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 continue 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 Three
Next to sing is Calap Roud, who seems to not be doing so well with the stress. He turns to “the brazen theft of the words of great but obscure artists,” a number of which he is familiar with, in part because he has purposely kept them obscure. He begins a tale of long ago, with an Imass woman slowly dying, having been exiled by her family. Flicker recognizes the tale as belonging to Stenla Tebur of Aren, who died of consumption at a relatively young age, thanks to alcohol and d’bayang, “for such are the lures of insensate escape to the tormented artist that rare is the one who deftly avoids such fatal traps.” As Calap continues, Sellup interrupts to ask why the Imass was so cruelly exiled (much to the dismay of the Entourage and Nifty Gum, who see her interest as betrayal). Calap tells her she’ll find out, but she complains he’s already gone on too long; she wants some action. As the Entourage and Nifty nod in agreement, Flicker complains about his youthful desire for speed and lack of depth. Calap goes on with a flashback describing the Imass camp and after lots of detail is interrupted again by Sellup: “Get on with it!… It was a stupid camp. That’s all. I want to know what’s going to happen. Now!” Calap just nods, following the rule of never arguing with one’s audience, though Flicker notes he’d qualify that dependent on if the audience member is “obnoxious, uninformed, dim, insulting, a snob, or drunk,” in which case they deserve whatever savaging the author gives them.
Calap continues with the tale, of how the Imass were dying in the bad winter, with the eldest walking off to die to help save the youngest and the children eating their blankets. The woman Imass was the first to see the stranger approach, carrying a greatsword and dragging a sled behind him with what appears to be a body on it. She knows her people could not turn away a stranger, even in such desperate time, but fears trying to feed him (especially due to his size) and perhaps another if that body were alive. Just as potentially bad, if the body were a corpse, the warrior would be bringing a curse to the Imass. Sellup asks what kind of curse, and when Calap has no answer, Flicker intervenes, explaining that death leaves a camp; it should not be brought into one. If that happens, the hosts are cursed and have to appease “The Reaver and his demon slaves” so that Death doesn’t decide he likes the camp enough to stick around. Sellup doesn’t get it, so Flicker explains it’s a spiritual rule based on a pragmatic secular idea—don’t bring the dead into contact with the living so as to avoid contagion.
Calap moves on, describing how the warrior was a Fen and bore wounds of battle. Just as the warrior is about to speak, Tiny interrupts and says he’s too sleepy to hear anymore. Vise says they can’t just stop mid-story; they need to vote. But Tiny says they can hear the rest tomorrow. Oggle objects she wants to hear Nifty’s story, so they decide they’ll do it during the day. Arpo Relent complains it’s still early, so Purse Snippet says she’ll tell a story. The host exclaims they’d all agreed she needn’t, but she talks him down and begins by saying she isn’t good with words, so they should give her a break if she stumbles.
Snippet begins with a description of a woman “loved and worshipped by so many,” which she takes pains to point out was not a dancer, poet, or singer. Her character is a woman who feels her life if already laid out before her—she would be adored like art by her upper class husband, at least until age robbed her of what he loved—her beauty. She would be wealthy, clothed in silk. She would have children. As Snippet speaks, Nifty looks at her “as if seeking to understand something.” As Snippet tells how the woman could not lover herself, see her own inner beauty as others saw her external beauty, then explains how one may have an internal, lonely quest, Oggle complains that:
You can’t have quests without mountain passes and dangerous rivers to cross, and ogres, and demons and wolves and bats. And there’s supposed to be friends of the hero who go along and fight and stuff, and get into trouble so the hero has to save the. Everyone knows that.
Apto tells Oggle to shut up, and as Snippet continues describing the woman’s internal war, her despair, the others are drawn in. Someone (Flicker wonders in memory if it might have been him) says, “Had she said but a single word, a thousand heroes would have rushed to her air. A thousand paths of love to lead her out of that place.” And both Tulgord Vise and Arpo Relent pledge a knight’s response to this “fair damsel in deepest distress,” then spar over who gets to be the knight (because there can only of course be one knight, or one main one and an “other knight”).
Snippet continues, explaining how the woman believed the gods placed a spark in every soul, one which only lasted as long as the flesh, making what we do in and with our lives all the more important. The woman determines to “find that spark… scoured clean, enlivened to such a bright fire that all flaws simply burned away.” Snippet wonders “what manner this journey, what landscape,” and turns to Flicker to “assemble the scene for my poor tale.” Flicker picks up the tale, telling the audience to “imagine a vast plain, broken and littered, starved of water and bare of animals. She travels alone and yet in company… she hides behind veils, curtains of privacy” as she and the others travel toward a river upon whose shores “waits redemption.” He adds that among her company are knights vowed to “rid the world of the unseemly,” in particular, “two foul sorcerers.” As he continues to pain the obvious parallel, Steck Marynd interrupts, saying Flicker is drawing “too close, and I like it not.” Nifty argues Flicker’s setting lacked imagination and introduces his own deepening of Snippet’s tale: the woman (now daughter to a king) lived on a fjord below mountains where a new-born dragon has just hatched and is now laying waste to the king’s longhouse. When Nifty says, “Then came the night,” Tulgord Vise is confused, hearing “Knight” instead. Nifty continues, but is interrupted again by Apto’s pragmatic realism, as he points out that the dragon spawn should be “neck deep in piss and shit.” Brash agrees with the criticism, pointing out, “You need to explain things like that. The details got to make sense.” Nifty responds, “Magic answers,” and tries to go on, but is shut down and Snippet chooses Flicker to continue her tale.
She asks if the hunters are any closer to their quarry “than any might imagine,” and Flicker answers, “Many are the stratagems of the hunted… So who can say?” They are interrupted when Steck notices an anxious Ambertroshin and asks him what the problem is. Ambertroshin says he’s going to be sick. Brash jokes that Ordig was “sour,” and Steck stomps off muttering. Flicker continues his story, describing the knights as stout punishers of those who “threatened the very foundation of civilization,” and then describing civilization as, “wealth for the chosen, privilege for the wealthy, countless choices for the privileged.” Without civilization, the world is left with “barbarism. Absurd delusions of equality, generous distribution of wealth… deemed chaotic and terrible by the sentinels of civilization,” who are “guardians of property more often than not their own.” The hunted, the two nefarious sorcerers who have no care for civilization, are therefore seen as “an affront and a most insistent source of indignation.” The two knights love this, while those a bit wiser, such as Purse Snippet, smile at what Flicker is doing.
Flicker finishes with the Knights for now and turning to the pilgrims, says simply that those looking for the god’s attention “are as empty vessels believing themselves incomplete unless filled, and that said fulfillment is, for some reason, deemed to be the gift given by some blessed hand not their own.” When he expands on the idea, calling faith “happy servitude to an unknown but infinitely presumptuous cause… Anyone can fill silence with voices… We are most eager inventors,” Ambertroshin says Flicker appears to be suggesting “that religious conviction consists of elaborate self-delusion.” Flicker replies not quite, as he thinks it probably starts with someone else, “a priest or priestess, the written words of the same, telling them first… If all are lost, the first to shout he or she has found something will be as a lodestone” though he points out that person could just be lying, crazy, or a con artist. Ambertroshin says Flicker must truly “walk a wasteland” thanks to his cynicism and non-belief.
Tulgord Vise tells the old man to shut up, he’s just confusing things and preventing Flicker from “giving voice to the evil whispers seeking ill of our heroes.” After all, he says, with the noble knights and the pious pilgrims, it’s time for someone “diabolical” to be revealed within the party. He commands Flicker to continue “for his life.” Flicker, however, says with the Chanter’s sleeping (and snoring away), they really don’t have a quorum for a vote. He asks Snippet if she can be patient, and when she asks if he “promises redemption,” he says yes (twice). Apto then tells Flicker his fate is dependent “solely on Purse Snippet’s judgment. Should you achieve redemption of the woman in her tale, your life is secured.” Though he warns Flicker that if Snippet at any point thinks he is “padding” the narrative, that will be it for Flicker. Calap Roud, however, strenuously objects, arguing that Snippet is too full of mercy and compassion and this is some trick of Flicker’s to stay alive. He then suggests perhaps the two of them—Snippet and Flicker—are working together. This seems to offend Snippet, who tells him she has performed for her own life before “fickle tyrants” and there is no way she would lie: “Avas Didion Flicker chooses—if he dares—the deadliest of courses in the days ahead.” Flicker accepts.
One has to wonder if Erikson has anyone in particular (several anyones?) in mind with the lines about how “It is of course the task of average talents to utterly destroy their betters.”
Then of course we have the nod to the old cliché of the “tortured artist” (“tormented artist” in our narrator’s words) and their downward spiral into drugs and drink after their failure to gain “legitimacy,” guarded so fervently and jealously by “legions of jaded mediocrities and coddled luminaries.”
I’m assuming most people following the reread of this novella have already read the larger Malazan series (if you haven’t, rectify that immediately), which means I also am assuming we’re all laughing together at the complaints about Calap’s story getting bogged down in details and description:
- “I don’t like long stories. Where’s the action? You’ve already gone on too long!”
- “Get on with it!… It was a stupid camp. That’s all. I want to know what’s going to happen! Now!”
- “I’m falling asleep.”
You absolutely know our author (not our narrator, our author) has had years of hearing these complaints. From readers (or attempted readers) for sure. Maybe (probably) from critics. Perhaps from early agents/publishers. And then we get Oggle standing in for another kind of audience (though surely there’s some overlap) — the readers who have their vision of what fantasy “is”, or at least “epic” or “quest” fantasy, and need all those boxes checked off: Ogres. Check. Mountains. Check. Plucky band of overmatched friends who get in trouble. Check.
Of course, Erikson may just as easily be mocking those authors who think those are the “rules” of the genre. Just as he is certainly mocking those writers who allow magic to, well, “magically” solve all problems when he has Nifty respond to his critics with, “Magic answers,” as if that’s all that need be said about anything.
This is part of the joy of Crack’d Pot Trail—Erikson gets to play it so many ways. He gets to have fun with the faux epic high style and other writerly faults, tweak his (or somebody’s) reading audience, and also ding his critics. This had to be so much fun to write.
It’s impossible not to laugh at the two knights lapping up Flicker’s seeming “flattery” of their noble selflessness even as he so brutally mocks them.
So we’re nearly a third of the way into the novella, and we have yet to see our erstwhile “heroes,” though they’re obviously cropping up in conversation. I like what Erikson does here when he has Purse Snippet ask Flicker if in his tale (so closely a parallel to their “real” lives) the hunters might be closer than they imagine to their prey. When Flicker replies that those dastardly sorcerers are so clever, who knows how close they are, it can’t help bur raise the suspicions and anticipation of the reader. Are they about to arrive on scene? Are they already there magically concealed? Is there a crow flying overhead? What about that mysterious figure in the carriage, the one that we have yet to see? A question that raises its head not too much later when Vise suggests there is someone “diabolical” amongst the party in Flicker’s tale. So, is this a hint to the reader? A foreshadow? Or is it poking fun at that old trope of a group of alleged “fellow” travelers with one suddenly pulling off his/her mask and revealing him/herself to be the son/daughter of the one they’d all wronged years ago, and now, now they’ll all get what’s been coming to them, you’ll see, all of you will die, die horribly, die die die!
You can tell this is an Erikson story when we take a turn toward a philosophical discussion between characters as to the merits or not of religion. Which is of course not only thought-provoking, but also quite funny, given the complaints not all that long ago of authors who don’t “get to the action!” but instead veer off into these sort of tangents.
So, how will Flicker provide “redemption”? Will he?
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.