Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Steven Erikson - Bauchelain and Korbal Broach

Manservant required. Full time. Travel involved. Wage to be negotiated depending on experience. Call at Sorrowman’s Hostel.

Steven Erikson’s Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas are at once everything you’d expect and nothing at all like what you think you’re getting. In Memories of Ice, we’re briefly introduced to the enigmatic Bauchelain and the mildly sociopathic Korbal Broach. One is tall and suave; one is short and kinda insane. Both are incredibly powerful. What we get in Memories of Ice is never more than a taste, and it was obvious there was far more under the surface. I came to this collection expecting to have the cloth pulled back. I wanted to see figure out who these people were, and I wanted to see what they got up to when they weren’t messing with caravan guards. The second is satisfied in spades. The first…not so much.

Erikson’s style here is fairly different from his more epic works. The novellas are, by necessity, far more focused than their gargantuan brethren, and Erikson proves himself more than capable at telling a concise story. In addition, his talent for easily understood, yet chaotic, action is present in full force, abetted by his usual grasp of atmosphere.

“Every child should know terror, and are not my little ones terrible?”

Though humor has always been a part of the Malazan books, it’s never played nearly as central a role as it does here. In addition, while the jokes in Midnight Tides, etc, are almost wholly dependent on clever phrasing and wording, here Erikson takes a far more slapstick approach. If you’re easily offended, you might want to stay well clear. Erikson knows what he wants to convey, and he spares no punches when doing so. You’ll laugh, but you also just might feel the tiniest bit queasy as well.

The first novella is Blood Follows. It is exactly what I was expecting, a phenomenon no doubt aided by Memories of Ice giving away the ending and the back cover giving away the beginning. The killers are obvious from the first page, but everything falls together perfectly for a time. And then, before getting to delve into the psyche of the two, the story comes to a conclusion both abrupt and unsatisfying. Ah well, I thought, all will be revealed in the next.

It was not to be.

What follows is just over two hundred pages of murder and laughter. Now, that hardly sounds so bad, and it’s not. It’s just that I was expecting something more. The whole experience is roughly akin to sitting down to watch an anticipated movie: the beginning is highly promising, doing nothing but whetting your appetite…and then comes an hour and a half of a protracted gun battle, with a few car chases sprinkled in the middle for variety. It’s entertaining, sure, but it’s not particularly satisfying.

The Lees of Laughter’s End reads like the climax of your average fantasy. From the first few pages on, we get to witness the supernatural slaughter of just about everyone and everything on board the Suncurl, but without any context or real depth, the procession of murdered crew members never compels a real reaction. In the past, Erikson’s novels works partly because they’re such a mess. The Chain of Dogs was nothing but a string of climactic battles, but spaced out amongst other, less explosive narratives, and it suddenly worked. Here, there’s no breather room whatsoever, and the narrative soon becomes nothing but tiring.

The third novella, The Healthy Dead, is not quite as overwhelming as The Lees of Laughter’s End. Breakneck pace and scattershot plotting still dominate, but the whole affair is far more focused. Primarily, this is a brutal satire of healthy living, a fact that’s perfectly clear from the introduction: WARNING TO LIFESTYLE FASCISTS EVERYWHERE. DON’T READ THIS OR YOU’LL GO BLIND.

Bauchelain and Korbal Broach is a decently entertaining read, but not much more. In his central Malazan novels, Steven Erikson succeeds and conveying character depth with a mere handful of pages. Here it is the opposite. In three hundred pages dedicated to the scheming sorcerers and their diabolical manservant, we never learn a whit more about them than we did at the end of Memories of Ice.

If you want a good time, don’t hesitate but don’t expect anything particularly mind blowing. A new novella was released recently by the name of Crack’d Pot Trail, but as much as I love the mainstream Malazan novels, I have to admit that I’m going to wait for the other novellas to be collected in paperback form before purchasing them.

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