If, like me, you are an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction you'll know that the majority of the titles are escapist fiction with no pretences to being works of significant literature. Don't get me wrong, that's one of the reasons I love the genre. In fact I believe the world could do with a lot more of that type of writing rather than the current trend towards reality or daytime talk show fodder that seems to be flooding the market.
With few exceptions, anytime science fiction or fantasy starts to take itself too seriously it merely sounds pretentious. I mean outside of Trekkies does anyone really think that Star Trek has added anything of profound significance to our culture? The writers who do succeed in creating something of lasting impact only do so because instead of trying to be significant they find ways to realize the full potential of their genre.
Various writers have taken stabs at creating the unique reality concept, a la Tolkien, where you create a world and an accompanying history, with varying degrees of success. It just seems that there's always something missing from their attempts. You can create as many characters as you want and say that their adventures all take place in the same world, but if you haven't established the world sufficiently for it to be as tangible as ours you might as well not have bothered.
One of the few modern writers who have managed to achieve this goal has been Steven Erikson with his creation The Malazan Book Of The Fallen. The series currently stands at book seven of a proposed ten volumes and has already surpassed any other efforts at attempting something similar. Civilizations, races of people, cultures, belief systems and all the other attributes of a living breathing world have been realized in such a manner that the information is imparted to the reader almost without their awareness.
Characters ranging from a foot soldier in an imperial army to gods and goddesses with human foibles all share the same pages, and as their stories unfold, the mysteries of the world are revealed and its history is told. Erikson has done his job so well that another author, with Erikson's full knowledge and co-operation, has begun work on titles set in the same world (the recently released Night Of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont).
But this will not be the first time that a book set aside from the main action of The Malazan Book Of The Fallen has been written. In book three of the series Memories of Ice, readers were introduced to a pair of particularly unlovely, but somehow humorous necromancers named Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. Accompanied by their manservant Emancipor Reece, they move from town to town one step ahead of the law and leaving a trail of disemboweled bodies in their wake.
For those of us who had wondered how Emancipor Reece ended up in the company of such vile customers as Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, Erikson wrote the novella Blood Follows in 2002, where we meet the ill fated Reece. He's run into a patch of bad luck in terms of employment as all his employers have taken to dropping dead. The most recent of the lot has fallen victim to the killer, who is plaguing the city of Lamentable Moll on the island of Theft.
Even for the inhabitants of a city with that name Reece's luck would be considered abysmal were it not for the fact that no one cared and that there were others with even worse luck — the victims of the night murder, for example. Not content with simply killing his prey, the killer also removes various organs he seems to be collecting for purposes its better not to think about.
When we enter the story, the killer's tally has reached eleven in eleven nights, and all the victims have some connection to the nobility. Sergeant Guld, of the city guard, is starting to feel the pressure of an investigation going nowhere and the realization that if he doesn't get results soon it will be his neck on the block just to keep the surviving nobles off the King's back.
By chance, both Guld and Reece are directed to the same help wanted noticed pinned up in a city square. Emancipor being unemployed, and desperate to appease the wife, is interested in the opportunity offered by the notice to keep the wolves from his door. The sergeant, on the other hand, wonders who would put a spell on a help wanted notice that would kill anybody stealing it. True it would discourage thieves, but how many would want to work for people testy enough to kill over the theft of a help wanted ad?
The who-done-it aspect of this story is almost inconsequential; as it's pretty much a foregone conclusion from the moment we are introduced to the character of Bauchelain. The fun is in how Steven Erikson unfolds the story and fills out the characters of Bauchelain and Reece, who had minor roles in Memories Of Ice. Never has the face of evil presented such a reasonable mien as that of Bauchelain.
His concern for the well being of others, especially that of his new manservant, makes him seem far and beyond the most considerate person of any of the characters in the story. But in spite of this, there is always something about him that suggests the evil lurking below his veneer of cultured politeness.
The Reece we meet in Blood Follows is not the wreck of a man we saw in Memories Of Ice. True he's not the smartest of folk, but that doesn't mean he's lacking in self-respect or native cunning. But there's only so many horrors that a man can take, and a peak at Korbal Broach's attempt at begetting with the organs he's gathered would ruin a person with twice the strength of Reece.
While this little side trip into another territory in the world where the Malazan Empire is known makes only passing reference to events outside the island city of Lamentable Moll, there is no other world it could possibly be. Steven Erikson's talent for establishing its distinguishing characteristics; the pantheon of God's and Goddesses, the manner of speech, accepted practices, character types, and the atmosphere in general is such that those familiar with The Malazan Book Of The Fallen will have no trouble recognizing the place.
Hearing familiar phrases spoken, and references made that are recognizable because of our knowledge of the world the story takes place in, is one of the things that makes this book so enjoyable. Like watching a movie that was shot in your hometown and seeing friendly landmarks in a different context, Blood Follows has a wonderful sense of the familiar while being a brand new experience.