Bauchelain and Korbal Broach: A pair of joyfully destructive necromancers…

fantasy book review Steven Erikson Malazan novellas Bauchelain and Korbal BroachBauchelain and Korbal Broach by Steven Erikson

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBauchelain and Korbal Broach collects three of Steven Erikson’s novellas set in the Malazan Empire series, certainly one of the most ambitious, and I’d say one of the best, epic fantasies going. The collection, which includes Blood Follows, The Lees at Laughter’s End, and The Healthy Dead, follows the exploits of its eponymous main characters, a pair of joyfully destructive necromancers we first met in book three of the larger series, though in truth the side characters often take more center stage.

Totaling about half the length of the monstrous tomes in the series, Erikson has stripped out the complex plotting and subplotting of his novels, dropped the cast of characters by a magnitude or two, and cut down on the depth of physical and historical detail. The result is a much quicker, simpler, more focused read than his fans are used to — one that highlights Erikson’s dark humor rather than his complex world-building. These are slighter works, in impact as well as size, and won’t offer the richness of the novels, but each is enjoyable in its own way, though the level of success varies.

Blood Follows is set in the city of Lamentable Moll and tells how Bauchelain and Broach hired their manservant Emancipator Reese, a total wreckage of a man when we see him in the series, though here we meet Reese before the necromancers’ activities have taken their toll. His life isn’t all that great pre-necromancers, however. He seems to have a penchant for losing not just every job he takes, but his bosses as well, who tend to succumb one after the other to some dire fate. This is bad enough, but his shrewish wife and pack of “brats” double the misery. We pick up just after he lost his last job when his employer was killed — the 12th victim in 12 nights of an unknown killer stalking the streets. Tasked with uncovering the murderer is Sgt. Guld, helped by the king’s mage. It gives nothing away to say the two necromancers are involved in the murders somehow, but that’s OK as the murder mystery isn’t really the point of the story — rather it’s the vehicle for all sorts of dry and dark humor, involving the main characters but also the city’s undead (Moll is built atop restless barrows), a pair of strange sisters, a not-so-innocent princess, and others.

The humor works well throughout, Blood Follows is a truly funny story, and while the novella doesn’t have the overwhelming density of detail we’re used to with Erikson, he still shows himself to be a master of the sharp vivid image, characterization, and cultural or social detail. The few scenes just after the story’s opening meander a bit but pacing picks up once we leave the tavern and Reese’s drunken wandering and the story is tightly constructed afterward. Personally, I would have liked to see Erikson do more with Guld’s investigation and the mystery; it had rich potential as does Guld’s character (I can actually see him in his own spin-off novella) but it feels like Erikson tosses it aside too quickly and a bit cavalierly.

The Lees at Laughter’s End takes place on board the ship Reese and his employers are forced to use to flee their activities in Moll. Unfortunately for them and the ship’s crew (not all of whom are actually crew, it turns out), the trip will take a turn to the horrific, full of undead and whatever it is that Broach has carried aboard (it isn’t pleasant). The humor here is much more broad and physical, much more slapstick than the dry wit in Blood Follows, and your enjoyment of the story will most likely depend on how you like your humor. There were several laugh-out-loud points, but I also thought it went on a bit long and I felt the payoff wasn’t quite as strong as the first or especially the third story.

The final story, The Healthy Dead, shifts humor gears once more, incorporating both the dryness and slapstick humor of the other two but adding to it a more substantive satire of our modern day obsession with healthy living. Reese has been on the road with the necromancers for a few years now and has taken to dulling his reactions to a life of constant horror, danger, and tension via a plethora of drugs. In this story, the trio arrives at the city of Quaint, where the new king has raised “wellness” to a mandated religion and poor living (bad diets, lack of exercise, etc) have become crimes. Horrified at having to give up their vices (in a brilliant touch, the vices of Quaint, such as Sloth or Greed, are actually embodied, though when we first meet them they have shrunken in stature and strength since they’ve been proscribed), a pair of city residents hire the necromancers to rid themselves of their king. Bauchelain’s pleasure at the unusual ethics of the job is a joy to read:

Desire for goodness, Mister Reese, leads to earnestness. Earnestness, in turn, leads to sanctimonious self-righteousness, which breeds intolerance, upon which harsh judgment quickly follows, yielding dire punishment, inflicting general terror and paranoia, eventually culminating in revolt, leading to chaos, then dissolution, and thus, the end of civilisation.

To “save civilization”, they’ll have to work their usual destruction. While the satire is a bit obvious and perhaps a bit overlong, for the most part it works well, especially at the start. The Healthy Dead was, I thought, the most accomplished of the three tales: the most substantive, the most varied in tone, the most imaginative, and the most focused and tightly written.

Don’t expect the Malazan heft or style here, or come to these novellas looking to fill in plot gaps in the larger series; these are beasts of a different sort: wholly independent (or nearly so), leaner, more simple, with more of an intent to evoke laughter than anything else. At that, they mostly succeed. If you come in with the right expectations, you won’t be disappointed — you’ll thoroughly enjoy them. What they do share with the larger novels is that at the end, you’ll be frustrated that there isn’t any more.

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Omnibus of the first three novellas:

fantasy book review Steven Erikson Malazan novellas Bauchelain and Korbal Broach


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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