Shared-world fantasies often do not have the best of reputations. Either one creator-author dictates all of the rules, leaving little in the way of exploration and/or character development for other authors writing in that created universe, or too much is left unsaid, as each author is afraid of trampling upon others' "turf." As a result, these shared-world fantasies often end up feeling rather flat and uninspired. So it was with a mixture of great curiosity and trepidation that I ordered in 2005 from PS Publishing Ian Cameron Esslemont's Night of Knives, his first of a planned five novels set in the same Malazan universe of his friend and collaborator, Steven Erikson. Now, two years later, Transworld/Bantam Press has released a revised, wide-release version of this novel.
Night of Knives takes place over a single night about 9 years before the events of Gardens of the Moon. Malaz Island, the storm-ridden island off the Quon Tali continent that gave the Malazan Empire its name, has returned once more to being a backwater port of ill-repute. Riddled with ruins and dark mysteries, Malaz City is about to experience a long-expected and long-dreaded convergence. It is Shadow Night, a time where the Shadow and Mortal realms occupy the same place. It is also rumored that on this night, Emperor Kellanved and his partner in crime, Dancer, will return to the island from whence they launched their century-old conquest of the lands about. It is a night where spectres, both literal and metaphorical, will emerge to haunt the living and the dead.
The story itself is told via two main points of view, that of Temper, a former soldier in Dassem Ultor's elite Sword, and Kiska, a girl with a latent Talent who has an interest in the Claw, Imperial Regent Surly's favored assassin cadre. As events transpire, these two find their paths pointing towards the Deadhouse, a mysterious ruin in Malaz City that seems to hold the key to understanding why so many forces have converged this Shadow Moon night.
Esslemont's approach towards telling this story is similar in many ways to Erikson's, but yet there are some key differences. Since the action takes place during one night, the PoVs are limited. The dialogue is generally shorter and there is little in the way of humorous situation. Esslemont has aimed for a dark, spooky, almost frightful situation and to a degree, he succeeds. There are ghouls that attack Kiska and Temper on their tracks through the city, as well as other entities met, both already introduced in the main sequence Malazan novels (such as Edgewalker) and those who were only mentioned in passing there, such as Lieutenant Ash of the Brigeburners.
One thing that I noticed about this novel were the infodumps. Too often, a character would appear just only to mention such-and-such locale and what's developing there, without it feeling like it was an organic part of the story. Temper's extended flashback in the middle of the story, while it reveals quite intriguing information about what really happened in Y'Ghatan and to Dassem Ultor, felt rather forced and disruptive to the general flow of the story to that point. A certain conversation between two key Imperial players also felt more like it was trying too hard to connect with Erikson's novels than it was towards creating a plausible sense of tension.
When I first read Night of Knives two years ago, I remember thinking that this story was informative, but yet lacking. There were some quite annoying typographical and stylistic errors that made it feel more like a first draft than a finished story. In this revised edition, there are some minor edits (mostly in the form of additional clauses and some cleaning up of the typographical errors) made to clarify what is occurring, but the book still has some awkward transitions and there are still glaring errors such as the misspelling of Edgewalker's name in the Epilogue and the new one of having two Chapter 5 headings.
These are its weaknesses, many of which are common to first novels and some of which cannot be directly attributed to Esslemont himself. There are quite a few strengths. As I mentioned above, the atmosphere is outstanding. While the dialogue still needs work, it is mostly in tune with the action that is occurring. Characters such as Kiska and Temper are intriguing enough and actually stand out more than many of Erikson's Malazan cast of thousands do. It is quite obvious to me that these authors did more than just collaborate on creating an elaborate setting - they appear to have conversed quite often about characters and how and when they should appear. While Erikson rightfully is going to be viewed as the main voice to date, Esslemont has the potential to develop and to reshape the understanding of the ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen novels with his stories. While Night of Knives is too closely related to events in the first, fourth, and sixth novels to be considered for a first read for a curious spectator to the Malazan world, it does enrich and complement quite well comments made in passing in those novels. As such, Night of Knives, warts and all, has accomplished its main purpose. It is a very good complement to the other novels set in the Malazan universe and as such, it shall be judged more by that than by its own merits.
Summary: Night of Knives is a 284 page novel set in the same universe as Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. Intended as a complement to the series, the novel introduces several new characters and bits of information that are important to Erikson's series. Two main PoVs, told in third-person limited. Excellent atmosphere, well-drawn characters balance out uneven writing and a tendency to indodump too much. Recommended for fans of Erikson's main Malazan series, not recommended as a first read for those curious about that shared universe.