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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review: Crack'd Pot Trail by Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series took the fantasy world by storm when Gardens of the Moon was published in 1999, leading to a 10-novel epic fantasy series, several additional novels written by Ian Esslemont, and a number of novellas.  Earlier this year, Crack'd Pot Trail, a tale of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, hit the shelves, offering a strangely compelling narrative concept in an over-embellished, long-winded package.

Using the backdrop of the Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas, Crack'd Pot Trail follows the Nehemothanai and their artist/pilgrim companions as they continue their hunt of the infamous Bauchelain and Korbal Broach (a less-than-reputable pair, to say the least).  Stuck traversing the wasteland of the Crack'd Pot Trail with dwindling resources, the artists are pitted against themselves in a feat of narrative prowess:  whoever tells the worst tale may become the next meal.  
The question becomes:  Who can play the narrative game with cunning and skill, and who will flounder in a sea of their own artistic deficiencies?
Crack'd Pot Trail does two interesting things:

  1. It draws upon a rich history of larger narratives told through artists weaving miniature tales. 
  2. It provides a meant-to-be-humorous, if not disturbing, scenario involving cannibalism and artists.
The first of these will become obvious to anyone familiar with Boccaccio's The Decameron or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (among other stories, new and old).  Erikson plays with the narratives-within-a-narrative to examine the nature of the artist as a complex subject -- that is that rather than showing a series of people telling stories, Erikson challenges the nature of the story by deconstructing their origins and their tellers.  What Crack'd Pot Trail does well lies in its ability to expose the boundaries of authorship, which may interest non-traditional fantasy readers more than those who come to fantasy for an adventure (this may also be specific to the Malazan readership, since Erikson's work has often been cited as a participant in the nihilistic overthrow of fantasy -- whatever that means).

Erikson, however, explores these questions in a written style which reads as authentic, but comes off as exceedingly convoluted and linguistically excessive.  The result is that much of the book is difficult to read, often at the expense of the narrative (within a narrative).  Sentences are bloated to a degree that they often have to be re-read in order to capture details or meanings.  Such details could easily have been said with greater strength if Erikson wrote with more concision.  For example:
Suffice it to say she was the first to set out from the Gates of Nowhere and her manservant Mister Must Ambertroshin, seated on the high bench of the carriage, his face shielded by a broad woven hat, uttered his welcome to the other travelers with a thick-volumed nod, and in this generous instant the conveyance and the old woman presumed within it became an island on wheels round which the others clustered like shrikes and gulls, for as everyone knows, no island truly stays in one place (16).
Apto rubbed at his face as if needing to convince himself that this was not a fevered nightmare (as might haunt all professional critics), and I do imagine that, given the option, he would have fled into the wastes at the first opportunity, not that such an opportunity was forthcoming given Steck Marynd and his perpetually cocked crossbow which even now rested lightly on his lap (he'd done with his pacing by this time) (41).
Or this paragraph:
Is there anything more fraught than family?  We do not choose our kin, after all, and even by marriage one finds oneself saddled with a whole gaggle of relations, all gathered to witness the fresh mixing of blood and, if of proper spirit, get appalingly drunk, sufficient to ruin the entire proceedings and to be known thereafter in infamy.  For myself, I have always considered this gesture, offered to countless relations on their big day, to be nothing more than protracted revenge, and have of course personally partaken of it many times.  Closer to home, as it were, why, every new wife simply adds to the wild, unwieldy clan.  The excitement never ends! (150)
The problem isn't that these sentences are meaningless, but that they often distract from the narrative, either because they are exceedingly long (to the point where comprehension becomes difficult) or because they digress into complicated musings about things that, oddly, play little significance in the story.  Some digressions are amusing, such as when the narrator criticizes critics, but outside of the dialogue (with exception to when stories are being told), Crack'd Pot Trail is a difficult book to read, without offering the kind of payoff you expect from books with complicated styles (such as one would expect with a Pynchon novel).  What should effectively be an exploration of the artist and authorship through the guise of a cannibalistic contest is really a narrative of digressions that seems determined to avoid focus in exchange for abstraction and incompleteness. 

This is perhaps why I was disappointed with Crack'd Pot Trail.  Erikson sets up a story that should be endlessly hilarious and compelling, but the result is a rambling mess which, to me, seemed to go nowhere because so many of the stories told are never completed.  Whereas other narratives with similar forms have provided ample room for continued exploration, Erikson's novel ends without much fanfare or purpose.  The main points are easy enough to pick out, but I found myself unwilling to traipse through the prose to make the additional connections that would lend strength to Crack'd Pot Trail's narrative (there are interesting connections to make, though).  Instead, I got to the end of the book, after two weeks of struggling, without much interest in looking at it again -- a feeling I don't wish to have when reading anything, in part because negative critical reviews are the least entertaining to write (in most cases).

Crack'd Pot Trail leaves a lot to be desired.  Fans of the Malazan series may love this particular book, yet I can't help feeling that a lot of people will come out of reading this book with similar opinions as myself.  I'd recommend sticking with the regular series, where Erikson weaves a better tale.


If you want to learn more about Crack'd Pot Trail, head over to Tor.  You can follow Steven Erikson on his website.

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