Thursday, March 08, 2012

Review: Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont

Ian C. Esslemont and Steven Erikson co-created the Malazan universe, where Erikson has completed a massive 10-volume series of which I am a huge fan. Esslemont has supplemented Erikson’s series with three previous books and now with Orb Sceptre Throne (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) being the fourth. Esslemont has two more forthcoming books in the Malazan world that should function as a sort of extended epilogue to Erikson’s series (the next being Blood and Bone possibly coming in late 2012 o early 2013, Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), Erikson has two more trilogies planned, with one set millennia before events in the main series (it’s first book The Forge of Darkness is coming in August, 2012, Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) and the second set after the events in the main series. Erikson has also written a number of novellas set in the world for extra kicks.

Orb Sceptre Throne is set right around the time of the events in The Crippled God (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, my review) and most directly follows the events of Toll the Hounds (BookDepository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, my review), and good familiarity with Gardens of the Moon (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) and Memories of Ice (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) will help. However, some of arcs of Orb Sceptre Throne also directly follow events in Stonewielder (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, my review) and Return of the Crimson Guard (BookDepository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, my review) and there are always references to people and events from all of the books set in the Malazan world – Orb Screptre Throne even features a cameo of sorts from the stars of Erikson’s novellas.

Confused yet?

It’s a complicated situation with story arcs dropped by one author and picked up by the other, a huge cast of characters often with slightly differing interpretations from each author and a few other inconsistencies thrown into the mix. This confused complexity of the Malazan world and its creators provides the appropriate backdrop for introducing Malazan’s latest entry, Orb Sceptre Throne (for better and worse). Of course if you are already a Malazan fan (and you probably are if you’re reading this review), then you probably know all of this and likely don’t find it so confusing. And this is equally apropos because Orb Sceptre Throne is both a confused mess and the next great fix for Malazan fans.

What it all simmers down to is this: Orb Sceptre Throne is a mediocre book in the Malazan world, however it is filled with juicy bits that fans will enjoy and it provides a few answers and a fair bit of set-up for the epilogue that Esslemont is writing for Erikson’s series.

Forget the plot summary – there’s a description that captures some of it on the back of the book, but more importantly, even briefly summarizing all of the different arcs of Orb Sceptre Throne would take a couple thousand words (only a slight exaggeration). And therein lies what is probably the biggest problem with the book – there are too many stories being told at once. This causes a bit of confusion and prevents a focused narrative from ever developing. This is hardly a new criticism for books in the Malazan world – both Erikson and Esslemont are guilty of this elsewhere. But with Erikson, there are always thematic threads that bind the various arcs together and bring a focus of sorts. Esslemont’s writing largely lacks the thematic depth, leaving things far too unfocused.

Another problem holding back Esslemont’s writing is his caginess. Yes, subtlety plays an important part in writing, information must be withheld to maintain interest and suspense, and not every arc can or should come to a complete resolution. However, Esslemont tends to take things too far, which results in more confusion and frustration and brings us to what is the other biggest problem in the book – the apparent lack of an end game.

Even the most die-hard Malazan fans (such as myself) are probably asking what is the end game? Where is Esslemont going with these books? Again, this is a common issue in Malazan, and I believe an intentional one. For example – what Malazan fan after reading the first 5 books in the series actually had an idea of where Erikson was going with things? My guess – none, and fans were loving the wild ride. But once again, Esslemont takes this important aspect of the overall concept of the Malazan books too far, reversing its effectiveness.

So far I’ve been all bad and no good – well, there is plenty of good to be had. But make no mistake, this good is for the fans (after all, it is essentially book 14 of a 16 book series). The fans get more Bridgeburner action – those few remaining survivors lie at the heart of this one. The Seguleh come alive and we see what they can do. Dassem and Caladran Brood are around, and some of those key people we first met way back in Gardens of the Moon are back in action. We get a creation story for the world of Wu and the fallout from the convergence at this end of this book should have some big implications to come. And there is ever-present aspect of Esslemont’s writing that fans either love or hate – the relative lack of philosophical musings that Erikson populates his books with.

Ultimately, Orb Sceptre Throne is a book only a fan could love – and that’s just fine. I consider it one of the lesser volumes in the Malazan world, but there is enough of a fix to keep us fans up until we get the next installment. Due to a few conversations I’ve been privy to over the years, I think I’ve got an idea of where Esslemont is going with all this. I just hope he’s up to it because I think that ending could rival Erikson’s.

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