FANTASY HAS MANY varieties and as many audiences. In The Devil Delivered and Other Tales, Steven Erikson, best known for his multi-volume, wizards-and-battles epic, the “Malazon Book of the Fallen,” tries his hand at three other forms of the fantastic — or perhaps it’s six, since each is a generic chimera. The three novellas gathered here are, first, the title story, which combines a Native American vision quest with a cyberpunkish eco-catastrophe; second, “Revolvo,” in which an interlocking cast of characters undergo Kafkaesque metaphorphoses in a violent satire on the Canadian arts scene; and, third, “Fishing with Grandma Matchie,” a tall tale with a young-adult feel that turns out to be a retelling of Nordic mythology. There is much to admire here, including the creation of three quite different storytelling styles and enough invention to fill at least three volumes. As an omnivorous reader of many of the branches of fantasy, I expected to enjoy these stories more than I actually did. In fact, it was difficult to keep going at least through the first two: it was like trying to walk against the current in a fast river. I’ll attempt to identify some of the sources of that resistance, though no doubt my difficulties say as much about me as they do about Erikson’s writing.
I should admit up front that epic fantasy is not my favorite form. I’m generally bored by battle scenes and Machiavellian politics, and the kind of magic involved in those battles rings false to me in terms of both its symbolic value and its fidelity to the oral traditions from which fantasy draws its inspiration. I get impatient with writers who won’t wind up a plot at least within the span of a trilogy—it appears that ten installments are the new three. All of this means that I would be a terrible reviewer of the volumes of Erikson’s longer saga. I do, however, appreciate tall tales, apocalyptic science fiction, satiric grotesquery, and the other forms invoked in these three novellas. I like to see the world through the various distorting lenses of the fantastic, and I’m a sucker for mythic references. So why did the complex and elusive science fantasy of “The Devil Delivered” not draw me in, and why did the satire in “Revolvo” fall flat?
In the latter case, the primary target, public funding for the arts, hardly seems worth the brutality of the narrative. The plot of “Revolvo” involves a would-be sculptor who meets up with various caricatures, including a petty-despot Minister of Art and Culture, a self-absorbed poet, and various other bureaucrats and performance artists, all with dismissive names like Brandon Safeword and Annie Trollop. In other subplots, a man self-diagnosed with a “national ulcer ... something representational of high unemployment, declining social services, hiring inequities, escalating prices, and so on” gradually transforms into a horned demon; a Neanderthal throwback hunts the streets of the city; and a pet octopus alien escapes from its tank to rendezvous with a flying saucer. Scenes of increasing mayhem ensue: the demon-man goes King Kong and abducts a woman named Faye; the Minister is impaled by a vengeful pigeon; a runaway train plows through the city; and the poet guns down a crowd of critics “in a messy expostulation of flesh, bone, blood, guts and a few bits of brain, along with upholstery and clothing, bits and pieces of shoes and notepads and rotten tomatoes prev...read more