The God Is Not Willing (The First Tale Of The Witness) by Steven Erikson.

The cover of ‘The God is Not Willing’ proudly proclaims ‘the first tale of witness’ and so it is possible to guess that this is the start of a new series. The cover also notes that Erikson is the ‘author of the Malazan Book Of The Fallen’. Fair enough, Erikson has written previous noted books. Indeed, a quick glance inside the cover show some ten previous novels, so clearly Erikson is no starter to this game. At nowhere on the cover does it note that this is a continuation of previous tales.

This reviewer has made it a mild specialty to review later books in fantasy series and try to detect if it is worth seeking out the earlier volumes. I am therefore no stranger to trying to pick up a tale mid-telling. Nonetheless, when I can I like to start at the beginning and I anticipated this when I picked up this volume.

But do not make the same mistake I did! ‘The God Is Not Willing’ is the start of a new series that is a direct sequel to the previous series, ‘The Malazan Book Of The Fallen’. At least existing fans know what to expect here.

Nonetheless, this is a pretty darn good fantasy tale. Right from the start it is not over dependant on the reader having read the previous series. Erikson has a good writing style with lush yet economic descriptions that are backed up by luxuriously gorgeous, thick and creamy dialogue which provides oodles of character for each of the personae we meet. Furthermore, this proliferation of personality tends to apply to each and every part of the cast we meet, no matter how minor. It therefore took this reviewer a long time before he decided which characters might be continuations from previous volumes.

Erikson has presumably already described his world in the previous series. This book is set near a town in the north east of `North West Genabackis’ as the map labels it. This may make sense to existing fans but Erikson is also kind enough to provide a good description for new starters. This area essentially borders the Toblai tundra in the extreme north, although there is a convenient mountain range between the two. Genabackis is part of the Malazan Empire, of which is told many tales in ‘The Malazan Book Of The Fallen’. Luckily, we don’t really need to know all this history to enjoy the new tale.

The Toblai tundra seems to be home to multiple tribes of Teblor, all of which have historically shown great animosity to each other. Teblor seem to be a basically near-human species that grows taller, stronger and generally tougher than the `straight’ humans of the Malazan Empire. Nonetheless, the Teblor tribes have historically lost a number of wars with the Malazan Empire and thus harbour a deep desire to revenge themselves. Environmental change then suddenly gives them a driving motivation for the tribes to unite and migrate south. They are soon riled up by a self-proclaimed war-lord who convinces them they can conquer the Malazan Empire,

There are two main independent tales told which tie up at the end. The first concerns the veteran and elite squads of the XIVth Malazan Legion’s second company.  Most of the really salty characters are herein and all are beautifully portrayed. I eventually figured out which are the continuing characters as they were the one least likely to talk about their no-doubt horrific back stories. For example, these include Sergeant Spindle, who is rumoured to be an ex-member of a very storied and notorious elite Malazan regiment and Stillwater, who is a lethal female squad member who may or may not be an experienced assassin and ex-member of various scary groups. Along with these two, there are lots of detailed other characters like Benger, the third squad’s healer, and the company commander, Captain Gruff, who seems ironically named as he is very fastidious and almost foppish in his personal habits, but shows a needed streak of psychopathy whenever it is really needed. It is soon obvious that everyone in the company is a magic user of some kind or other and this seems to be the uniting characteristic of the legion.

The second tale concerns Rant, a hybrid human-Teblor result of a rape, presumably at a time corresponding to earlier events in the previous series. Rant grows up in a frontier town where being half-Teblor, he grows rather larger and stronger than the rest of the kids. Eventually, he realises his ‘friends’ are actually picking on him seriously so he leaves home. He is rescued from drowning by Damisk, a hunter and tracker with a long history of slaying Teblor. Thus starts an unlikely friendship that causes trouble later on.

In all, the cast of characters is really quite broad and the dramatis personae section at the start of the book is some three pages long. Erikson is to be commended for making each and every character clearly distinct in terms of dialogue and personality. Very impressive.

Erikson is obviously skilled at world-building and writing long series. This might be why the plot takes a while to get going. I suppose that at the beginning of a new series you can’t give it all away but, despite the book being fun to read, I did get to page 200 and start to wonder when the story would really start.

Anyway, gradually the plot picks up speed. Rant starts to meet various Teblor tribes and begins to make allies. The Malazan troops realise that the migrating Teblor are going to descend in them and so start to prepare for battle. This continues to intensify until it all leads up to an expected apex and a rather unexpected turning point that provides a pleasing conclusion.

Overall, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this book. I therefore have no hesitancy about recommending it. However, I think it an even better recommendation to start with Erikson’s first book ‘Gardens Of The Moon’ which kicks off the whole ‘Malazan Book Of The Fallen’. If ‘The God Is Not Willing’ is this good then surely it is worth starting at the beginning?

Dave Corby

July 2023

(pub: Bantam Press/Penguin, 2021. 478 page hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK), $42.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-7875-3266-8)

(pub: Penguin/Transworld, 2022. 587 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-52917-687-2)

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