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The Wurms of Blearmouth
by Steven Erikson
Tor, $24.99, 208pp
Publication Date: July 8, 2014
Steven Erikson is a new name to me, though he's built a powerful presence in the fantasy world over the last fifteen years.

His magnum opus, 'The Malazan Book of the Fallen', currently encompasses ten novels, five novellas and two books in an associated trilogy. 'The Wurms of Blearmouth' is the latest of the novellas, released in 2012, though there's at least one more to come. Counted together, the series has sold over a million copies and accumulated a wealth of awards and nominations. No less a name in fantasy than Stephen R. Donaldson is an effusive fan.

Even without knowing any of the surely substantial background recounted in previous volumes, I enjoyed this book considerably, though perhaps not in the way that Erikson might have intended.

The Malazan novellas are supposedly aimed at building a storyline around three characters introduced in the third Malazan novel, 'Memories of Ice'. Two are highlighted in the subtitle, "A Malazan Tale of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach"; the third is their servant, Emancipor Reese. I say 'supposedly' because these characters are perhaps the least notable in the entire book, floating through it as if they were supporting players serving only to link the piece to its companions. I wonder why.

Research tells me that Bauchelain is a man of mystery, a scholar and summoner, while Korbal Broach is a necromancer and eunuch. Not all of these attributes are apparent here, as the ship upon which they're travelling crashes into the wrecker's coast outside the town of Spendrugle . They make their way to the castle above it, occupied by a sadistic wizard, and do what you might expect heroes to do, if not in any of the ways you might imagine.

From what little I can gather here, I don't believe that they're heroes, or even anti-heroes; they're merely the characters who link these tales, breezing in and out of them as they see fit, seemingly almost oblivious to the world around them, and they're not in this book enough for me to say much more. How they fit into the wider story encompassed by this series of novellas, I have no idea, but I'd hope that those other books contain more of them than this one does.

My enjoyment ended up sourced less from these and more from other characters, many of whom are presumably new to this book and given supporting roles that are fleshed out surprisingly well, seizing the attention that we find we don't focus on Bauchelain and Korbal Broach.

The book's blurb highlights a few of these enticingly:  the man who should have stayed dead, the woman whose prayers should never have been answered, the tax collector everyone ignores, the ex-husband town militiaman who never married, the beachcomber who lives in his own beard, and the now singular lizard cat who used to be plural, and the girl who likes to pee in your lap.'

I'm not so sure of the last of these, the quirkiness of Felittle doing little for the story. The remainder of the cast are all thoroughly interesting though, right down to their enticingly tactile names: Hordilo Stinq, Ackle the Risen, Whuffine Gaggs or Spilgit Purrble. All their little impossibilities are explained neatly but leisurely as they're woven into the surreal tapestry that is the town of Spendrugle .

This town is an especially well-drawn place for a 200-page novella, one painted in mud, blood and the salty waves that continually bring in new victims, who may or may not fall to their predations. Many deserve to, while others are magnetic enough for us to wish them to join the ensemble cast of eccentrics with their plentiful hidden backstories.

It's a shame that neither Spendrugle nor many of its unique occupants are likely to appear in another Malazan book, given what goes down before we run out of pages, but Erikson is known for breaking rules. Just because we might become enthralled by some of his characters doesn't mean that he can't kill them off at a moment's notice, because he'll do just that. And maybe he'll bring them back again afterwards. You can be sure of the unexpected, if nothing else.

And it's this heady combination of character depth, quirkiness and the unexpected that makes 'The Wurms of Blearmouth' a wild and involving read. I may not have learned much at all about its supposed leads, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, nor much more about their servant, Mancy, but I did at least discover that I'd very much like to read more Malazan and more Erikson. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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