Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Healthy Dead - Steven Erikson

The Healthy Dead is the second in a series of novellas on the necromancers Krobal Broach and Bauchelain. The are set in the same world as Erikson's ten volume fantasy series the Malazan Book of the Fallen. So far, Erikson has published four, with a fifth expected later this year. The Healthy Dead is the second in publication order, but the third chronologically, with the third novella, The Lees of Laughters End, set between Blood Follows and this novella. Once again I've read the edition published by Night Shade Books, which has a cover and several interior illustrations by Mike Dringenberg. The Healthy Dead is my favourite of the three I have read so far (I own a copy of Crack'd Pot Trail and hope to read it later this year). It is the finest example of the satirical element in  Erikson's writing.

After the events that forced their premature departure from Lamentable Moll, Korbal Broach and Bauchelain, accompanied by the unfortunate servant Emancipor Rees are still on the run from their pursuers. They have reached the remote city of Quaint, which at first glance offers little the small company may want and Bauchelain is tempted to circle the city and try to gain some more distance between them and their pursuers. Then, one of the city's inhabitants approaches them with a plea for help. A challenge Bauchelain can't resist. The city is ruled by a king who in his desire to do good, has banned just about everything that can kill. A very dangerous development if it were to spread. You see, a desire for goodness leads to the end of civilization.

In this novella Erikson ask the reader the question why so many people seem to prefer regimes that are not actually out for the wellbeing of their subjects. It has been a well known phenomenon that large groups of people long for a return to dictatorial regimes when a democratic political system doesn't turn out to be as perfect as the brochure promised. In this case the city of Quaint have come to realize that their king's ruthless enforcement of healthy living practices, makes life more complicated than they bargained for. The eloquent Bauchelain explains it in Yoda-like fashion early on in the novella, a gimmick that Erikson will repeat a number of times in the text.
"Ah, Mister Reese, I gather you still do not understand the threat this king poses to such creatures as you and I."
"Well, frankly, no, I don't, Master. As you say."
"I must perforce make the linkage plain, of sufficient simplicity to permit your uneducated mind to grasp all manner of significance. Desire for goodness, Mister Reese, leads to earnestness. Earnestness in turn leads to sanctimonious self-righteousness, which breeds intolerance, upon which harsh judgement quickly follows, yielding dire punishment, inflicting general terror an paranoia,eventually culminating in revolt, leading to chaos, then dissolution and thus, the end of civilization."
Bauchelain explaining to Reese why the situation in Quaint is so dangerous.
Quite simple really. And while he's at it, Erikson lampoons political correctness and diet gurus.

Erikson continues the story with a series of bizarre scenes in which the cities cult of healthy living is  examined. It is portrayed as a society where nothing is left to individual responsibility and where infractions are harshly punished. Those who died clean, healthy deaths - usually from ailments of the bowels after their diet has been reduced to mostly grass, excluding everything that could be considered a vice or in any way unhealthy -  are venerated and proudly displayed. Erikson has never been afraid of describing the grisly details of life and death in detail, and in this story he managed to combine the horrific with the comical. Casual acceptance of some horror and outrage at others contrast in strange ways and completely over the top situation occur with frighting regularity. A situation that echoes the relationship between Reese and his masters.

One of the things I like most about these novellas is that it forces Erikson to be more concise. The restrictions in length force him to focus and in this novella it works very well. Where Blood Follows feels a bit rushed at the end, this novella feels exactly long enough. Quite an achievement for a man who also produces sprawling 300,000 words novels almost like clockwork. The Healthy Dead  just ticks all the boxes for me, I think it is a little gem. And the best thing is that you can read these novellas without having the read the ten huge volumes of the main series. It is a great way to sample Erikson's writing. I can't wait to see where Erikson is taking the story of the two necromancers and their unfortunate manservant.

Book Details
Title: The Healthy Dead
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Pages: 128
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 1-597800-06-6
First published: 2004

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