Welcome to the Malazan Reread of the Fallen! Every post will start off with a summary of events, followed by reaction and commentary by your hosts Bill and Amanda, and finally comments from Tor.com readers. In this article, we’ll begin our coverage of Crack’d Pot Trail.
A fair warning before we get started: We’ll be discussing both novel and whole-series themes, narrative arcs that run across the entire series, and foreshadowing. Note: The summary of events will be free of major spoilers and we’re going to try keeping the reader comments the same. A spoiler thread has been set up for outright Malazan spoiler discussion.
Crack’d Pot Trail Part One
An as-yet unnamed narrator says he has reached a point where he’s realized success will never come to pass, and despite the surface riches he says, “Failure wears many guises, and I have worn them all.” Now, in his garden, recalling his many far-flung travels he will tell a story from of his own experience, a “story of the Nehemoth [Bauchelain and Broach] and of their stern hunters… a tale of pilgrims and poets, and of me, Avas Didion Flicker… on the pilgrim route across the Great Dry, twenty-two days and twenty-three nights… the route known as Cracked Pot Trail.” He warns us it was a trip of “mischance.”
The travelers are described:
- Mister Must Ambertroshin: “doctor, footman, carriage drive… once perhaps a soldier.” He is servant to an old woman, the Dantoc Calmpositis, who never leaves the carriage.
- Two knights in pursuit of Bauchelain and Broach: Tulgard Vise Mortal Sword of the Sisters, and Arpo Relent, a Well Knight.
- Relish Chanter and her three brothers Midge, Flea, and Tiny
- Steck Marynd, who has traveled “half the world” chasing after Bauchelain and Broach, though of the crime to spur such zeal he will say nothing.”
- Sardic Thew, well-dressed, irritable, self-named “host” of the caravan, and “a man of hidden wounds” who though apparently rich “had once known destitution” and though currently anonymous, had once known ‘infamy. Or at least notoriety.”
- The poets and bards heading for the Festival of Flowers and Sunny Days to compete to be named “The Century’s Greatest Artist”
- Calap Roud, “elder statesman of Reliant City”s artists, making his 23rd attempt at the Mantle (he’s never won). He’s a creative thief and he’s also spent all he has this year bribing judges.
- Purse Snippet: a beautiful and alluring dancer and orator, lost in her own desires she has recently turned to a “grey powder… which has so blissfully taken her away from everything.”
- Brash Phluster: Roud’s “arch rival”, a young poet who plans to reveal his genius (so far carefully disguised) to all at the competition
- The Great Artist Nifty Gum: three-time winner of the Mantle, one with a “glean of modesty rest [ing] in uneasily thin veneer upon a consummated self-adoration.”
- Nifty’s Entourage
- Sellup: a 23-yr-old young woman with no memory of her first 18 years
- Pampera: a 19-yr-old young woman, “linguistically challenged in all languages”, simpering,
- Oggle Gush: “impervious to all notions of immorality”, sixteen years old, an innocent (also cause of several hundred drowning via accidentally and innocently removing some hull plugs)
On their 23rd day of pilgrimage, they came across Apto Canavalian, a judge for the Mantle competition, walking alone in the desert, starved and dehydrated.
Avas reintroduces the pilgrims and Apto, placing them around the fire (save for the elderly woman in her carriage).
The tale begins, and “dread is palpable and diluvean.”
So I’ll be curious to see the response to this one, to say the least.
This is, I’d say, a pretty risky beginning to a story, especially one of this length. Flicker’s verbosity and ornateness of language would give even Kruppe a run for his money, and so to offer up this dense opening—dense both in terms of linguistic style and in terms of tossing a whole bunch of characters at the reader in a relatively short period of time—is the mark of an author perhaps throwing down a gauntlet at the feet of his readers. But is it that kind of challenge, or something else? There’s certainly some method to the madness here (as well as some madness in the method.
One can get an early hint of it in his choice of narrator—a poet—and his choice of premise, a group of poets (among others) heading for a writerly competition. Therefore it shouldn’t take many pages to realize we’re probably moving into metafictional territory here, something not wholly foreign to Erikson readers, though we’ll have to wait a while to get into the meat of it, so to speak.
Beyond the choice of narrator and premise, one can see the metafictional aspect hinted at as well through the clear allusions to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, what with the “pilgrimage,” the “pilgrims,” the “Host,” a narrator, and a beginning of a first tale where we stopped for this segment. One can also toss in a Knight, an old dame who might not be a Wife of Bath (we’re not quite sure what she is yet) but who possibly just in gender and age at this point can stand in for the Wife, a judge (Sergeant at Law?), and maybe even a Doctor/Yeoman. Though I think we’re going more for a general nod than a direct attempt at one-to-one correlations on these.
It’s also hard for me not to hear Falstaff in Flicker’s opening paragraph with “the first chime after midnight.” (Or if not Falstaff, that Klingon—played by Christopher Plummer—who was always spouting Shakespeare.)
So we’ve got some writers, a narrator that is a writer, an audience in the pilgrims, but also of course we the readers are an audience as well, an “entourage,” and a critic (the judge). I’ll also point out that this group of writers is on a pilgrim trail to “the Indifferent God.” Let that roil around in your head for a moment or two in the context of authors and audience and critics. And what does it mean to set this tale in a desert? Hmm. Or on a Crack’d Pot Trail? Who are the crackpots here?
And though our narrator is a writer, or perhaps because he is a writer, how much can we actually trust him? After all, he tells us he’s traveled in disguise, he calls himself a teller of “magical lies,” and this story is told from a memory garden grown “riotous and overgrown… rich in its fecundity.”
As far as the travelers, well, we certainly get a long, lush info-dump of an introduction to them early on (something I’m guessing most critics not to do). And as usual in these novellas, there are some great name choices in here.
We begin with a bit of mystery—this Dantoc Calmpositis who never leaves her carriage and whose face is never seen. Is this a total stranger? Or is this someone we know as readers of prior works? And what about this footman with his perhaps-soldier’s background, his “wise secrets,” his sundry skills? We’ll need to maybe keep an eye on these two.
Some of the Nehemothanai we’ve met before, speaking of prior tales. Tulgord Vise and Steck Marynd in Blood Follows, while Arpo Relent we haven’t met specifically but we met his type—a Well Knight—in The Healthy Dead. The Chanters of course we saw in Lee of Laughter’s End, and how could you not have wanted to see them again?
A “corpse-strewn trail” behind Bauchelain and Broach comes as no surprise.
Really, how funny is this description of Vise (beside his name): “The pommel of his proud sword is an opal stone any woman could not help but reach out and touch” Or, “All nobility he has granted by his presence he has sired in nine months time.”
And I think we can all remember just how “pure and true” the Well Knight’s city was before the arrival of the two necromancers.
He does like his similes, doesn’t he, our Flicker?
The Host has his own bit of mystery. If the Dantoc’s mystery is her hidden face, the Host’s is his hidden past fame/notoriety—what had he done that made him once infamous? Will we find out?
Tell me this isn’t coming from a writer: “The world of the artists is a warrened maze of weasels… One must dance for fame, one must pull up skirts or wing out carrots for an instants shudder of validation or one more day’s respite from the gnawing world… There is no audience grand and vast enough to devour them all… Every poet and every painter and every bard and every sculptor dreams of murder.” And it doesn’t seem this story will end well (as if we wondered) with the narrator telling us “In tis respect, the authors so gathered in this fell group of travelers found in the truth to come an answer to their most fervent prayers.”
So we’ve got our aged author, bitter at lack of recognition, desperately seeking it, a thief, a man willing to step on all to climb. And we’ve got the young up-and-comer, arrogant, confident, and oh so successfully disguising his true brilliance until just the right moment. Another who cannot sate her desire. And the critic-proclaimed Greatest Poet Ever. Yeah, this will go well…
I do enjoy how our narrator is quick to forestall any thoughts we might have that his “personal failure as a poet” might bias his presentation of these people, in particular the World’s Greatest Poet. Is he being honest, or doth he protest too much?
One has to wonder just about a judge’s acuity when that judge has a mule die of pox, a servant self-asphyxiate himself in a moment of “self-pleasure,” and drinks himself into near death by dehydration in the desert. We appear to not be meeting a prime example of a critic here.
We’ve had a few hints throughout this dense character introduction that things are going to take a turn for the worse with this group, and certainly the end line leaves us with little doubt. I’m thinking this is going to be fun…
Bill Capossere writes short stories, essays and plays; does reviews for the LA Review of Books and Fantasy Literature, as well as for Tor.com; and works as an adjunct English instructor. In his non-writing and reading time, he plays ultimate Frisbee (though less often and more slowly than he used to) and disc golf.