The Wurms of Blearmouth is the fifth novella by Steven Erikson centered on his gloriously disruptive pair of “evil sorcerers” Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, along with their by-now-relatively-stoic servant Emancipator Reese. As with the prior four, this is a far lighter tale than his lengthy, dense, and often deeply serious MALAZAN series. The BAUCHELAIN AND BROACH tales are more comic, far shorter, with far fewer moments of Erikson’s trademark “philosphophizing” (though fewer does not mean no such moments). I found The Wurms of Blearmouth a mixed success, with some laugh-out-loud moments, lots of chuckles, some welcome sharper bits, and a few less funny/comfortable moments.
At the start, we are introduced to the sorcerer-ruler of a small town on a wrecker’s coast — Lord Fangatooth Claw (the first chuckle) atop his tower keep declaiming for the scribe he’s hired to write down all his quotable moments, even if it means the scribe has to come up with them on his own. The town, Spendrugle, small as it is, has a veritable crowd of forlorn, bitter, magical, mysterious, and downright weird souls, including, but not limited to: Spilgit Purrble, deposed Factor of the town; Ackle, who was hanged and buried a few days ago; Whuffine Gaggs, a comber who is not quite what he seems (which is a murderous old man who takes advantage of the weakened shipwreck survivors who crawl ashore — though he is that as well); Feloovil, tavern owner, brothel keeper, and owner of a pair of, well, “wondrous” breasts is one way to put it; a lizard-cat who detests Spilgit and doesn’t trust his intentions for Feloovil’s daughter; and one ticked off deposed witch who once lived in Claw’s keep. Into this mix come Bauchelain and Broach, along with a group in pursuit of the two necromancers and another group in pursuit of the pursuers. It’s a combustible mix and it doesn’t take long for the first spark to fly. Farce and Hijinks ensue.
Erikson is clearly having a grand old time with the conventions here — the names, the settings, the character types, the curses, and so forth. As when, for instance, the scribe tells Claw he has not only dried Claw’s “other black robe,” but his “other black vest, and your other black shirt, and other black leggings.” And much of it is quite funny. As mentioned, I laughed aloud several times and chuckled quite often. The humor ranges from subtle to broad — mostly broad — and while it was at times too broad for my tastes, evoking a groan or wince here and there, it was mostly enjoyable. Most fantasy fans I think will enjoy it, though humor is always extremely subjective. The novella format is perfectly sized for this intent I’d say; I wouldn’t have wanted it to go any longer — it is easy for comedy to overstay its welcome. The cluttered nature of the plot also helps with the humor in this format — ending it an over-the-top comic sense that in a novel would feel way out of line — like an author desperate to throw everything possible at the reader. Here, the “and then… and then… and then” one-more-to-the-mix simply enhances the comedy.
Amidst with the farcical elements, Erikson does throw in a few sharp-edged moments. The discussion on tyranny, for instance, between Bauchelain and Claw is both funny and insightful. And the commentary on faith is just a little biting: “Faith was a claw hammer to pry loose the boards beneath the commonry’s feet, an executioner’s axe to lop off the heads…” There are not a lot of these moments, but I was happy for the ones that were present.
My one issue with the novella was the humor centered on the women. While I get these are send ups, that these are utterances from the mouths of farce characters, that the whole thing is broad humor, I have to confess both a lack of enjoyment in the focus on “T and A” (a real focus on the former, in ways you haven’t seen before I’m guessing) and a sense of discomfort at the general portrayal. I’m betting others might feel the same way, so fair warning. It did detract from The Wurms of Blearmouth‘s enjoyment for me (and this with full confidence in this author’s comic intent, not that he needs my defending).
While the BAUCHELAIN AND BROACH novellas are lesser works than the MALAZAN books (some of my all-time favorites), and as with collections of short stories, I have varying degrees of response to them, on the whole I find Bauchelain and Broach to be “delicious” characters. There is just something about them, about Bauchelain in particular, and the way in which Erikson uses them that I love the idea and atmosphere of, even if the execution is at times hit and miss with me. I loved the anticipation of the two of them arriving in this hole of a town with these people, and the way that the “confrontations” are played against type (one of my favorite running gags in this novella, a highly successful motif, was what happens as someone winds themselves up for a big moment or congratulates themselves on a just concluded big moment). This isn’t my favorite of the four, but barring the discomfort with regard to the women, it wasn’t the least successful in its effect either. Recommended for fans of Erikson for sure, and also for general fantasy fans, who will enjoy most of the satire, if not all the humor.