Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont

23 July, 2011

I’ve been dying to read The Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont for a long time, especially after I finished Night of Knives, Esslemont’s first foray into the Malazan world he co-created with Steven Erikson. I mean the title itself is so alluring. Who are the Crimson Guard? And why are they returning? The magic of the Malazan books is that Erikson and Esslemont have kept you guessing and only drip feed you information throughout the epic saga leaving you wanting more.

Esslemont’s second novel follows events straight after Erikson’s 6th novel, The Bonehunters. So naturally being a person who likes to read her books in order, I waited patiently until I finished The Bonehunters and jumped straight into this. Except, in the intervening books between Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard, I’ve been spoilt by Erikson’s tight plotting, his fully realised characterisation and, believe it or not because all these books are around 1000 pages, well-edited and concise prose. So I found Esslemont’s novel to be more like the other fantasy novels on offer. More pedestrian, more amateur-ish and I felt it needed more editing. Like the other Malazan novels, there is a HUGE cast of characters. Which is fine, because I’ve now been trained by Erikson to take in all this information and weave it into the bigger story. But Esslemont’s failure lies in his too short chapters, not enough time and story to familiarise you with the characters which means you can’t remember their names and don’t care enough about them. Which is a shame because there are flashes of brilliance in there.

So, what’s the story? The Crimson Guard, led by Prince K’azz D’Avore, have sworn a vow that they will not die until their Prince has regained his rightful throne. This was over a hundred years ago and stories of the Crimson Guard have become the stuff of legend and nightmare. The Malazan Empire has always recognised the threat, yet nothing has been heard of them since they disappeared. And as the Malazan Empire is beginning to crumble under the waves of secessionary attacks, there is a rumour that the Crimson Guard are about to return. The Prince with his Avowed corps of elite soldiers and mages are a formidable force. Should the Malazans be worried?

But all is not as tight and straight-forward with the Crimson Guard. Rumour has it that Prince K’azz D’Avore is missing, and there are some amongst the Guard whose motives are suspect. Will they achieve their objective? Can they overcome the internal strife to keep to their Vow?

The Malazan Empress Laseen makes more of an appearance here, and she is one interesting character because there is so little we know about the Master Assassin turned Empress. She remains mysterious and that is what draws you to her and the other mysterious female assassins that turn up too, including Kiska whom we first met in Night of Knives. I was really looking forward to hearing more about Iron Bars, one of the Avowed of the Crimson Guard, who first made an impressive appearance in The Bonehunters, but he only featured in a small chapter. I think one of the things that left me cold was that I didn’t like most of the Crimson Guard. Some of the Guardsmen were unsympathetic, but I guess considering they are a mercenary group, it should come as no surprise.

I know Esslemont has to fill in a lot of detail, but Erikson has shown that this isn’t necessary. Yet where detail and a gentle pace in background knowledge is necessary, Esslemont charges through with the story leaving you floundering. I have to say Return of the Crimson Guard was a much faster read, only because the writing isn’t as tight. You could skip whole paragraphs and not much changes. So yes, the editing. Comparison with Erikson’s novels are inevitable just because the books are set in the same world with overlapping characters. And because Erikson has set the bar at such a high level, it seems unfair to have a go at Esslemont, especially since this is only his 2nd novel. But the thing is, after investing so much time in the Malazan world, you start to care about it and you want to know more about it and you want everything in it to be amazing. So yes, I’m a bit disgruntled but I’m looking forward to diving back into Erikson’s 7th volume, Reaper’s Gale, and am also looking forward to Esslemont’s 3rd novel, Stonewielder, although I confess I’m a little apprehensive. However, early reviews have been very positive which makes me feel better. (I know, it’s not all about me, but still.)

Am I being too harsh here? Is it because I love the series too much???

Other reviews of the Return of the Crimson Guard you may want to check out: Neth Space, Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, Val’s Random Comments

Malazan books by Steven Erikson:
Gardens of the Moon
Deadhouse Gates
Memories of Ice
House of Chains
Midnight Tides
The Bonehunters

Malazan books by Ian C. Esslemont:
Night of Knives – this one is set just after the prologue of Gardens of the Moon and before the main events so should be read after the first volume by Erikson.

4 Responses to “Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont”

  1. Val Says:

    Technically Stonewielder is a lot better than Return of the Crimson Guard. A couple of hundred pages shorter, more tightly written. Not everybody liked the plot though.

    • sakura Says:

      Good to hear that. Interesting to hear about the plot. I wonder if re-reading Esslemont’s novels will give a different experience (I’m planning to at some point after I’ve finished the whole series.)

  2. Danielle Says:

    I don’t really read much in the way of fantasy novels, but the title did catch my eye and then your description. Too bad this was quite up to the standard of the first book, but I know how it is when you invest time and emotion in a story–you want it to be as good as you remember it being the first time around!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: