The Healthy Dead by Steven Erikson is a novella taking place in the world of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. This epic fantasy series currently contains 8 books and is supposed to end up 10 volumes long (although there are supposed to be more books written in the world after that). There are other novels related to the series written by Ian Cameron Esslemont, who created the world with Erikson. In addition to the novels, there are 2 other novellas, Blood Follows (review) and The Lees of Laughter’s End.
As is the case with the other Malazan novellas, The Healthy Dead is a story about the adventures of the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach and their manservant Emancipor Reese, who are introduced in the third book in the series Memories of Ice. It takes place after Blood Follows, but it is a self-contained, darkly humorous story and could be read as a stand alone book. However, since Blood Follows does include the rather amusing story of how Reese came to work for his employers, I’d recommend reading that one first.
After causing chaos in their last destination, Bauchelain, Korbal Broach, and Reese arrive in the remote city of Quaint, where they are offered money by two Saints of Glorious Labor to remove their king from power. King Macrotus the Overwhelmingly Considerate is far worse than his corrupt brother was – he has made “good living” the law of the land. Alcohol and drug use, red meat, and gambling are outlawed and exercise regiments are required. Those who lead a healthy life are displayed in a place of honor after death but those who die unhealthy are hung along the city wall. The two saints would prefer the straightforward usual abuse of power, in which they were mostly left alone as long as they didn’t harm anyone too important and a good bribe could solve many problems.
Bauchelain is very much tempted by this challenge, particularly because this zeal for goodness will have dire consequences, as he explains to Reese:
Desire for goodness, Mister Reese, leads to earnestness. Earnestness, in turn, leads to sanctimonious self-righteousness, which breeds intolerance, upon which harsh judgment quickly follows, yielding dire punishment, inflicting general terror and paranoia, eventually culminating in revolt, leading to chaos, then dissolution, and thus, the end of civilisation.
Bauchelain finds the ethics of this situation intrigues him and decides to help. Therefore, he enlists Korbal Broach to employ his necromantic skills of resurrection and sends Reese into the city, where he infiltrates the religious order by posing as the prophesied first Saint of Glorious Labor. One way or another, they will restore corruption and civilization to the city!
Unlike the usual tomes written in the series, The Healthy Dead is a quick read at 128 pages with large print and some illustrations. I read it in a little over an hour and I am not at all a fast reader. Without the bloat accompanying the typical Malazan novel, this was a stronger work than the novels in the series I have read. It is straightforward and not a word is wasted. The dialogue is humorous and I thought this novella was more entertaining with a better sense of dark humor than its predecessor Blood Follows, particularly when combined with an illustration of the danger of any extreme, no matter how well-meaning.
The society was well-developed and intriguing without containing pages and pages of backstory and history. Many fantasy authors have written about the all-powerful corrupt ruler, and reading about the problems caused by a ruler who took goodness to a tyrannical extreme was an interesting change of pace. King Macrotus may have had good intentions, but restricting his people for their own good did not endear him to anyone.
The Healthy Dead is an entertaining, humorous novel about a city doomed by its leader’s obsession with good living. Out of all the Malazan books I have read, this one is easily my favorite.
Reviews of other books in this series: