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Monday, May 23, 2011

The Crippled God by Steven Erikson

So, here we are, 12 years, 10 books, nearly 11,000 pages, and nearly 300 hours of reading later. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is, at last, complete . . . and disappointing.

I’m not so much disappointed in the saga itself, but in the way in which it trickled to a conclusion. In hindsight, it feels as if Erikson never really had an end in sight, but decided to bow to the pressure and manufacture an ending. I give him credit for reaching back through all the novels to grasp the myriad strings, but it’s as if some of those strings either snapped or stretched along the way, leaving him to untangle the rest and force them onto the stage like some overwhelmed puppeteer.

 One of the things that initially attracted me to this series was its unpredictability. I appreciated the fact that no character was safe, and that there was no guarantee that good would triumph. More than once I figured a character would survive to the end of the saga, only to have their strings abruptly severed in the middle of a book, and I was OK with that. When their role came to an end, it was as end. Period. Their sacrifices meant something, their loss was felt, and their removal from the stage had consequences.

That’s where my dissatisfaction with the end begins. Too many characters returned, and while I understand the desire to give them a last few moments on stage, it just cheapens their memories. At the same time, other characters who were set up as beings of power, as forces to be reckoned with, simply stepped aside or faded away. There was no severing of their strings, and no meaning to their absence. Even worse, I swear some were just forgotten. At some point it all became too much.

I felt as if I needed a scorecard to keep track of all the names, their factions, their role in the conflict, and whether we were supposed to cheer for them or jeer against them. I hate to say it, but I just stopped caring. I stopped putting in the work to understand them, to evaluate their actions, and to anticipate what was coming next. Instead, I sat back and watched, curious as to what would happen, but not really invested in the outcome.

Hand in hand with the troubling character arcs, entire storylines that seemed to have such overwhelming significance were either not resolved at all, or thrown into resolutions that reeked of deus ex machina. Far too many were simply abandoned, while others became so twisted that they were no longer recognizable when they reached their conclusions. Again, I liked the twists of the earlier books, but those twists added something to the story. Here, many of them just fell flat, taking away from the overall story.

Don’t get me wrong, the book had some epic moments that truly made me grip the page a bit tighter. There were scenes in it that absolutely took my breath away. I really liked a lot of it - just not the entire package. The final 50 or so pages were some of the hardest in the series to slog through, and even after rereading them twice, I'm still not convinced I understand precisely what happened. Even that's not new - other volumes have left me scratching my head and scrambling for a Wikipeda synopsis - but what was new was that I no longer cared to understand.

Would I still recommend the series to a new reader? Absolutely! Final flaws aside, this was still one of the finest fantasy sagas I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Stop with Toll The Hounds, and you’ll likely come away content. Continue on and you'll have to decide for yourself whether the sacrifice is worth it. Personally, I would have been quite content for the series to simply continue . . . this seemed forced and awkward, and left me feeling empty.

Monday, May 2, 2011

EXPLORATION: The Stone Jug

Despite recent attempts at revitalization (summer festivals and art galleries), downtown Niagara Falls remains a decrepit ruin, a mere shadow of its former glory. Empty storefronts, interspersed with bars and nightclubs, dominate the scene. Walk the streets and you can literally feel the sense of neglect in the air. Stray too far from City Hall and you'll be craving a hot shower by the time you get home. Perhaps that's why a building like the Stone Jug projects such an awesome presence. Located at the corner of Park & Zimmerman, the Stone Jug is three stories of limestone grandeur, testament to an all-but forgotten age when the area was the heart of government and commerce. The building itself was designed by Thomas Fuller, architect of the original Parliament buildings in Ottawa. Apparently, the round-headed archways, stringcourses, quoins, and gables are considered something to marvel at. Really, it's the stone that makes the building. Dark, grey, and clearly carved by hand, each stone has its own unique beauty. Some, particularly those on side of the building, sport fossils of an even older age. Originally a Post Office/Customs House, the building was nearly destroyed by a furnace explosion in 1927. Repairs were made, the Post Office moved out, the Custom House hung on until 1952, and the Police move in until 1976. Yet, as your eye wanders along the building today, it's all too easy to forget all that. As you take in the boarded up windows, gaping holes, and barbed wire, it's all too easy to really, truly believe you are looking at the untouched remains of the explosion. Step around back, and the true history reasserts itself once more, even as the desolation confuses the imagination. Look up to the twisted metal bars, and you can almost hear the men and women screaming for release from the fiery inferno. The cells didn't come along until 30 years after the explosion, but the image still haunts you. There is said to be a tree growing inside the building, one that has taken root in the filth that's blown through over the years. One look up, into the third story windows, and out through the roof, and you no longer need to wonder how the tree gets its sunshine and water. A quick jog across the road, up the hillside, and along the overgrown track of the abandoned rail bridge, reveals the full extent of the devastation. Pitted and pockmarked, burned and broken, the roof does little more than give the pigeons a place to roost, and the bats a place to escape the sunlight. Despite it all -- or, perhaps, in spite of it all -- nowhere is the beauty in ruins better exemplified than here.