters, and the sheer heft of the books. Recognising the sticking points between fans and non, in my opinion, only serves to remind me of just how much I love his work – but, in that, Erikson is writing a particular brand of fantasy that seems tailor made for me.

One wonders, though, if those people who have not found Erikson as compelling as I have, were to now pick up ‘The God is Not Willing’, would some of those qualms disappear

Because this book does tell a faster, less ponderous story. There are fewer story threads at play, meaning a limit on the number of character perspectives we occupy as readers. In turn, it becomes easier, and some may say more enjoyable to keep straight all the different plots and twists and turns.

Of course, compare ‘The God is Not Willing’ to ‘Gardens of the Moon’ and maybe the fact that they are both first books in a series will explain this greater ease of reading, but I don’t think so. In the way that short stories can often force an author to produce their best work, I feel as if the sub-500 page-count has worked in Erikson’s favour and produced some of his best writing ever.

There is, as there should be, a fair share of Erikson’s trademark anthropological philosophising through the lives and views of common, everyday people – in this case, soldiers, a tracker, and the lives of non-humans like the Teblor and Jhek. And though this new ‘Witness’ trilogy is notionally about Karsa Orlong, the Shattered God, he plays a relatively insignificant role in the book.

Instead, we get to spend a lot more time in the camp of the Malazan marines. For many of us, I think, we never got to spend as much time with the Malazans as we would have liked. From an author’s point of view, I can see how this makes sense – a seemingly sensible adherence to the old adage, “leave them wanting more” – but to hell with the author’s opinion, I just wanted more time with the marines! And in ‘The God is Not Willing’, I get my wish – and it’s everything I could have asked for. We don’t reside solely with the Malazans, but we get a lot more than we ever have before.

At the same time, though, we also get to spend a lot of time away from the Malazans – in fact, with their notional enemies – and in this, Erikson’s willingness to present multiple sides to a situation, even sneakily so, rewards the reader.

Erikson’s prose is superb – a level up on what I already considered excellent sophistication. Again, what appears to be something of a mandated page-count limit – whether it be self-imposed or otherwise – has tightened Erikson’s writing. But it has also made him funnier, wittier, and smarter. The Malazans are genuinely and absurdly funny – by which I mean, their absurd humour is completely genuine. But there is also a parallel pathos to the Malazans that manages to only deepen the emotional impact of their actions. They are irreverent, brutal, yet intensely empathetic and compassionate in a way that makes them simultaneously and captivatingly human and inhuman.

Similarly, those going up against the Malazans are no less thoughtfully written and fleshed out, providing a stark counterpoint to the civilised compassion of the Malazans with what is, essentially, a no less valuable exploration of human uncivilization.

In the end, I don’t think you’ll find a better book to read: Not just a better fantasy book, but a better book. And if you have yet to dip your toe into the Malazan world created by Erikson and writing partner Ian C. Esslemont, then I encourage you to pick up ‘The God is Not Willing’. It is beautiful, it is captivating and utterly enthralling, and it is a high-water mark for literature. Erikson is unparalleled in both the scope of his imagination and the talent of his prose, but more importantly, he is as insightful and funny as Terry Pratchett ever was. 

Joshua S Hill, 10/10

When I heard that Erikson was writing a book about Karsa Orlong, I was out. He was never a favourite. In fact, I actively dislike him. In all my many series rereads, I never bother to go back through his intro section at the beginning of House of Chains. Once was quite enough. Bearing that in mind, you might wonder why the hell I read this at all? Well, I heard a wonderful rumour that he wasn't in it…

'Some people tell themselves that their past is behind them, as if being responsible has a time limit and if you live long enough, you've outrun it.' He shook his head. 'It all catches up, sooner or later.'

For Karsa Orlong, that time is now.

The God is Not Willing welcomes us back ten years after the events of The Crippled God. A new problem is rising in the wilds beyond Silver Lake, an area previously devastated by Karsa and his merry band of two (if you know, you know). Someone is determined to deliver Karsa a reckoning, whether he cares or not. He, of course, is the God who isn't willing. Willing to acknowledge his family or his adherents, willing to do much of anything. Or so we hear. But that's not going to stop what's coming. Some individuals disturb the very foundations of the world, through the people they impact, those they hurt or ignore, and it's more often for the bad than the good. While Karsa is MIA, his previous actions and current choices underlie every moment of this novel. His absence is felt by all as an insult he doesn't even care enough to acknowledge. Yet this family tale has ramifications that will ripple outwards in bloody waves until it crashes against an even stronger tide.

Of course, a problem wouldn't be a problem if there weren't Malazan marines there to save the day - or something to that effect. Change is coming and for all its inevitability, it is the Malazan way to hold firm. In this case, they aren't going to be nearly enough. It's here, in this group, that we find the most appealing characters, both strange and powerful. Some have the potential to hold their own against the greats, others quickly fade into the who the hell was that again? pile, but, as ever, Erikson makes us care. This certainly makes it a more effective attempt to recapture the magic of the main series. If sometimes the dialogue edged into overdone, nevertheless there were moments that held the camaraderie and heart that made us fall in love before. Most importantly, it doesn't lose itself in too much philosophy. A welcome addition to the story.

Emma Davis, 8/10

Reviews by and Emma Davis

Our interview with Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson's ongoing fantasy series, the Malazan Book of the Fallen has brought new life and originality into the fantasy genre. Steven Erikson kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in September 2009, shortly after the [...]

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Steven Erikson's The First Tale of Witness series


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