Crack’d Pot Trail is the fourth of Steven Erikson’s Malazan novellas following the exploits of Korbal Broach and Bauchelain, a pair of sinister necromancers whose dark side is often thrown into a grayer cast due to their situational context and the characters (often allegedly “purer” or “better”) that surround them. As with the earlier novellas, Erikson lightens up on the dense worldbuilding, labyrinthine layered plots, and casts of thousands of the larger series to focus on, well, mostly I’d say having fun, but on characters and theme as well. And also as in some of the earlier ones, the journey is all — the destination relatively unimportant.
In this case, the journey is a Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from hell, as the characters, on a pilgrimage through a veritable wasteland (the oases seem to have all dried up), choose to eat their companions (specifically the poets) rather than starve or, you know, eat some horses (the knights value horses, and they’ve got the weapons and size after all). Among this cannibalistic caravan are: Mortal Sword Tulgord Vise and Steck Marynd (from Blood Follows), Well Knight Arpo Relent (The Healthy Dead), the three Chanter brothers and their sister (Lees of Laughter’s End) — all in pursuit of Broach and Bauchelain for vengeance or “cleansing”; a mysterious noblewoman who never leaves her carriage and her driver/servant; several poets heading for the competition for greatest artist; a critic; a sultry dancer; and a “host.”
The poets, rather than “sing for their supper,” have to sing so as not to be supper. They are judged on the quality of their tales and those that have failed to maintain the judges’ interest are killed and carved up as dinner, and maybe another day’s meal. Unlike Chaucer’s Tales, we don’t listen to all these individual tales. We get snippets of a few, and only two lengthy tales, both from our narrator and both turned into weapons of words to keep him alive. There’s little “plot” per se; most of the novella turns on character interaction: poets trying to stay alive (currying favor, turning on one another, arguing for their “art”), the Chanter brothers trying to protect the “innocence” of their sister, the mystery over the noblewoman, etc.
Erikson’s humor shines through here more fully than it does in the larger works and varies from slapstick to witty wordplay to social and artistic satire or sometimes all the above (not to mention one of the funniest sex scenes you’ll ever read). Sure, at times Erikson hits a bit too obviously, but mostly you’re just having a ball and imagining he had the same while writing it all.
That isn’t to imply that the novella lacks all depth, though. Along with some questions with regard to morality (when is it OK to do horrid acts with good intention, for instance), Erikson has his characters chew on a lot of issues involving artists and their audiences (take the whole eat-the-artist metaphor). It’s funny to listen to some of the characters object to some of the recited story elements:
“This is stupid. You can’t have quests without mountain passes and dangerous rivers to cross, and ogres and … And there’s supposed to be friends of the hero who go along and fight and stuff, and get into trouble so the hero has to save them. Everyone knows that.“
“knights can’t be assassins … it’s a rule. Knights can’t be assassins, wizards can’t be weapons-masters… Everyone knows that.”
“Why do people have to name everything … What’s wrong with ‘the mountains’? The ‘river’? The ‘valley’?
Funny, but also a bit too close to the bone as how many times have we readers been bored to death by these sort of cookie-cutter “rules”?
Perhaps less funny, but of more interest (to me at least), is the artist’s perspective (or at least, one voiced one):
“a tale is what it is. Must you have every detail relayed to you, every motivation recounted so it is clearly understood? … Am I slave to your expectations, sir? Does not a teller of tales serve oneself first and last?”
“the audience can listen, or they can walk away … the audience possesses a singular currency in this exchange. To partake thereof or to not … It extends no further for them, no matter how they might wish otherwise.”
“A situation can fast slide into both the absurd and the tragic … yet for those in its midst, senses adjust in their unceasing search for normality and so on we go, in our assembly of proper motions, the swing of legs … and the breath goes in and the breath goes out. Normal sounds comfort us … Walk your own neighborhood or village street … and grant yourself a moment and imagine all that you do not see, all that might hide behind the normal moment with its normal details. Do this and you will come to understand the poet’s game.”
“Art is not exclusive in its delivery, but its magic lies in creation the illusion that it has done just that. Speaking only to you … the instant the observer … seeks to claim for himself that which in truth belongs to everyone, he has committed [a] crime of selfish arrogance, one of unrighteous possession.”
And the public’s sometimes rejoinder: “Words — why, anyone can put them together in any order they please. It’s not like what you’re doing is hard, is it? The rest of just don’t bother. We got better things to do with our time.”
The novella has some flaws — a bit of a slow start, some overly-obvious satire/humor, but between the laugh out loud moments, the sly wordplay, the usual great Erikson characters (concisely drawn as fully as each needs to be), the examination of the relationship between the artist and the audience, or art and the public sphere, zombies (did I mention the zombies?), and even a bit of suspense over who gets eaten and what will happen at journey’s end, Crack’d Pot Trail was a thoroughly enjoyable trip, one might even say, a delectable one. Highly recommended.