Blood and Bone

Oh dear. I was seriously looking forward to the fifth volume in Ian C. Esslemont’s Malazan Empire series after what I thought was a triumphant return to form in Orb Sceptre Throne. But alas, the honeymoon was not meant to last. So you know this post is going to be a bit of a grumble.

Blood and Bone is set predominantly in the mysterious continent of Jacuruku where resides the powerful elder god and Queen of Witches, Ardata. Most of the continent is controlled by the Thaumaturgs, a people who prize the mind over the body and whose alchemical studies are at a zenith. They continually stamp out any opposition to their rule and religion and hunt down any followers of Ardata who are mainly jungle folk, living in villages, cowering under the Thaumaturg’s power. But the jungle of Himatan is a force of its own and will allow no trespassers. And it is in this environment that Saeng is born, seeing spirits and slowly acquiring an ancient power that has lain dormant for a millenia. Together with her brother Hanu, who has escaped the Thaumaturgs, they are searching for the Temple of Light. But they are not alone. From across the seas, different groups are converging on Jacuruku to seek Ardata for their own purpose. The Avowed of the Crimson Guard led by K’azz, the Disavowed led by the rebel Skinner and the Enchantress, also known as the Queen of Dreams, together with her Seguleh bodyguard are all intent on reaching the ancient capital, Jakal Viharn. And in the mix is Spite, Draconus’ daughter, who is intent on retrieving a piece of the Fallen God, one of many that is said to be hidden in Jakuruku and heavily sought after.

There is a lot going on here too but the majority of the book is filled with lush descriptions of Jakuruku which seems like a mash-up of Bali, Angkor Wat and the jungles of South East Asia. Esslemont trained as an archaeologist and you can see his love of his subject, but in a fantasy novel, it was a little too much detail making it a rather dry and tedious read akin to a dusty academic travel journal. It just seemed a little too close to reality and jarred with the characters we have become accustomed to in the Malazan series.

Like Orb Sceptre Throne, there is a lot of buildup which fizzled out too quickly and a little too easily and left you wondering why you bothered slogging your way through almost 600 pages which already felt too long. Probably the most interesting bits were about the Thaumaturgs. I love the name and their extreme nature was equally horrifying and fascinating. I would have liked to know a lot more about the indigenous races of the Himatan especially the human animal crossbreeds such as the menacing Citravaghra who are known as the Children of Ardata and are guardians of the jungle. The Crimson Guards were as disappointing as in the previous books, the mad, bad Skinner being the only one who did anything that was mildly interesting. I like introspection in my novels but it’s difficult to keep your interest up if it goes nowhere. None of the characters seemed to have enough depth to keep your interest hooked and they all seemed to be too much in awe of their reputations and this crazy jungle which quickly got boring.

Saying that, the novel is well written and there were flashes of brilliance but it is just so damned SLOW. Comparisons with Steven Erikson’s novels are probably unfair but if you are sharing a world and characters you have both created, it is inevitable. Esslemont’s novels are inconsistent which makes the next novel unpredicatable. But I will be seeking it out although I’ll probably borrow a copy from the library rather than pay full price.

Malazan books by Steven Erikson:
Gardens of the Moon
Deadhouse Gates
Memories of Ice
House of Chains
Midnight Tides
The Bonehunters
Reaper’s Gale
Toll the Hounds
Dust of Dreams
The Crippled God

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.
Return of the Crimson Guard – this one is set after The Bonehunters
Stonewielder
Orb Sceptre Throne

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Orb Sceptre Throne

In the continent of Genebackis, a lone scholar unearths the burial cave of a long forgotten Tyrant, guarded by a thousand wards, freeing this entity hungry for vengeance. At the same time, the formidable fighting force that is the Seguleh are setting forth towards Darujhistan to answer a call they have been long awaiting. Far away, a Bridgeburner named Antsy is on an expedition to unearth treasure in the remnants of Moon’s Spawn that dot the Riven Sea guarded by mercenaries. And in Darujhistan, a despot manoeuvres himself into a position of power and an ex-assassin named Rellick Nom must stay on top of things in order to save himself and his city from destruction and realpolitik. And as the threat to Darujhistan grows, the alien species that is the Moranth flee the city and prepare themselves to continue a long forgotten war with their ancient enemy, the Seguleh.

This is the second book of Esslemont’s after The Night of Knives which I really enjoyed. Set in Dharujistan, Orb Sceptre Throne, the fourth in Ian C. Esslemont’s Malazan Empire series is probably the closest to Steven Erikson’s style. Part of the reason could be the reappearance of several characters from Erikson’s novels – a bit like old times. The chopped storylines, the myriad plot threads, the creeping tension, all made Orb Sceptre Throne a buzzing read for me.

As with the other Malazan books, summarising the plot is almost impossible and I don’t want to give anything away. I loved that I learnt more about the mysterious warrior cult, the Seguleh, reminiscent of a ninja x Shaolin monk crossbreed. The Moranth are still a mystery to me but I want to know more of this alien species famous for their alchemical weaponry. The only disappointment was the ending which seemed too easily wrapped up and with no loose ends. And we get to spend time with the salty veterans of the Malazan army, the Bridgeburners.

We also meet Kiska and Leoman of the Flails again, who are thrust through a rent into a different dimension in order to search for the Imperial high mage and Kiska’s master, Tayschrenn. Everyone assumed he was dead but what is the real story?

Although many reviews have given this one a battering, I really enjoyed this book although I did feel it ended a little too prematurely. But the buildup is superb and there’s a lot going on in the book and I’m looking forward to the next one, Blood and Bones.

Do also check out the reviews on Tor.com, Wertzone and Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist.

As before, I recommend reading the books in order. Although you can probably read Esslemont’s books alone, you will get a richer reading experience if you read them in tandem with Erikson’s novels.

Malazan books by Steven Erikson:
Gardens of the Moon
Deadhouse Gates
Memories of Ice
House of Chains
Midnight Tides
The Bonehunters
Reaper’s Gale
Toll the Hounds
Dust of Dreams
The Crippled God

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.
Return of the Crimson Guard – this one is set after The Bonehunters
Stonewielder

So you all know I wasn’t too impressed with Ian C. Esslemont’s previous offering and second volume in his series of the Malazan Empire, Return of the Crimson Guard. So I started Stonewielder, his third book, not expecting much but found I couldn’t put it down. Esslemont’s writing is different to that of Steven Erikson, it’s looser and less complex, but I enjoyed the book and look forward to more.

In Stonewielder, we are re-united with Iron Bars, an Avowed who has sworn an oath to fight the Malazan Empire and cannot die until he fulfills his vow, and formerly of the Crimson Guard. We find him in the land of the Korelri, chained to the Stormwall as its Champion, fighting the Stormriders, magical beings that come riding on the waves as they fight their way onto the land. As an Avowed, he cannot die, and he is determined to survive until he has set his fellow Crimson Guard captives free.

In another place, we meet Kiska who has now left the Claw and is looking for her former master, the high mage Tayschrenn. She is guided into one of the warrens together with a mysterious warrior from Darujhistan as they travel towards an unknown destination.

And then there is Greymane, disgraced High Fist of the Malazan Empire and a most wanted man, who has had contact with the mysterious Stormriders and who is in possession of a powerful weapon. He is recalled to service by the new Emperor and is sent towards Korelri to punish a renegade Malazan Fist who has carved out a small kingdom for his own. With him travels his new Adjunct Kyle who carries Osserc’s legendary sword of light. As the Malazan forces converge in Korelri, the powerful Goddess who has dislodged the Elder Gods fights back in anger and will stop at nothing to keep her people in check. Will the Malazans succeed? And will Iron Bars finally escape? And what will Kiska find in the warren of shadow?

As with all the Malazan books, multiple storylines abound. I enjoy this kind of storytelling so have no problems with it. Compared to Erikson’s books, this isn’t as complex and is pretty easy to follow. And although Iron Bars’ characterisation is a little different from what I encountered in Erikson’s Midnight Tides, I’m still a fan. The only thing I thought weakened the story was the character of Greymane. I’m assuming he’s on a par with Whiskeyjack and Dujek Onearm but he just didn’t cut the heroic figure I have come to expect from the Malazan gang. Moan, moan, moan. However, the Goddess manipulating Korelri and Fist and who gave the Stormguards their calling is suitably evil and malicious.

But still, I enjoyed this book much more than I expected and am looking forward to reading the next in the series, Orb, Sceptre, Throne. I may even go back to re-read the others by Esslemont.

Malazan books by Steven Erikson:
Gardens of the Moon
Deadhouse Gates
Memories of Ice
House of Chains
Midnight Tides
The Bonehunters
Reaper’s Gale
Toll the Hounds
Dust of Dreams

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.
Return of the Crimson Guard – this one is set after The Bonehunters

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.

It’s been over a year since I read and was astonished by Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon, the first volume in his ten volume epic fantasy cycle The Malazan Book of the Fallen. I’ve been meaning to read the second volume, Deadhouse Gates, but haven’t gotten around to it yet (too many books, too little time, you know how it is). Also, since I know it’s going to be great, I kind of want to take my time and savour it…

However, in the meantime, I decided to read Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont, Erikson’s writing partner and co-creator of the Malazan world. The two met at a creative writing course, were heavily into gaming and created this rich, dense and incredibly detailed world. They had both planned to write separately but in synch and although Erikson began his novels 5 years earlier, Esslemont’s first novel set in the Malazan world was probably one of the most eagerly anticipated offerings in the sff genre. And it’s good. Very good.

Just like Erikson, the writing is tight, the plot never letting up, and you can see that he knows his world inside out. Although the story is less complicated compared to Gardens of the Moon as it is set in a 24 hour period, the cast is large and you can almost taste the blood, sweat and fear, especially when the shadow hounds start prowling. In Night of Knives, we follow the grizzly war veteran Temper who is on the run and the young talent and spy Kiska, who is desperate to escape the Island of Malaz where she has no future, as they wander out into the darkness on the one night when sane people should stay indoors. It is the night of the Shadow Moon when the wall between reality and shadow is at its most transparent, when old scores are settled and plans that have been in place for hundreds of years will finally come alive. Can they survive the night, and in doing so, will they finally exorcise the demons that torment them?

Although I normally zone out a little in battle scenes, Esslemont’s character development is brilliant and you can’t help but like the grizzly Temper, all muscle but whose loyalty to his comrades is unbreakable, and Kiska who is desperate to carve a niche for herself in the wider world. Night of Knives is a sort-of prequel to Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon and tells the story of how the Empress Laseen (formerly known as Surley, Mistress of the Imperial assassin corps, the Claw) comes into power by defeating the Emperor Kellanved and his companion Dancer, so I would recommend reading Erikson’s novel first before dipping into any Esslemont, just to get a foothold into the Malazan world.

Night of Knives is a relatively short book for epic fantasy but is followed by the much thicker Return of the Crimson Guard. I’m eager to read it, however, it is set after Erikson’s The Bonehunters (volume 6 of Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen) so I should really get going with Erikson’s books first. I’m all about reading books in order. It’s tough being a fan.

You can read an interview with Ian C. Esslemont here but I recommend reading Night of Knives first.

I read this as part of the Once Upon a Time IV Challenge.