Book Review: The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach by Steven Erikson


I have a bit of downer on fantasy as a genre. I read a lot of fantasy when I was younger and it just ran out of new ideas. Everything felt rehashed: irritatingly unpronounceable names, set in one of maybe five identikit fantasy worlds, probably a Viking thing. I just didn’t care anymore. Rare books and authors escape that (note – George R.R. Martin is exactly the blandness I’m talking about) – either by virtue of their humour and loving parody of the genre (like Terry Pratchett until he started repeating himself after about eight books) or an astonishing sideways leap from the genre (Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s Shadows of the Apt).

My other half and I acquire random bargain books for each other and get maybe twenty each birthday or Christmas. This was in my Christmas heap, and I didn’t know the author’s name, quite liked the write up on the back, noticed that it was short stories and put it on the heap. I should have read it sooner. I’ll start by saying I knew nothing of the Mazalan Empire series until after I’d read this, and will likely pursue them once they are meaningfully cheaper on Kindle.

There are three novellas here, which follow on chronologically from each other, though with some substantial gaps between the second and third. The first is a detective story set in the wonderfully named Lamentable Moll. A series of terrible murders provide a guide into the lyrical writing style and black, bleak sense of humour Erikson soaks every sentence with. The main character, or at least the lens for the story winds up as the manservant for the eponymous Bauchelain and Korbal Breach. They are a splendidly wicked, murderous pair of necromancers who seem to be generally on the run. I gather that they appear in the main series, but these stories are sufficiently stand alone that I perhaps enjoyed them more with not knowing the overall tale and their place in it; I suspect I’ll be disappointed if they don’t feature heavily.

The second is a sea voyage (which as a shift reminded me of the change between The Lies of Locke Lamora and its sequel Red Skies Over Red Seas), with a doomed crew carrying the dark magicians through a sea filled with huge monsters, supernatural enemies and a very bloody resolution. I loved it, and want more of the rest of the crew. The third story sees Bauchelain and Korbal Breach deposing the ruler of a peculiar city which has I suppose gone health and safety mad, banning all dangerous activities and vices. I enjoyed the last slightly less, perhaps just because it had fewer thrills in contrast to the awesome sea voyage.

None of that summary above gives you a sense of the dark wit and grim playfulness of Eriksons’s prose. The characters’ names alone had me smirking and the delicious amorality of the antiheroes is thoroughly enjoyable. Since I haven’t read any of the rest of the series I don’t know what the overall story arc is but I immediately fell in love with this complex world of crazy politics, religion, magic and monsters. This is everything fantasy is supposed to be but so rarely achieves.

Steven Erikson

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