The 2nd Company of the Malazan XIVth Legion - reduced to just three squads and eighteen soldiers - is bound for Silver Lake to reinforce the garrison there. To augment its strength, it has hired the very mercenary company they were recently fighting against, a practical measure that neither side likes very much. With redoubtable allies, the Malazans have to hold Silver Lake against an implacable foe. For the Teblor of the mountains, tiring of waiting for their Shattered God - Karsa Orlong - to return to them and motivated by a growing threat to the north, have made a decision to migrate south to seek out their reluctant deity. What else are a people to do, when their god is not willing?
Well, this was a surprise. Steven Erikson's work has been called many things but "concise" and "focused" are not among them. All of Erikson's twelve previous novels in the Malazan universe are sprawling, brick-thick volumes you could use to stun a yak. The God is Not Willing, at a relatively breezy 473 pages, is easily his shortest fantasy novel to date. Erikson's work has also been called (sometimes fairly, often not) "obtuse" and "confusing." The in media res opening to the first book in the setting, Gardens of the Moon, remains fiercely debated on Reddit and fantasy message boards to this day. The God is Not Willing is instead pretty streamlined and comprehensible. The word - whisper it - "accessible" may be applicable.
But if those terms are applicable, don't go thinking this is Erikson with the training wheels on, or restrained, or (grimace) going commercial. The God is Not Willing is packed with the philosophical musings and rich worldbuilding of his prior work, it is just paced here with discipline and vigor, and an undercurrent of Erikson's distinctly underrated humour. With the exception of the late, great Terry Pratchett and maybe Abercrombie in his more whimsical moments, Erikson may be one of the funniest writers in modern secondary world fantasy, something he usually keeps under check but here lets loose a little more. This is still a dramatic and sometimes tragic story, but it's also one balanced by the kind of comedic banter between soldiers-under-duress that we've seen before in earlier novels, but here taken up a notch.
The God is Not Willing is set ten years after the events of The Crippled God, in north Genabackis. The events of the opening of House of Chains have left an ugly scar on the town of Silver Lake, with ex-slaves and ex-slavers having to find new roles after the Malazan Empire outlawed slavery. Rast, the half-Teblor son of Karsa Orlong, has been exiled from his home by his mother. The town's depleted garrison is reinforced by the Malazan XIVth Legion's 2nd Company, with the slight problem that the company has been almost destroyed in an engagement with a mercenary company, with heavy losses on both sides. Fighting the mercenaries to a standstill, Captain Gruff hits on the splendid - or barking mad - idea of hiring the mercenaries to augment his depleted forces, which is slightly undercut by the two sides disliking one another. Elsewhere, the Teblor tribes of the mountains have discovered that the fading of Jaghut sorcery from the world is about to have cataclysmic consequences, spurring a mass migration into the lands of the south, and a potential showdown with their reluctant deity Karsa Orlong, also known as Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Novel.
And that's kind of it. The novel rotates between these three storylines with a laser-like focus, with Rast's growth from a confused and terrified youth into a character of moral courage, using his Karsa-like, single-minded and utterly unbendable determination as a force for good (or what passes for it) getting a lot of focus. So too do the Malazan marines holding Silver Lake. There's only eighteen of them left after the clash with Balk's mercenary company (who also get some attention, though it's more of a subplot), allowing Erikson to explore most of their characters in a lot of detail. It's the splendidly-written Stillwater who emerges as the best character in the novel, a lethal assassin-mage who has been trying to effectively trademark the idea (and ignoring the various assassin-mage organisations we've already seen in the previous novels, not least the Claw) and whose facility with the warren of Shadow is slightly complicated by her relationship with the Hounds of Shadow. Stillwater entertains because of her determined lack of interest in the normal ongoings of the Malazan world, and her metacommentary on what is happening is the source of much of the book's humour.
The book is relatively small in scale for most of its length, being concerned with very small groups of characters, until Erikson shifts things up a gear in the last hundred pages or so, when we suddenly pull back to a widescreen view of events and discover that things are about to go south very, very fast. Entire cultures and nations are caught up as Erikson finally delivers when he nearly did in The Bonehunters - a fantasy disaster novel! - and does so with spades.
I was very surprised at this book. A dozen novels, half a dozen novellas and thirty years into writing this series (and almost forty since he and Ian Esslemont created it for gaming purposes in 1982), with the previous two-published books being commercial disappointments, you could have forgiven Erikson for writing a crowd-pleasing war story or a thousand-page recap of Malazan's greatest hits. Instead, he delivers a determined, focused, well-paced and immensely rich novel of war, peace, hubris, consequence, sorcery and compassion. He even finds time to right some wrongs from earlier in the series: the somewhat brushed-over consequences of Karsa's odyssey of destruction in House of Chains are here laid bare in full, and the logical (if long-in-unfolding) consequences of events in the main series which were outside the scope of that story are explored in depth by one of Erikson's finest casts of characters yet.
The God is Not Willing (*****) is Steven Erikson bringing his A-game, turned up to 11, and delivering what is comfortably one of his three or four best novels to date. The book will be published in the UK on 1 July and on 9 November in the United States.