I have not been shy about my enjoyment of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, a series by Steven Erikson. The world he has set the series in is incredibly dense and multi-layered, but the difficulty this could present to the reader is mitigated by the utterly accessible characters who are the center of the novels. The crisis in each book often has national, if not international importance, but instead of allowing the reader to be overwhelmed and perhaps numb to what happens, the point of view is always based on the characters we have spent hundreds of pages getting to know as individuals. And so the horrors of war, the nobility of sacrifice, the depths that make us human are thrown into sharp relief and exploited with deft hands. This is not to say that the books have no humor in them, but it is the humor of a well-loved friend or of witnessing people who have spent lifetimes together, alternating between despising one another and also knowing they would be completely lost without each other.
As Erikson has published the novels of the series, he also published some novellas in small press. While the novelettes thus far have nothing to do with the events in the novels, they remain poignant with the examination of humanity in alternately horrible and hysterical conditions. He doesn't much rely on the Malazan setting to tell stories that feel like they have been ripped from the pages of classic Weird Tales; instead they are set in a generically fantastic milieu, with only allusions to Malazan to portray their bigger setting without getting in the way. The focus is not national, but intensely local, even personal. And Erikson relies even more on the comedy of people interacting with the unknown to make the novels at once some of the funniest things I have read in a while and also some of the most suspenseful.
Meet Emancipor Reese, a man in his 60s or early 70s, whom friends have nicknamed Mancy the Luckless. It seems that any person who hires Reese does not live long enough to appreciate his hard-working nature, usually ending up dead within a few weeks of the hiring, usually in some horrible way, and in no way associated with Reese other than coincidence. As one might imagine, having a string of dead employers is difficult on one trying to find steady employment, and it is awfully suspicious to boot. And Reese is hard-suffering, trying to support his termagant wife and the children he is not sure are even his. So he finds himself answering a poster he found in his town square, describing two men looking for a manservant. Reese interviews with Bauchelain, a somewhat foppish intellectual that speaks in riddles that Reese, in a drunken state, thinks he can understand. When asked if he is willing to travel, Reese instantly agrees, anything to get away from his family while also ensuring that they will be well cared for in his absence. Reese doesn't meet his second employer, Korbal Broach, until days after he has been hired.
It turns out that Bauchelain is a magician of some sort, specializing in working with demons and preferring to do research rather than actually perform any spells. What Korbal Broach does is not clear to Reese, especially because he never really meets him. Ultimately we discover that Korbal Broach is, among other things, a necromancer, working with the dead (the more recent the better). In fact he is something of a savant, enjoying research and experimentation much like Bauchelain, but not quite so rigorous in his practice. And when Reese sobers up, he is more disgusted with where his luck has found him work than appalled at what his employers do. In fact he is a very human, supremely cynical witness to their activities but also unwilling to break his contract with them. His best method for dealing with their activities is to drown his sorrows in more alcohol and light narcotics, which somehow only further endears him to his employers that much more deeply.
The three novellas in this book describe the conditions of the three coming together and then two examples of their adventures. Erikson's style is nearly staccato—using chapters that are sometimes only a page-long as he jumps from character to character, participants and witnesses to the chaos that Bauchelain and Korbal Broach always seem to find themselves mired in. By far, the best story in the book is "The Lees of Laughter's End," wherein the three travelers find themselves aboard what appears to be a sturdy ship but soon discover that the ship, and its crew, are not quite everything they seem. Recent repairs to the ship have been made with nails made from the melting of artifacts stolen from graves, so each contains a little bit of the soul of the owner of the grave they were taken from. A reptilian monster lives in the bowels of the ship, leading to some unexpected interaction with the ghosts from the nails. The crew is captained by four soldiers on the run from a country from whom they stole mysterious artifacts, which now reside in the main hold. The watch upon the top of the main mast either suffers from multiple personalities or is possessed by the ghost of her mother. And then Korbal Broach looses his pet on board the ship while performing a fishing experiment off the keel, attracting all sorts of unwanted attention. Bauchelain struggles to respond to the disasters that simultaneously befall the ship, but accidentally takes a supernaturally aphrodisiac and must first work off its effects. And through it all, the stoic, cynical Reese just tries to survive. I found myself laughing merrily as chaos piled on top of chaos and the all-too-human characters try to respond to issues that are way beyond their pay grade. Of particular delight are the three characters who all share the same name, whose genders are not entirely clear (even to themselves), and who are drafted to see what's going on in the bowels of the ship.
Just describing what happens in the story should be indicative of the humor that lies underneath it. Any one of the supernatural events is suspenseful, but when Erikson continues to pile them all upon one another, the sheer weight of them all makes them more and more funny. And the shifting viewpoints of the chapters just add to the chaos and sharpens the comedy. Erikson even includes the viewpoint of the strange Cthuloid aggregation that is one of the terrors the crew must face, and it turns out that it is severely conflicted about what its lot in life (or unlife) as well. Erikson's craftiness is most clear when you can take a step back and realize that crewmen are dying, some of them horribly, and yet you can't deny the humor that pervades the scene of destruction.
I really recommend this book, not just for anyone interested in the entire series. Erikson has crafted something that feels firmly grounded in the great pulp tradition of Weird Tales and the planetary romances of Moore and Kuttner, but then taken it further and poked at the boundaries of what that type of writing can contain. And while the Malazan Book of the Fallen is a powerful and thought-provoking read, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach distills what makes those novels so great and concentrates it into 100-page stories that require no other knowledge of the world on which they are set.