In the constant struggle of good against evil there are occasions when those who ally themselves on the side of the angels are forced by circumstances into acts which would see them condemned as evil themselves if it wasn't for the sacred nature of their mission. For those unenlightened enough to hold paragons of virtue to the same standards as the rest of the great unwashed it would in fact appear that occasionally there is no difference to be found between those combating evil and the evil doers themselves. However, to those narrow minded and self-righteous individuals who have made it their goal to scour the world of evil by any means necessary, the ends will always justify the means, no matter how abhorrent those means might seem to the naive and simplistic unable to see the big picture.
The hand that wields the sword of purity can not be swayed by such trivialities as sentiment, nor can it be judged by the same standards to which others are held to. Would you ask the angels to explain themselves as they went about their business? How could anyone expect those blinded by the bright light of goodness to see beyond their own narrow focus to the extent that they be forced to consider the consequences of their actions? Self appointed guardians of morality, especially when heavily armed, need not answer to anyone, not even their own consciences, supported as they are by the certainty of their own superiority to all those surrounding them.
In fact, would you not say it was a sign of their saintliness, that they will unwaveringly commit atrocities in their quest to combat the forces of evil? Would you have the fortitude, the strength of character, to make the decision to eat your companions in order to ensure the completion of your task? It's not just anybody who can look around themselves and judge others worthy of being the fodder that will keep them strong in pursuit of evil. If you would witness such strength in action, than step onto the Crack'd Pot Trail, Steven Erikson's latest release from England's PS Publishing concerning the travails and travels of the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. These two personifications of evil have swept like a scythe threw the known world, leaving behind them piles of bodies and acres of sin. Needless to say they've also managed to outrage the forces of decency and good everywhere they've travelled and now find themselves pursued by those dedicated to the sole task of wiping them from the face of the earth - the Nehemothanai.
Those familiar with any of the previous instalments involving Korbal Broach and Bauchelain will recognize some of the names hot on their tails - Mortal Sword Tulgord Vise from Blood Follows and Well Knight Arpo Relent from The Healthy Dead, and they are joined by the equally redoubtable Steck Marynd and the three Chanter brothers in their quest to exact vengeance on the necromancer duo for their foul deeds against goodness and decency.
It's on the pilgrim path, the Crack'd Pot Trial, that we meet up with the heroes and the others making the trek through the harsh wasteland laying between the Gates of Nowhere and the Shrine of the Indifferent God. Aside from the above named there are amongst them are a mysterious noble woman who remains enclosed within her carriage the whole time, her manservant, a rag-tag collection of poets making their way to attend the Festival of Flowers and Sunny Days to vie for title of "The Century's Greatest Artist" awarded there each year, and one Sardic Thew who proclaims himself to be host of this erstwhile band of travellers.
According to the narration provided by one Avas Didion Flicker, under normal circumstances the trek across the desolate Great Dry would take twenty-three days and is eased by springs of fresh water and the welcoming camps of those called the Finders. Alas for our poor pilgrims, for the wells are fouled, the springs muddied, and the camps are all deserted this year. So the twenty-third day finds them barely half-way to their destination and their supplies depleted. It's the eldest of the Chanter brothers, the inaptly named Tiny (supposedly the result of his mother's tryst with a bear) who hits upon the solution of ensuring the Nehemothanai are fed by having the poets sing not to be supper. Each day the poets will strive to entertain the rest of the party and the first who fails to amuse will be slaughtered to feed the rest.
Those horses among the company are needed by our champions in their pursuit of Korbal Broach and Bauchelain, and you can't deny nobility their carriage so the noblewoman's mules are sacrosanct, therefore the poets are the only bodies going spare. Besides, as is so aptly pointed out by the Well Knight, poets are known for their licentious behaviour and for inciting subversive thoughts that would not tolerated in a moral society. Anyway, if they aren't capable of entertaining, they serve no useful function and might as well do something of service and keep their companions alive.
Erikson's rather perverse and twisted take on Chaucer's Caterbury Tales differs from the original model in that not everybody is on the tale telling, and rather more is at stake with the tales than just whiling away the hours. In fact as readers we only ever hear two of the tales told in full, for on most occasions the poet who starts doesn't get a chance to finish before one or more critics decides to curtail their performance.
The two tales we do here in full are the ones told by our narrator and he uses both to manipulate events on the journey to keep himself alive, proving that words can be as deadly a weapon as anything. However, as the pillars of virtue who made this competition a necessity are shown to exercise authority not because they hold some sort of moral high ground, but because their might makes them right, we can't help but applaud his efforts to stay alive.
As is usual with Erikson there is more going on than meets the eye within Crack'd Pot Trail, as there are some carefully hidden agendas being plied beneath the surface. However what makes Erikson such a skilled story teller is his ability to gradually reveal what's going on through his characters and the events. He might supply us with a few diversions like an undead corpse joining the pilgrimage, but he doesn't allow them to confuse the issue or steal too much of our focus so we lose track of the real story. The characters in the story, whether old friends from previous stories or brand new, are sketched in rather broad strokes by our narrator, but we don't require more than those few lines to understand their motivations so it is more than enough.
Crack'd Pot Trail is a great piece of social satire which takes no prisoners. From the pompous poets who proclaim their greatness only to be revealed as thieves who've never written an original thought in their lives, to the warriors against evil who don't have a problem with forcing their companions to compete against each other in order to avoid being eaten. By the end of the story the so called villains of the piece come out looking a lot better than their reputations would have you think when compared with those who hunt them and the reader is left to ponder the exact nature of good and evil.
(Originally posted December 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.