The Devil Delivered and Other Tales by Steven Erikson
I’m a huge fan of Steven Erikson’s massive MALAZAN EMPIRE series, which I consider one of the outstanding works of fantasy in the past few decades. I’m also a fan of his trilogy (Bauchelain and Korbal Broach) of novellas set in that same universe following the two eponymous characters and employing a healthy dose of black humor and satire. His new collection of novellas, The Devil Delivered and Other Tales, has no connection to the Malazan world at all, but does employ humor, satire, and fantasy. Thus I was quite curious to see if my enjoyment would transfer over. My answer, respective to the three stories included, was kind of, not so much, and absolutely.
The first story, which shares the collection’s title, has an eco-apocalyptic setting (the main character wanders the American plains under a deadly hole in the ozone), some cyberpunk action (a fight-the-power battle over internet control of information), a running vision quest (the effects of the aforementioned ozone hole), some hard sci-fi referents (a space elevator), and some social/political criticism involving treatment of Native Americans, gamesmanship among nation-states, and the increase in corporate power. I had mixed feelings while reading “The Devil Delivered.” At times I was utterly enthralled, at others I found it a bit of a struggle to push forward, partly due I think to the abstract nature/motivation of the main character. In fact, if I had to point to the character that had the strongest impact on me emotionally, it just might be a type of mechano referred to as a “turtle.” I liked the premise quite a bit, the entire social-political background, the use of dialogue amongst hacker-types, but these strong points were countered a bit by the above-referenced problem with the main character and some too-on-the-point thematic exposition.
These problems were exacerbated in the second story, “Revolvo,” which was my least favorite by far of the three, though it had its moments. It’s the most nakedly and over-the-top satirical, taking aim especially at government meddling in and funding of the arts. It is wildly inventive and for sheer creativity alone it would rank highly, save the creativity is employed in a manner that felt once again too on the nose and also too often forced. Some of what is thrown into the mix is a man transformed into a giant horned demon, a Saturday Night Massacre assault on art critics, a throwback Neanderthal kidnapping and sometimes eating the locals, and a runaway train. That’s just a sampling. It’s all too much and especially it felt too much brought to bear on a sitting duck of a target. Much of it was too broad for me; I generally prefer my satire more subtle and my humor more witty. I also didn’t care for any of the characters at all. That said, I did enjoy the train subplot and loved the pigeons. As I said, it has its moments.
The final novella, “Fishing with Grandma Matchie,” was easily my favorite, a true standout. Narrated by a young boy (prompted by his being given the usual “What I Did Over the Summer” assignment and the trouble that ensues once he turns it in), it’s a fantastic rollercoaster of a yarn that mixes elements of myth, hero tales, and tall tales in the vein of Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. The plot itself was a great ride, but putting it into the point of view of a child, then placing it solidly in both a domestic setting (a cottage with his father, his mother, his sister, and his — possible imaginary — Grandmother) and a scholastic one (a bear of a teacher, a principal, a school psychiatrist) was sheer brilliance. I also liked how the over-the-top tall tale fantasy was nicely matched by equally strong but quieter, much more realistic moments, as when the boy talks about girls. I don’t want to say much more about it so as not to spoil the pleasure of reading it. And it was true pleasure; I think I had a huge smile plastered on my face throughout the read.
So overall a mixed bag of a response. If I were ranking these stories separately, I’d give the first a weak three out of five, the second a one and a half, and the third a four and a half. Those who don’t mind blunt object satire or more broad humor might react better, especially to that second story. But everyone should give the third one a shot. Personally, I’d love to see more of Grandma Matchie in the future. A lot more.
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