Saturday, September 15, 2012

Crack'd Pot Trail - Steven Erikson

Crack'd Pot Trail is the fourth in Steven Erikson's series on the necromancers Korbal Broach and Bauchelain. These novellas are an offshoot of his huge Malazan Book of the Fallen series, where the pair shows up in Memories of Ice. Recently they have also been part of Ian C. Esslemont's fourth Malazan novel Orb Sceptre Throne. The events in these novels are set much later in the Malazan time line however. I read the Night Shade Books edition for the previous three volumes but it appears this publisher has lost interest in these novellas. For the fourth, and the recently published fifth novella titled The Wurms of Blearmouth, I got the PS Publishing editions. PS Publishing spent a lot of time and effort making this novella look pretty. It has very good cover art and three beautiful full colour interior illustrations by Dirk Berger. It makes this edition expensive though. For people with a small budget the Tor edition might be the better option.

In Crack'd Pot Trail we follow a group of travellers on a notorious desert trail. Part of the group is in pursuit of a pair of necromancers who have left a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Other members tag along for other reasons. There is a group of pilgrims hoping to find the Indifferent God, as well as a group of poet, on their way to an annual festival. The trail is long and dangerous and when the group is not making as much progress as expected, their supplies fall low. Survival becomes priority number one. There is no way they can all make it across the desert, hard choices will have to be made.

This novella is a love it or hate it book I think. I've seen reviews on either extreme of the scale but very little in between and I can see why this would be so. I must admit I am torn as to whether is novella is brilliant or a failed experiment. One thing is clear, it is a break with the previous three entries. At 181 pages it is a lot longer than the previous three entries for instance. The focus of the novella has also shifted away from the necromancers that give the series its name. Korbal Boach, Bauchelain and their unfortunate manservant Emancipor Reese are present only at the very end of the novella and play not part in the story other than being a distant target. This fact alone will put some readers off.

Where the previous novellas were pretty straightforward reads, this is a complex tale. Erikson creates a great number of characters in the limited space available in a novella, making the reader work hard in keeping the various groups and motivations apart. Something that isn't made any easier by the narrator of the story, a poet by the name of Avas Didion Flicker. The man is cursed with a verbosity that would make even the Eel of Darujhistan blink. The first twenty or so pages are particularly dense. Flicker describes each of his fellow travelers in detail. From that point on the story gains a little more speed but it never becomes easy reading.

Erikson made this novella almost impossible to review. The main attraction of the novel is the way he describes the relationship between the artist and the critic. As the journey becomes more desperate and food runs out, the only option left to the travellers is to start eating each other. Who should go first? Why the least useful person on the journey of course: the poets. To determine the order in which the poets will be eaten, each night a contest is held between them. The one with the most dismal performance, and it must be said, this particular group of artists is not blessed with an extraordinary amount of talent, will be eaten. Well now, how is for a portrayal of the critic. Erikson is challenging us to show ourselves the cannibalistic Philistines he describes? Some reviewers obviously found it tempting. The irony is overwhelming.
    "I still want details," said Tiny Chanter, glaring at me in canid challenge.
    "As a sweet maiden, she was of course unversed in the stanza of amorous endeavour-"
    "What?" asked Midge.
    "She didn't know anything about sex", I re-phrased.
    "Why do you do that anyway?" Apto inquired.
    I took a moment to observe the miserable, vulpine excuse for humanity, and then said, "Do what?"
    "Complicate things."
    "Perhaps because I am a complicated sort of man."
    "But if it makes people frown or blink or otherwise stumble in confusion, what is the point?"
    "Dear me", I said, "here you are, elected as Judge, yet you seem entirely unaware of the magical properties of language. Simplicity, I do assert, is woefully overestimated in value. Of course there are times when bluntness suits, but the value of these instances is found in the surprise they deliver, and such surprise cannot occur if they are surrounded by similitude-"
    "For Hood's sake," rumbled Tiny, "get back to the other similitudes. The maiden knew nothing so it fell to the Fenn warrior to tech her, and that's what I want to hear about. The world in its proper course through the havens and whatnot." And he shot Apto a wordless but entirely unambiguous look of warning, that in its mute bluntness succeeded in reaching the critic's murky awareness, sufficient to spark self-preservation. In other words, the look scared him witless.
    I resumed. "We shall backtrack, then, to the moment when they stood, now facing another. He was well-versed-"
    "Now it's back to the verses again," whined Midge.
    "And though with heated desire," I continued, "he displayed consummate skill - "
    "Consummate, yeah!" and Tiny grinned his tiny grin. 

Flicker facing his critics - p. 126-127
The verbosity, the opening with what could uncharitably be describes as an infodump, the absence of the fan favorites, these are all deliberate choices on the part of the author. Choices he would have known would get him negative reviews. Of all the satire Erikson has written, and there is quite a bit worked into his novels as well as this series of novellas, this one obviously targets the reader most directly. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a series that got a big boost from the blogsphere but it has run into the unwillingness of some fans to see the genre's stereotypes challenged as well. Erikson is a writer who likes the challenge expectations. He makes pretty bold choices in his writing and that is what sets his fantasy apart from your average series. Erikson is not afraid to show us the convoluted relationship between artist, audience and critic and none of the parties are portrayed in a particularly flattering light.

How many authors must have been longing to address their critics like this, or expose the ignorance of their audience? How many could actually do so without hurting their career? The more I think about it, the more I am beginning to appreciate the genius of this novella. It may not add much to the story of Korbal Broach and Bauchelain but under the surface lots of interesting commentary is going on. Crack'd Pot Trail is a daring piece. Erikson once again plays with the reader's expectations and casts a new light on his own body of work. This broader view of this novella will probably not sit well with all readers, but I think it is sheer brilliance. Even if I have to suffer Erikson's most verbose character yet.

Book Details
Title: Crack'd Pot Trail
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: PS Publishing
Pages: 181
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-848630-57-4
First published: 2009


  1. This is interesting in light of Erickson's recent piece in the New York Review of Science Fiction, in which he lambasted academic experts on fantasy for being too lazy to come to grips with trends in epic series fantasy such as his. Critics would seem to be on his mind... After reading the first two Malazan books, I can see that he's accomplishing something amazing on a huge scale, but I can sympathize with the critics who've ignored him, as I'm daunted by the prospect of committing to finishing it, much as I would like to...

    1. The page count is intimidating yes. Especially if you consider Esslemont is about to publish his 5th too and Erikson himself started on a new trilogy. Add to that the fact that one reading is not enough to really do them justice an you have a lot of reading. I thought it was worth it but I can see why people would be hesitant to commit to the series.

      Accademic attention to fantasy... Personally I think it will come eventually. It happened to science fiction to after all, if not on the scale the science fiction community would like. I can't say the lack of it bothers me. Then again, I am not a writer and I suppose it is a form or recognition... Maybe I do understand some of his frustration.