This book collects at a (relatively) accessible price the three novellas that PS Publishing published separately. I didn’t know what to expect, how much they were connected to the bigger series, how relevant. If a significant effort with its own purpose or just a diversion intended for the most passionate readers who won’t miss even the minor works. Well, I don’t even know where to start with the praises because this isn’t simply a “worthy” read compared to the rest of the books, but may be as well the finest writing Erikson ever achieved. And by a good margin.
The most impressive achievement is how the writing style changes and adapts to the different form. It is the same Erikson, with the multitude of characters and crazy ideas and inventions at every page, but at the same time it feels as if the constraints to the short form fueled the already wild creativity. The stories and characters seem explode out of the pages, unrestrained. The more they are squeezed tight, the more they come alive and claiming their space. Single sentences that read like poetry and filled with meaning on multiple levels.
Not only Erikson is at ease with the short form, he excels, shines in it. He understands it fully and carves out all the potential there is. It’s not the wild creativity, the crazy characters, the usual convergences that accelerate to a mad rush toward the end. It’s not in the content itself (that has always been seen as THE strong point), it’s in the execution. Here Erikson shows sheer talent. It oozes out of the page. From the first page. From a writer who’s used to publish once a year books with more than a thousand of pages you expect a writing style that is merely functional. Something quick and cheap that gets the job done. Well, here the real protagonist is the writing itself. It’s Erikson at his very best (or worst for some detractors), talking right at the reader in this meta-narrative game:
“But what do we know? We’re no brush-stroked arched brow over cold, avid eye, oh no. We’re just the listeners, wading through some ponce’s psychological trauma as the idiot stares into a mirror all love/hate all masturbatory up’n’down and it’s us who when the time comes -comes, hah- who are meant to gasp and twist pelvic in linguistic ecstasy.”
He’s “loose” and highly pretentious. Condensed, focused awesome. Everything that makes the readers love or hate him with a passion.
I used to say that from my point of view he is among “traditional” fantasy writers the one with the most “literary” intent. For these novellas this intent is shown prominently, but not limited to this show-off I’m celebrating. There are a number of memorable characters, plot twists and plenty of humor. Even if the writing has the predominant role, it doesn’t overshadow or gets in the way of the fun of the more traditional elements. “Over the top”, excessive and raving indeed. But still a masterful execution from every point of view.
It was a pleasure. Not just about what is written, but how it is written. I developed a familiarity with it, absorbed some of it as if it were mine. I really couldn’t ask more.
The novels are put in the book in the chronological order of the plot, but the second was actually written and published last. This is interesting to consider because it proves again Erikson’s growth as a writer. There’s a steady, definite improvement between the three novellas in the order they were written, so with the second representing the real peak.
With the first one Erikson seems to take confidence with the new format. He shows sparks of genius but it’s still the beginning of a journey. He sets the foundation, starts to present the characters and develop the style (along some recurring habits and quibbles of the characters) that he will fully exploit later. Here he shows an economy of writing compared to the other novels, starts to play with the words to look for an intended effect, using them more for what they evocate than their explicit meaning. Showing a contagious love for the language that shares the similar beauty and lure of poetry.
There are a few memorable scenes, like the very first encounter between Bauchelain and Emancipor Reese and a myriad of details are presented that will only make sense later, following a similar trend of the main series. The first novel is also the one more connected to the Malazan world. The relatively familiar setting isn’t a weight. There are a number of interesting informations and perspectives, but they are used as “flavor”, not as key points.
The tone is far from the realistic one used in the main series. There is still a bleak and dark atmosphere but no restraints for the humorous and excessive side of things. Characters are caricatures, exaggerated in their traits, clever and naive at the same time. In some ways he reminded me more of Abercrombie here, with scenes intended both to to give personality to the characters and to be fun in their own way. Circumscribed situations with their own (often comic) purpose, while also driving the plot.
Maybe it’s the reason why I thought the end was not completely satisfying. With so much focus on the “performance” itself, what was being performed didn’t have the best denouement possible. This worried me since also for book 1 and 2 in the main series I was partially deluded by the ending. Maybe I really had a problem with the way Erikson ended his stories. The reasons of the disappointment were due mainly to the fact that some plot threads and characters seemed to pass by without a definite aim. Or better, the novella was so rich that it built a number of expectations that lead nowhere by the end of it. There were characters and plot threads that ultimately revealed to be dead ends, or still not used fully or significant enough for the potential I saw in them. As if I saw more in what was hinted than what revealed to be the real intent.
Still, the journey was fun and I developed a lasting sympathy and fondness for the characters that is only comparable, again, to what I felt for Abercrombie’s characters.
The Lees of Laughter’s End
It represents the high peak and the one case where I can say: there are no flaws.
100 pages of condensed AWESOME. Everything and then more happens, including the assault of a god. The ending is a mad dash in typical “convergence” style, only this time the convergence all starts and ends in the limited space of a ship. You’ll be amazed at how many stories tangle there, without even an ounce of the confusion that sometimes can be found in the main series. It’s all sleek, cleverly assembled. It’s a celebration of all things Erikson.
This time all the expectations built along the way were fully realized and even surpassed. The ending is great and fitting, without leaving that feel of incompleteness. In those 100 pages he sets up the scene and wraps it up perfectly.
He even conjures an external narrator in the form of a child and her old mother, who live completely alone in the crows’ nest of the ship and observe from far away everything below. They become at times the narrators of the story, some kind of abstract, symbolic figures, playing with different tones and registers, only to have their own patterns broken in some incredible way. Nothing is safe, not even an omniscient narrator.
This sent chills down my spine and one case where Erikson surpasses Gene Wolfe at his own game. It happens in a few pages and yet is extremely powerful and not at all vague. It plays with your expectations and breaks them, turn them on their head. Whatever you take a granted, breaks apart. And then again and again.
The Healthy Dead
Erikson meets Pratchett. This novella reads like satire, with plenty of wit and paradoxical situations.
It is the least “Malazan” of the three and also the one more “over the top”. It even uses some fantastic elements that do not seem to fit or belong perfectly to the world. Its explicit intent is also more driven and specific. It isn’t “loose” like the others, it doesn’t follow its own pattern and consistence. To understand it you need to draw parallels with our “modernity”. It’s fantasy fiction but working only in direct contact with what we live every day, which is what the satire is supposed to do with its metaphorical value. This purpose is already manifest in the disclaimer in the first page (and in those quotes I extrapolated):
Warning to lifestyle fascist everywhere. Don’t read this or you’ll go blind.
The novella brings to the front a different style. How to convey the most disparate thoughts through a story made as a vehicle. The plot and characters, including our protagonists, aren’t here the ultimate destination, they are means to an end.
It also marks a structural difference compared to the more usual worldbuilding. The majority of fantasy writers shape a world around the story, so that the world is functional to the story, or the intent behind it. Erikson instead shapes his world as a frame that can contain all possible stories. It’s a “world” in the true sense because it’s not one-directional.
The world is the frame, the characters are his “voices” and the stories his meaning.
But even if in this case he has a definite purpose and thesis he wants to prove, despite the whole novella pivots around “expedients”, it’s still a gorgeous, utterly fun read. The usual trio feels almost out of place at the beginning, as if those Malazan characters finished into a different, impossible world. But that’s also what fuels it all and makes those characters even more appropriate. Both Bauchelain and Emancipor become perfect vehicles for the message as if they were created and meant just for it. And, more, they came out even richer.
If you expect these novellas to integrate the main series and say something vital you’ll be disappointed. If you expect them to be throwaway little-efforts, forgettable digressions, you are also absolutely, terribly wrong. This book swiped away all the reservations and doubts I had of Erikson as a writer. He may show up and lows throughout the whole main series, but I am now sure he has an indubitable talent. As James Barclay put it in the introduction to the second novella:
The Lees of Laughter’s End is a splendidly outrageous offering. It is utterly fearless and compelling. Most of all, it is hugely entertaining. Erikson in this mood is a joy to read.
The big problem I have now is that while reading the novellas I couldn’t wait to move onto Memories of Ice, considered Erikson’s masterpiece. Now that I’m 200 pages into Memories of Ice I feel… nostalgic. I’m developing a serious case of withdrawal from the novellas and the 1100 pages of this new book aren’t helping much. I’m addicted to those novellas, to the wit, the superb writing style, the memorable characters. So every time I sit down to read the new book I actually take in my hands the novellas and read some random pages. It’s like being in deeply love with someone of whom you’ve left just a photo.