Boiling down Steven Erikson’s megaword Malazan novels to something more novella size might have seemed like a good idea, but it’s an old idea bogged down by one note characters and even older lectures on the meaning of art.
Despite the cover, Crack’d Pot Trail is not a story of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, unless you count a novel where they only appear on the last page as being a story of them. It is a story of several sets of stereotypes journeying together through the wasteland and stabbing each other in the back or eating each other along the way. And I’m making it sound more interesting than it is.
Erikson introduces several poets going off to a contest, depicts them as broad stereotypes, as talentless hypocrites and parasites of various flavors, so we don’t particularly care what happens to them. Then two broad parodies of heroes, self-righteously vicious religious sociopaths. And an assortment of characters who matter less. Along with a narrator who serves as a mouthpiece for Erikson’s views.
The setup is that the group has run out of food for some reason and has begun eating the artists, deciding who to eat through an impromptu contest to decide who will be eaten. It’s a decently ghoulish premise, but Erikson doesn’t bother to credibly set it up, and while the butchery is going on, there’s a wagon driven by mules that nobody really seems to mention as potential dinner.
Erikson doesn’t care much about the credibility of the setup, because it’s only a vehicle for him to make his points about art and they aren’t very good points.
A story in which characters meet and exchange stories has potential, it’s been done many times before, but Erikson doesn’t bother much with the stories part. Brash Phlucker (yes that’s a character’s name and it should give you some idea of the nuance Erikson brings to the table here) delivers comic relief poetry. A second poet goes on about eggs as some sort of metaphor for being out of ideas. A third tells a long and overwritten love story ending in cannibalism. The narrator tells the story of the trip in Erikson’s own horribly overwritten prose.
Erikson gives us every indication of an unreliable narrator, so the twist isn’t much of a surprise. It’s just not a twist that makes much sense, since while the narrator does sic the heroes on the carriage, there was no real probability of it ending in death until some random events took place.
As a novella, Crack’d Pot Trail wouldn’t be quite adequate, as a novel it ranks with publishing your own shopping lists.