Steven Erikson is a master of modern epic fantasy. His opus, a 10 book series named The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is a masterpiece on par with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. Erikson creates a menagerie of fascinatingly amoral or ambiguous characters and proceeds to wind them all together in sub-plots that build off the primary thread. Some of those secondary plots fall away and some stay in tune but all of them are interesting. He is a tremendous writer.
That is why the novella Crack’d Pot Trail is such a collasul disappointment. Nominally about Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, two necromancers who provide an element of comedic relief through parts of Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen, who are pursued by a band of knights and hunters sworn to kill them, the book is, in reality, a violent assault on the fourth wall (the “wall” between the stage and the audience) and role of the audience in artistic affairs. Narrative is a secondary concern, if at all, and the titular characters are absent for all but two pages of the book.
The true main character of the novel is Avas Didion Flicker, a sometimes poet of modest repute, who travels with those hunting Bauchelain and Korbal Broach along The Great Dry, a harrowing trail through a wasteland. In the wake of the hunters are various bards and artists and their hanger-ons journeying the trail to find the Indifferent God. Deities are plentiful in Erikson’s works and in this novel the artists seek to awaken the god from his ambivalence though the why of that is never really explained.
The novel is actually Flicker’s writing of the journey years later but, after the introduction, is told in a third person with Flicker engaging the reader in constant side conversations. Worse yet, it is apparent throughout that Flicker’s statements are as much intended as conversation within the novel as they are intended as conversations between Erikson and the reader.
A tale is what it is. Must you have ever detail relayed to you, every motivation recounted so that it is clearly understood? Must you believe that all proceeds at a certain pace only to flower full and fulsome at the expected time? Am I slave to your expectations, sir?
One of the criticisms of Erikson’s novels are the opaque nature of the character’s motives and the complexity of the narratives that are often times difficult to parse. One of the primary actors in his 10 book arc was a wizard named Quick Ben whose motives never truly become clear at the end of the series. Those readers that become fixated and frustrated by the lack of clarity or the mixed pacing miss the better part of the novels. Flicker’s quote above is as true about the protagonists he converses with at the moment as it is about Erikson’s broader works.
This persistent one-sided conversation that Erikson inflicts upon the reader is distracting in a myriad of ways but more importantly it becomes oppressive. The book begins to feel more a professor’s lecture than a fantasy novella. It proceeds to berate the reader for trying to make art what an individual of the audience perceives it to be rather than letting the art be to each person what they would have it as.
The instant the observer, in appalling self-delusion, seeks to claim for himself that which in truth belongs to everyone, he has committed the greatest crime, one of selfish arrogance, one of unrighteous possession.
The only one with half a wit to his name, Flicker is surrounded by mental midgets unable to speak anything more eloquent than vapid protestations in vain attempts to save their life. None of the other characters are capable of arguing a point because the points are not to be argued. They are instructions from author to reader via the thinly veiled conduit named Flicker and woe to the reader who does not take them to heart.
It becomes rapidly apparent that Erikson is not interested in character development during the novel. The cast of characters are foils for Flicker in various ways and, if they show any sign of growth, they die a quick death. Indeed, few of the characters survive the course of the novella though that is characteristic for Erikson’s writing.
The writing is, however, uncharacteristically poor for Erikson as the prose is weighed down by constant reminders that the fourth wall is no constraint to Flicker. It does not help Erikson that the characters in the novella are all phenomenally idiotic as they recount works of other bards or artists or the hunters make ubiquitous threats to one another. The sometimes humorous dialogue that, in his other works, is offset by more reasoned conversation or more expansive world-building is too weak to sustain narrative interest in any fashion. For those who have read The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Crack’d Pot Trail‘s dialogue is as if the Cotillion were speaking to a dozen copies of Iskaral Pust, each without the cunning undertones of the original Iskaral Pust.
The one self-deprecating note near the end of the book is in the naming of the artist of the century. Of those artists making the pilgrimage, a critic traveling with them decides who was the most compelling. Flicker, though clearly the most talented of the travelers, does not win the award.
The climax of the novella is short and offers the only true plot advancement, if it can be called that, after countless pages of characters simply walking The Great Dry. Afterwards, Korbal Broach and Bauchelain make their brief cameo, which is of no accord with the previous portions of the book, and Erikson makes a deft but far too late tie in with one of the previous characters as a paltry appeasement. It further cheapens the writing and acts as a capstone for the deceptively marketed novella. With no narrative to speak of and a cast of supremely stupid simpletons to reflect the overly verbose lessons of Steven Erikson back onto the reader, Crack’d Pot Trail should be avoided at all costs by those seeking another trip into the Malazan world.