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Book Review: The Healthy Dead by Steven Erikson

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The English language is replete with sayings about how to live our lives. Ranging from “you can never have enough of a good thing” to “everything in moderation”, we seem to have covered all eventualities from hedonism to showing restraint. The problem is of course that not everyone can agree which code is the right one to live by.

The problems causes are legion, especially when one mindset is in the minority and the other forces their lifestyle choice on all around. Seeing as most hedonists are too busy enjoying themselves and their base natures, they don’t usually form a ruling block. More often then not those who end up in charge preach something akin to everything in moderation as it helps to have the majority of the population sober most of the time if you want to get anything done.

But what happens if that desire for good, healthy living itself becomes “you can never have enough of a good thing” and isn’t taken in moderation? While their intentions are perhaps good, you know what they say about Hell and good intentions. At first it’s just a few things, maybe banning intoxicants or ordering everyone on a strict vegetarian diet, but then gradually it gets to the point where they need a special police force to go around enforcing laws and measures become more and more draconian.

It’s a situation like the latter that the people of the very good city of Quaint are dealing with in Steven Erikson’s novella The Healthy Dead. Up until a while back, Quaint had been fairly typical of most city-states in and around the Malazan Empire with a despotic King and an equally venal court where if you wanted anything done it was best to know whose hands to cover in silver, or gold if you could afford it.

Brothels and other house of less than savoury repute did a thriving business among the citizens and there were areas of town that the city watch wouldn’t go in groups of less then a dozen. Things were ticking along fairly normally, in other words, until the King, Necrotus the Nihile, met with the unfortunate accident of his younger brother wanting to be King in his stead.

At first King Macrotus was a welcome relief from his brother with his considerate nature and concern for his citizens’ well-being. But then he started implementing mandatory exercise for all citizens, closing brothels and ale houses, outlawing intoxicants, and proscribing just about anything that could pass for fun. Finally, he sets to work on outlawing all things that kill, because if they can kill, they are unhealthy.

Then he gets it into his head that anybody injured while at work should be made into a saint, and not permitted to work any more, but forced to pray to the Lady of Beneficence, the city’s official and only legal religion. Every aspect of life is dictated by the Will of Wellness, which sets forth laws about everything from babies crying and disturbing the well-being of others, and the banning of medicines because they are alcohol-based.

For the citizens of Quaint desperate to see changes for the worse in their city, there could be no better opportunity than the one parked outside their city walls. Everyone’s favourite Necromancers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, along with their erstwhile manservant Emancipator Reece, have set up camp. Having left the last town they visited in ruins, they have decided on exercising a little restraint by circumventing Quaint on the way to hiring a boat to sail to somewhere else, preferably somewhere an army isn’t chasing them.

It’s at that point that two blessed saints step out of the bushes with a chest of gold to ask for the type of assistance that only necromancers are able to accomplish. You know, a little raising of the dead, some demon summoning; the usual stuff that makes the blood run cold. This is a rather a unique experience for the two necromancers, to be the ones asked for assistance, as people are usually petitioning wizards and the such to run them out of town.

Bauchelain points out very wisely to his manservant that any tyranny is possible when prefaced by idea that what is being done is for the good of the people. It’s very hard, if not impossible, for anyone to complain without seeming like an ingrate, being branded the worse kind of social misfit, or even an enemy of the people.

As to be expected with a book featuring necromancers in the lead roles, The Healthy Dead is filled with a mixture of dark humour and bodies in various states of decomposition. Even the former King gets involved when the boys free him from the spike that’s been used to affix him as an adornment to the walls of the city. Naturally, he’s a bit upset when he figures out that his brother poisoned him and he eventually falls to pieces – litterally. But that’s okay because Bauchelain has a perfect glass container to hold his head in and just knows it will be good in the study.

In his other books, you can hear that Erikson has a good ear for comedy and in this novel he puts it to good use. The undead say and do the darndest things sometimes and Erikson brings them to life – so to speak – with an amazing eye and ear for detail, from their physical descriptions to their arguments with their living relatives. There’s nothing quite like hearing a family member come back from the dead to tell a son, or niece just what they really thought of them.

The Healthy Dead is a darkly humorous satire that is a delight and joy to read. The logic of hiring incredibly evil men to save your city from an excess of “goodness” is inescapable. What does it matter at times like these that one of them collects live human organs and binds them together with magic and tries to animate them as his children when you are living under the regime of terror like the people of Quaint are experiencing? Not much I’d say – you take your friends where you can find them in those circumstances and hope they don’t stay around for too long after the job is done.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.