Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont

Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is arguably the most exciting on-going series in epic fantasy. Less known is that Erikson had help when creating the Malazan world from his long-time friend Ian C. Esslemont. As co-creator, Esslemont has his own tales to tell, related to yet somewhat apart from Erikson’s main series. His first entry in the Malazan world was Night of Knives (US, UK, Canada), the tale of one night in Malaz and one of the most exciting convergences of power we’ve seen yet. Return of the Crimson Guard (US, UK, Canada) is Esslemont’s second entry, falling in the time between Erikson’s seventh and eighth books – Reaper’s Gale (US, UK, Canada) and Toll the Hounds (US, UK, Canada), respectively.

Due in part to overextension, the Malazan Empire fades from the glory of its founders in the hands of the current empress, Laseen. The continent of its governmental seat and one the empire’s earliest conquests, Quon Tali, rises in rebellion, largely led by surviving ‘Old Guard’, long-lived, legendary leaders from the empire prior to Laseen’s rule. At the same time, the empire’s sworn enemy, the Crimson Guard, returns with visions of complete and total destruction of the empire while suffering internal conflict about the true goals of the invasion.

As readers have come to expect in the world of Malazan, Return of the Crimson Guard weighs in with a hefty page count and numerous plot lines that converge in a final battle. New characters are introduced, old characters revisited, and some of the whispered and rumored come to life.

Comparison to Erikson is inevitable for Esslemont, and the simple truth is that Esslemont still has a long way to go. Night of Knives was clearly the work of a first-time author and Return of the Crimson Guard is only an adequate sophomore effort. The brilliance of Erikson is his ability to tell a kick-ass story while interweaving powerful thematic elements. His use of the soldier and their equivalents as an everyman/everywoman entwined with dark, gallows humor makes equally entertains and inspires. Esslemont has gotten quite good at the story telling part, but lacks the depth that makes for great writing. Essentially lacking thematic elements, the feel of an everyman/everywoman, and that wonderful gallows humor of Erikson is nowhere to be found. On top of this, Esslemont often suffers with trying too hard, particularly with vocabulary. Especially early on, he utilizes unnecessarily big and obscure wording, often at odds with the point of view of the character at hand. Whether the attempt was to create the all important atmosphere of a fantasy world separate from our own or if he was just showing off a bit, it was an annoyance.

In the Malazan world, characterization ranges widely and inspires much discussion. I have always felt Erikson can do wonders for characterization with just a few words while Esslemont is still a bit awkward. He clearly knows the relevant facts about his characters, but only rarely does more come out – I’m left feeling that most of his characters are little more than note cards – a face, name, nationality, general age, with important actions. Unfortunately only a few really stand out as fully realized characters.

Another aspect of Return of the Crimson Guard that annoyed at times happens when Esslemont crosses the line of mysteriousness to a seemingly obtuse refusal to provide the relevant information – of course Erikson is equally guilty of this at times, but generally handles it better. I know that this is par for the course in the Malazan world, but really now it’s just become annoying (I was tempted to use the word infuriating, but backed off).

Return of the Crimson Guard is Esslemont’s second entry in the Malazan canon, bringing the total to 10 books and 3 novellas between Erikson and Esslemont, with many more to come. In spite of all the issues I mention above, the story that Esslemont tells is an excellent addition that becomes completely enthralling by the end – I read the final 300 pages in one sitting. Esslemont still has some growing ahead to become a polished writer and is not yet in the same field as Erikson, but I suspect fans of Malazan won’t be disappointed by Return of the Crimson Guard. Remember, I’m an affirmed fanboy when it comes to these books, so my ultimate enjoyment of this book exceeds its overall quality. 7/10

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